Despite presence of female candidate, young women voters drawn to Sanders

Posted February 17, 2016

Three weeks into primary election season, presidential candidates at every point on the political spectrum are trying to secure what they can of a particularly important vote: the youth block.

As the youngest group of voters — generation Y or millennials — start to engage in the political process, pundits have been trying to decipher what will set apart their votes from generations before them.

What has been the biggest surprise to many is the momentum with which Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self described democratic socialist, has gained overwhelming support from this group of voters. Young women in particular, who were assumed to be supporters of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton based on polls taken last fall, have drastically switched their positions on who should be the next president of the United States.

The support for Sanders nationally among young women also is seen on the UW-River Falls campus. The UWRF Student Feminist Organization, while not outright endorsing Sanders, is composed of mostly of his fans, according to the group’s president, J.J. Knapp.

“For the most part, at least 80-85 percent of our members are Bernie supporters as of now,” she said.

According to the Associated Press, entrance polls from the recent Iowa caucuses — the first state in the nation to host presidential decisions of any kind — revealed deep divides. Women 29 and younger chose the Vermont senator over Clinton at a ratio of 6-1. Clinton fared far better among older voters.

The Clinton campaign has hoped to recapture the enthusiasm Barack Obama saw among young voters in 2008. According to ABC pollster Gary Langer, Obama beat her by 20 percentage points among voters under 30 that time around, while she fared better with people 65 and older.

What really resonates with young women about Sanders is his track record on issues that matter to them. According to Knapp, feminism for young women is different than feminism of other generations. At their meetings, Student Feminist Organization members discuss topics such as micro-aggressions, the whitewashing of Black History Month and other “intersectional” issues that are important to young people. To her and other members, gender is not all they look for when it comes to choosing a president.

“For us — the millennials — we’re looking at what Hillary has done in the past, and what Bernie has done, and it looks almost more promising, especially as college students and minorities, to elect Bernie,” Knapp said. “A lot of us aren’t strangers to struggling, and to not having the upper hand, and I think that a lot of us see Bernie and his policies are our ticket out, whereas Hillary only has your best interest at heart if she thinks it will benefit her politically.”

Knapp said that the points Sanders reiterates at his rallies, which often draw upwards of 15,000 people, are the main thing she likes about him. He advocates free public education at all levels, paid maternity and family leave, closing the wage gap, racial equity, and improvements to environmental policy.

Recently, feminist icons like Gloria Steinem and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright have chided young women for supporting another white male for president when there is a viable opportunity to put a female in the Oval Office. However, Knapp doesn’t see gender aligning with her feminist reasons to vote for someone.

“He (Sanders) is still an old white guy, but from what I’ve seen, it seems like he’s ready and willing to listen to the people. Hillary seems just jumps on whatever train is presented to her. I don’t see any reason I have to vote for her just because she’s a woman,” Knapp said.

Antonia Gasperlin, a member of the Student Feminist Organization, agree with Knapp.

“I see where they (older feminist generations) are coming from: They’ve waited so long for this opportunity,” Gasperlin said. “But, also, shame on them for trying to shame us out of anything just because of our gender. This is what they fought against. We should vote for whoever we want. We should do things because of our beliefs and values and not because of our gender.”

Despite holding strong liberal feminist ideologies, Gasperlin said she is mainly supportive of Democratic values more generally.

“I would love it if Hillary was more progressive and I could vote for her and have this female president, but I want Bernie more than I want Hillary… but I do want a Democrat more than I want a Republican,” she said.

Many news outlets have described this gap between age and gender as a “rift” in both the Democratic party and feminist movement. However, Greta Gaard, an ecofeminist activist and English professor at UWRF, said that these tensions happen naturally within all social movements.

“Once again we’re getting a rift in feminism that appears to be progressive… but in fact we’ve had radical progressive eco-anarchist feminists there since the beginning,” she said.

She also noted that while many Clinton supporters tout her candidacy as a chance to have a woman president, there have actually been many female candidates for president or vice president throughout the nation’s history, dating back to the late 19th century when Victoria Woodhull ran in 1872 as a member of the Equal Rights Party. Her running mate was esteemed African-American abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglas.

“This should have happened a long time ago, and feminists who know their history are saying, ‘OK that ship has sailed, but we’re not going to vote for this woman, because her politics are not as inclusive,’” Gaard said.

Overall, Gaard said that it seems like voters today are mostly just uncertain of the current political atmosphere of Washington in general. She sees the rise in grassroots movements as a sign that people are becoming more aware of the political system, and how it may or not be benefitting the. Statistics show that simply because the United States elected an African-American president does not mean the electorate will necessarily elect a woman, if they don’t see her as most qualified for the job.

Grassroots movements have been a key tenet of the Sanders campaign, and he often boasts at his rallies that his campaign has had more than 3 million individual campaign contributions. Gaard doesn’t see that grassroots momentum translating to Clinton’s campaign.

“We’ve had a black president now, so it’s like ‘time for a woman president.’ But overtaking that idea is a tidal wave of a climate justice movement,” she said. “And that climate justice movement is multigenerational, it is multi-issue, it is intersectional, and it sees that getting a woman in is something that should have happened a long time ago… Hillary is going to perpetuate the status quo. We wish that weren’t true.”

Both Democratic candidates were in Minnesota on Feb. 12. The precinct caucuses in Minnesota take place on March 1. In Wisconsin, the presidential preference primary is set for April 5.