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We don’t win by playing the game, we win by changing the rules: Why feminists feel the Bern

“They don’t know what’s good for them.”

“They are just doing this to meet men.”

“They don’t understand politics. They don’t get what is actually at stake.”

“They don’t know how good they have it. They should be grateful for how hard we have worked for them.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the statements above were made by neck bearded internet trolls during their mouth-breathing rants against feminists. However, unfortunately you’d also be wrong. The above statements came from Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright.

I’ll just let these accomplished and articulate women make my point for me. While chastising the large number of young women who support Bernie Sanders, Madeline Alright told NBC that, “women can be judgmental towards one another, and there is a special place in hell for women that don’t help each other.”

Well, Madeline Albright does not seem to understand that young women need a little support these days. So perhaps she should start thinking about what kind of décor looks best in the 9th ring. However, before I spell out the kind of support that young women need, let me be explicit about what I am not going to do. I am not going to attack the way that Hillary Clinton looks. I am not going to insinuate that she is somehow spectacularly insidious for wanting to accumulate power like all the other men in politics. I am not going to chastise any of the choices she has made between career and family. I am not going label any of her supporters good or bad feminists. I am not going to pretend to be able to speak on behalf of all women. I am not going to try to discredit women I disagree with by treating them as if they aren’t capable of articulating their own experiences.

What I am going to do is explain why feminism needs Bernie Sanders. Many Hillary Clinton supporters seem so darn confused, and at times outraged, by the prospect of young women supporting an old white guy. I would like to clarify  a few things for all the confused Hillary supporters. The following is an open letter to be shared with all and sundry.


Dear Madame Secretary Albright et. al,  

Power is complicated. We wield it with more than our bodies. It is relational. It relies on give and take, and manipulation. Gender requires both men and women to play along—either to enforce gendered behavior, or to call it out for the bullshit that it is.

The first person to explain to me what is at stake in politics for women was my dad. We were watching the debates between George H.W. Bush and Dukakis during the 1988 election. I was six years old. I was drinking orange juice and curled up on the scratchy, brownish-orange  upholstery of our 1970s era couch. Two old white men were on TV debating “choice” for women. As I was only six years old, I of course I had no idea what they were talking about. I asked my dad what was going on. My dad looked at me and said, “Christy, they are debating whether or not  women should have a choice about when they get pregnant, and whether or not women have a choice about having the baby if they do get pregnant. People will tell you that this is a debate about the lives of babies. It’s not. This is a debate about men wanting power over women, because women have the power to make life. Men want power over life, and some of them hate that women ultimately have it. If anyone tells you otherwise, they are being disingenuous, and remember: you have a lot of power.”

My dad is a cool dude. My dad is a feminist. My dad is a Bernie Sanders supporter. So am I.

First and foremost, Madame Secretary et. al., I do not think the fight is over, nor am I ungrateful to the women that have come before me. I cheered when you appeared on the last season of the Gilmore Girls. My mom and dad still subscribe to Ms. Magazine, and I read it growing up. When the New York Times recently published the interview with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Gloria Steinem I squealed with excitement while reading it, and I immediately tagged my mom in it as I posted it on Facebook. However, I don’t just stand on the shoulders of rich white feminists. I learned from women like Sojourner Truth, Ella Baker, Aileen Moreton-Robinson, Angela Davis, bell hooks, and the histories that I could find about Sacagawea.

If you think young women don’t “get it,” you clearly don’t spend much time talking with young women. When I was 14 years old I learned that raising my hand in class raised a target on my back. I was confused and flummoxed when boys made fun of me for wanting to read books by women or listen to music by women. I cringed inside while watching high school boys eye-roll the mention of feminism and women in history class. I have been sexually assaulted, and a significant number of my friends have been sexually assaulted. The few times we tried to hold perpetrators accountable things did not go well. When I got my driver’s license the nice lady at the DMV told me to walk with my car keys between my knuckles at night so that I’d have a fighting chance against the rapists waiting to attack. I have had to physically run away, as fast as I could, from several completely random men on the street—I’m not sure what would have happened if they caught me. I’m glad I was fast enough. I have had to de-escalate numerous situations with belligerent dudes who don’t like being told “no” because I can’t resort to physical violence to protect myself. I have had my entire resume ignored by a boss who assumed that during the years I was working as a campaigns director for a large non-profit I was doing “secretarial work.” Most people assume that I chose career over family because I am 34 years old and do not have a child. I have been told that my life will be easier if I “put in more of an effort” and wear more makeup. I have been told that I’ll get further ahead if I wear more low cut shirts. I had to walk through bulletproof glass and two security doors to get birth control when I was 18 years old. I have had friends denied birth control by doctors because medical professionals told them that if they don’t want to bear the children of the men they are sleeping with they shouldn’t be having sex. Medical professionals have given me vaguely opaque and misleading information about birth control my entire life.

