It’s tempting to view the refusal of young women to automatically fall in line with the candidacy of Hillary Clinton as a positive sign and, indeed, there is something admirable about it. Every aspirant to the Oval Office should have to earn the votes he or she gets.
Yet, it is hard to shake the feeling that something else is at play among those voters, who are for the most part too young to remember what women like Clinton, Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem had to overcome in a world in which, for no other reason than their gender, they were devalued – economically, socially and politically. Albright and Steinem made a strategic error earlier this month when they insulted women who didn’t, simply by virtue of their gender, pledge their political troth to Clinton because she is campaigning to become the nation’s first female chief executive. If the mistake turns out to be politically harmful, it is at least historically understandable.
In the eight years since Clinton last sought the presidency, the nation has lost many older voters and created millions of new ones who were then between the ages of 10 and 17. For them, it is ancient history that women couldn’t even vote 100 years ago, that they were discouraged from attending college or from participating in school sports programs. The notion of safety in numbers means less to them than it does to women who endured the level of discrimination that their elders did.
That’s understandable, yet to some extent they are wrapping themselves in a false sense of security. For example, depending on whose figures you use, women earn between 77 percent and 84 percent of what men earn. That should be troubling, yet there is another wrinkle: According to the Pew Research Center, younger women earn more, about 93 percent of what men earn. Pay discrimination, at least among younger women and in the jobs they have, appears to be a lesser issue than it once was.
Certainly, the goal for women has to be that as equal participants in the nation’s life, they can vote for whomever they believe to best represent their interests, regardless of party or gender. The question today is whether the nation is approaching the point where that is a plausible way forward or if women are taking a risk by asserting what is, after all, their independence.
That’s a theoretical issue. The concrete one is that, whatever older voters may think, many young Democratic women – far more than the Clinton campaign ever expected – are happily supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. They may be right or wrong, but the Clinton campaign and its supporters insult them at their own peril. If they want their votes, they are going to have to earn them the old-fashioned way: by making the case.