Originally published in The Huffington Post, 2/19/16. See it here.
Much has been made of the difference in support for Hillary Clinton among younger and older women. In the New Hampshire primary contest Clinton lost women overall, but a look at the breakdown by age is striking—a majority of women 45 and older backed Clinton, while more than 8 in 10 women under 30 supported Sanders. In response to Clinton’s poor showing among Millennial women, some prominent feminist leaders have suggested that younger women ought to recognize the gender barriers that Clinton has had to knock down on her way to where she is today, and that her struggle as a woman vying for power should be something we all recognize and respect. The media trounced on these comments and the backlash that followed—Maureen Dowd of the New York Times declared that Hillary Clinton has “killed” feminism, while other outlets quoted scores of young women who felt insulted by the suggestion that they should vote for Clinton solely because of her gender, because she has somehow “earned” this place in history or because she is “owed” their support. So many have been quick to extinguish any suggestion that women might be voting for Hillary because she is a woman—an idea derided as insulting to women’s intelligence.
But what the coverage of this issue fails to acknowledge is that for many voters, gender is an asset to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy—it may not the only reason they are voting for her, but it matters, because gender is still very relevant. The problem comes when Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is reduced to her gender, though even this idea is largely a falsehood perpetuated by a media narrative that pits women against women, rather than anything Hillary Clinton herself has said or done.
The truth is there are many reasons to vote for Hillary Clinton, and gender is one of them. Beyond the the historical marker of equality that her election to the U.S. presidency would signify, empirical research has demonstrated that on average, women leaders behave differently than men: they are more likely to build consensus, compromise, and collaborate—leadership qualities that would represent a welcome change to a Washington paralyzed by gridlock.
Women political leaders are also more likely to get things done and are 31 percent more effective than men at advancing legislation. In 2013, when the government was on the verge of shutting down, women Senators of both parties came together to work out a compromise that both Parties could get behind. In fact, the 20 women Senators who brokered the deal were widely credited for saving the government from shutdown—even John McCain (R-AZ) lauded them: “I am very proud that these women are stepping forward. Imagine what they could do if there were 50 of them.”
Indeed, imagine if the leader of the free world were one of them.
Women also tend to have different policy priorities and place a greater emphasis on issues that help families, women, and children, like paid family leave and raising the minimum wage. The differences in women’s leadership styles and policy priorities, however, are not simply due to the fact they have vaginas, but because of different lived experiences that they bring to their jobs. While we have come far as a country in providing the same opportunities to women and men, women still live their lives and experience the world differently than men do: women are still more likely to be the primary caregivers to children and elderly family members, have different health needs and concerns, and make up the vast majority of rape survivors. These are just a few of the many real differences in the realities of women and men’s lives, and different experiences means different priorities, needs, and perspectives.
As North Dakota Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp once said of collaborating with female colleagues:
It is about getting people in a room with different life experiences who will look at things a little differently because they’re moms, because they’re daughters who’ve been taking care of senior moms, because they have a different life experience than a lot of senior guys in the room.
This is not to say that a man cannot advocate for policies that help women and families, but that they may not have the same understanding of these issues that women do.
The difference women make in office is a valid reason to give for supporting a candidate, and citing it does not mean it is the only reason nor the most important reason to support a candidate (though as I have written elsewhere, I believe it is perfectly OK if it is). But the narrative has been constructed in such a way that considering gender in political evaluations of candidates at all is deemed lazy or unintelligent, when in fact, there are compelling reasons why gender can and should matter in political decisions.
Clinton supporters would do well to message about gender in this way—that it is not the only reason to support Clinton and other women leaders, but it matters, and this is why. This is a much different conversation than talking about how Clinton is entitled to or owed support from women by virtue of being a woman herself, and it also allows for men to acknowledge how Clinton’s gender might positively factor into their support for her.
So the difference in support for Clinton among younger and older women does not represent a “schism” or divide among women as the media suggests; in fact, these differences have more to do with age differences than they do gender. But the conversation has illuminated that we need to find better ways to talk about gender’s relevancy in the public sphere.