An important note on the events described above—in many instances a woman was enforcing the gendered behaviour. Women are often anti-choice. Women police each other’s appearance. Women are often warmongers. Women are often homophobic. Women are often racist. Women often cut other women down. Women enforce gender roles too. It’s time to get really specific: Condoleeza Rice, Margaret Thatcher, Sarah Palin, Phyllis Shlafly, etc.

So, Madame Secretary and all the other women out there who think that Sander’s supporters don’t “get it,” let me tell you unequivocally: we do. But apparently there are some things that you don’t understand.

I got into, and stayed in, an abusive relationship in part because I felt economically insecure on my own. And you know what? I was right. I couldn’t have made it on my own. I needed my middle class family and friends to disentangle myself from the abuse and slowly piece my life back together. I have watched friends rush into marriages for the financial safety net of a spouse. I have a hard time faulting them for it. As a single woman working more than full time as a union organizer and adjunct lecturer in a local university I still struggle to make it on my own in this country. I have watched other single working friends living on the edge, unable to make ends meet because health care costs and student debt keep them desperately scrambling at the end of each month. I have watched friends corralled into the choice of children over a career because the jobs available to them don’t cover the cost of childcare. Of course women truly on the edge don’t have the stay-at-home option available to them—the stay-at-home mom option is the purview of middle and upper class women. Poor women have always had to work and raise their children, often on their own. I’ve watched women chose careers they don’t really want because careers in the STEM fields and financial services are the only ones that actually pay enough to make a living. I’ve watched women make the choice to homeschool their children primarily because both public and charter schools are failing middle and lower class kids. Education has been reduced to a privilege to be bought by the wealthy, and not a human right for every citizen living in a country that calls itself a democracy.

Dealing with the lived hand-to-mouth reality of wealth disparity in the United States is deeply feminist. Bernie Sanders is the candidate attacking wealth disparity. 

Also, for fucks sake, please stop insinuating that Bernie Sander’s genitalia disqualifies him from fighting with women, on behalf of women. At the same time I’ve been struggling, I’ve also had my heart and soul lifted by men stepping up. Men taking full custody of their daughters, joyfully, while being berated by a legal system that struggles to acknowledge men as caregivers. Men who are heartsick at the prospect of taking only a week or two of paternity leave, at most, to be with their babies. Men who are tired of being treated like their emotions don’t exist. Men who make damn sure to listen to women and learn what consent really means, and who are deeply hurt when it’s assumed they are bullies and rapists. I’ve watched men step back to give women the floor in meetings and laugh at their own mansplaining slips. I’ve seen change.

The large numbers of young women who do not support Hillary Clinton are not an indicator that young women don’t “get” feminism. We are an indicator that young women are motivated by Bernie Sanders’ attacks on the power structures truly making our lives harder.

If you think that social change has a static end point, then I suggest you revisit history. If you think change comes from those holding powerful political offices, then I would suggest you don’t pay much attention to social movements. We don’t fight for justice from the top down—we lift up those that are most vulnerable; we give the microphone to those with the most to lose. Having a black president did not end racism. It brought a renewed backlash against black people to a head, and those that are suffering most are the ones with the fewest resources to begin with.

I fail to see how electing Hillary Clinton to run a war machine is progress. And yes, being pro-choice matters, but if healthcare is something only wealthy people have access to—who cares?! Birth control and reproductive freedom will remain a luxury for middle and upper class women until we have universal health care. Bernie Sanders is the only candidate fighting for it.

Gender hierarchies hurt men and women. Bernie Sanders and his supporters herald a true cultural shift. These men are on our team. These are men who want to be parents, men who want a true partner and not a dependent, men who hated being goaded into fighting as boys, men who hated being pressured into having sex and/or bragging about it when they were younger, men who are sick of being told they aren’t macho enough, men who are weirded-out by having their partners “given” to them by their fathers in antiquated wedding ceremonies, men who challenge me on my unabashed adoration of Jane Eyre with a more critical feminist critique, and men who could care less about whether or not their spouses take their names. These are men whose hearts break when their little girls look up to them and say, “I can’t do that dad, because I’m a girl.” These are men that are pissed off that they have to search high and low for toddler clothes that don’t smother their daughters in Disney princesses. These are fathers who are dreading the day they have to talk to their little girls about rape. These are fathers who get what is at stake, and are not raising their sons to be entitled princes and myopic protectors. These are fathers raising their sons to be kind, strong, secure, gentle, empathetic, and revolutionary.

And lest we forget how men fare at the hands of the patriarchy—Bernie Sanders supporters are the men who see how hegemonic gender roles create homeless veterans and prisoners. Due to the perpetual war that the United States has waged on the world (wars that both the Clintons and you, Madame Sec. Albright have had a hand in), as well as the new Jim Crow (a.k.a the War on Drugs), there are lethal gendered outcomes at stake for men in the patriarchy. It’s not only women that suffer in a hyper-masculine society, and lots of men get that. Maybe you don’t Madame Secretary?

Here’s the thing: Feminism needs men, and men need feminism. It doesn’t make sense to attack the guys fighting with us.

We don’t win by playing their game. We win by changing the rules for everyone on the playing field.


A feminist feeling the Bern

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