Why young feminists are choosing Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton

It was not so long ago that Hillary Clinton was relishing her status as an icon among young feminists, who cheered her resilience to political attack, her use of her stardom to advance the cause of women worldwide, even her trademark pantsuits.

But now, when Clinton needs that support the most, much of her backing among women of the millennial generation has vanished.

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Locked in an increasingly tense battle for the Democratic nomination, Clinton has aggressively reached out to young women with the promise of breaking a glass ceiling that the women’s movement has worked for decades to shatter. The newest generation of feminists is responding with a shrug.

The persona cultivated by Clinton’s campaign -- that of an exciting, trailblazing big sister with a “Girl Power” playlist of songs at the ready -- isn’t sticking. Young female voters seem more likely to see in Clinton an overcautious mother.

In Iowa this week, women 29 and younger voted for Clinton’s challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders, by a stunning margin of roughly 6 to 1, much as young men did, according to the poll of voters arriving at precinct caucuses conducted for the television networks and the Associated Press.

In advance of Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, polls have shown Sanders holding the support of a majority of young women here, as well – a sharp contrast to Clinton’s dominance among women closer to her own age.

The problem is not rejection of feminism – surveys suggest millennial women are the most staunchly feminist group of voters in America. They want to see a woman in the White House. Just not necessarily this woman.

“I am excited for a future in which we will have a female president, but I don’t think Hillary is that person for this generation,” said Rachael Jennings, 28, a high school teacher in Dublin, N.H. The same sentiment was echoed over and over in interviews with younger female voters here and in Iowa.

These progressive voters instead see as their champion a man – a 74-year-old democratic socialist, at that. Sanders is all the rage for now.

“Young women cannot remember a time that Hillary was not a household name, and it confuses them what she stands for,” said Nichola Gutgold, a professor of communication arts and sciences at Penn State, who wrote a book, “Almost Madam President,” about Clinton’s 2008 quest for the nomination. “Rejecting her is a way of rejecting the establishment."

Longtime feminist leaders have found that development flummoxing and have dived into the campaign to try to turn the tide – so far, to little effect.

“I will be honest. We are engaging sooner than we expected,” said Eleanor Smeal, who runs the Feminist Majority Foundation, which days before the Iowa caucuses put resources into the state to try to boost Clinton’s chances.

NARAL Pro-Choice America, a leading abortion rights organization, has made tens of thousands of phone calls and trips to the doorsteps of voters in early primary states on Clinton’s behalf. Planned Parenthood Votes, the advocacy arm of the women's healthcare provider, blitzed Iowa Democrats with pro-Clinton mailers and a television advertising campaign.

But still, Clinton finds herself caught up in the cross-generational friction between a movement tantalizingly close to achieving a long-elusive goal and newer-wave feminists whose experience with the gender gap differs from that of their mothers and grandmothers.

Clinton’s troubles locking down millennial women voters are part of the broader difficulty she faces in separating from an establishment many young liberal voters have come to loathe. For young Democrats, getting a woman in the Oval Office has not ranked as high on the priority list as putting Wall Street or the giant health insurance companies in their place.

The landmark feminist gains on Clinton’s resume are not what stand out to this group, which was barely in diapers when she gave the historic women's rights speech in Beijing that her supporters tout as among her finest accomplishments.

“They are already inside an order that has changed as a result of the feminist movement,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “They have opportunities women once didn’t have.”

Young voters are by their nature uncomfortable with the status quo, Jamieson said, and Clinton has difficulty convincing them that she is the change agent in the race.

“I’m a student. I will have to pay for college, and debt is something that scares me,” said Meg Renzelman, 18, after a Sanders rally in Keene, N.H. The Sanders plan for free public college tuition is a big draw to her.

“There is this assumption that if you are a woman, you should support Hillary Clinton because she is a woman,” Renzelman said. “But I feel like Bernie is going to support women in the same way.”

The pervasiveness of that view has touched off a backlash among other young feminists who are excited about Clinton, including a recent profanity laced, all-caps posting that drew thousands of comments to the millennial-focused website Pajiba.

The writer, Courtney Enlow, infuriated by her generation’s abandonment of Clinton, suggested that Clinton was being held to a double standard. Sanders is allowed to loudly denounce what he describes as corporate malfeasance, while she needs to avoid sounding angry, Enlow wrote, adding that if the former secretary of State said some of the things Sanders has, she would find “Fox News ... burying her alive in tampons and crucifixes.”

Clinton has put considerable effort into making a feminist pitch to young female voters. That’s a marked difference from her run eight years ago, when she took a more muted approach to the glass ceiling, avoiding placing women’s issues at the center of her campaign until the very end.

Now, Clinton hawks a needlepoint pillow on her website that says “A Woman’s Place Is in the White House.” The interview-averse candidate has sat for what can be intensely personal one-on-one chats with Internet phenoms whose productions are targeted at millennial women.

Still, in New Hampshire this week, Clinton acknowledged that her message is not breaking through with young voters and that she needs to recalibrate it.

In a televised town hall Wednesday night in Derry, N.H., Clinton said the support Sanders won among young women in Iowa was "amazing."

"I accept the fact that I have work to do to convey what I stand for, what I've accomplished, what I want to do for young people in our country," she said. 

Despite the travails, there is a potential consolation, at least according to some Democratic strategists. If Clinton eventually prevails, the excitement Sanders has generated could ultimately work in her favor. He is drawing to the polls large numbers of young feminists who otherwise might not have voted.

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake expects those voters will be back come November, and if Clinton is the nominee, she will be their obvious choice against the GOP, whose candidates uniformly oppose many of the key values young feminists espouse.

“In a general election,” Lake said, “this is the group where she is strongest.”

For more on the Clinton campaign, follow @evanhalper

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