In recent weeks, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has been standing on her head to appeal to young voters and make herself more relatable, mounting something like a charm offensive in the process.
With Clinton’s most viable opponent, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, amassing a disproportionate share of the youth vote (a July YouGov poll, found that 40 percent of voters aged 29 or younger backed Clinton, compared to 37 percent who backed Sanders) and beating her on the relatable front, the Clinton campaign is trying desperately to stay out ahead.
On Saturday night Clinton appeared, to many plaudits on social media, as a bartender named Val opposite Kate McKinnon’s impression of Clinton herself, in a cleverly written skit which skewered her perceived shortcomings—her warmth, her taking her time to back marriage equality—as well as ribbing Donald Trump.
She’s also danced on the Ellen DeGeneres show, palled around with Amy Schumer, imitated Donald Trump on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and, most recently, talked feminism with Lena Dunham during an interview published on the Girls creator’s newsletter, Lenny.
The latter was political pandering at its most transparent: reaching out through Dunham—a celebrity Hillary fan—to the Girls star’s tribe of millennial feminists, the politically-savvy ones speaking out about body image and reproductive rights and other issues dogging women’s equality.
Today’s millennials will make up 36 percent of eligible voters in 2016, and one might think Clinton, the only woman seeking the Democratic nomination, has a good chance of winning over the feminists among them.
During the Lenny interview, the former Secretary of State talked about personal and political evolution in her twenties at Wellesley College, and stressed that one of her “highest priorities” as president would be to reduce student debt.
But it wasn’t long before Dunham got down to brass tacks, asking Clinton “the question on every Lenny reader’s lips is: Do you consider yourself a feminist?”
It’s the question on every reporter’s lips, too, when interviewing female celebrities whose answers are fodder for think-pieces, particularly when they reject the f-word. (Marion Cotillard and Meryl Streep scandalized the Internet last week when they didn’t self-identify as feminists).
The resulting clickbait underscores how important feminism is to the progressive liberal youths devouring these stories on the Web and tweeting their outrage.
Anyone with the vaguest knowledge of Clinton’s personal and political trajectory could have predicted her full-throated affirmative to Dunham’s question: “Yes. Absolutely.”
Clinton added that she doesn’t understand women who say they believe in equal rights but aren’t feminists because “a feminist is by definition someone who believes in equal rights!”
Feminists are not misandrists, she told LennyLetter readers; they simply believe that “women have the same rights as men, politically, culturally, socially, economically.”
That’s a solid definition of feminism, and today’s fourth-wave feminists—consisting largely of millennials and Generation Z-ers--are indebted to Boomer feminists like Clinton who fought for changes that made the world they grew up in as egalitarian as it is, even if it’s still not egalitarian enough.
But that’s the rub: Clinton’s brand of feminism (and, some would say, Dunham’s too) doesn’t align with Progressive Millennial Feminism. Her vision of the movement is too outdated and mainstream for most of today’s progressive young liberals, whose feminism prioritizes intersectionality and identity politics.
Erica Brandt, 27, dismissed Clinton’s feminism as “almost first-wave” and tediously similar to Sheryl Sandberg’s privileged “Lean In” manifesto.
“It’s fine for middle-class white people, but it completely ignores intersectionality,” Brandt, who grew up in Boston and works in education policy, told The Daily Beast. She worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign, and considers herself a left-leaning Democrat.
“Feminism that doesn’t include rights for the poor, for minorities, the non-cis is just not feminism to me,” she added. “Rich white women don’t get to make the rules for everyone, or at least they shouldn’t.”
Back in the 1990s, Clinton’s strain of feminism was progressive enough for most card-carrying feminists. Indeed, for much of her life, Clinton appeared to be the ideal feminist politician—fiercely smart, authoritative, and passionate about women’s rights and children’s welfare.
Clinton’s own political ascendency began after Bill left office: She became the first female senator from New York State in 2000. But the more she cultivated mainstream approval, the more she lost feminist support, even as she continued to advocate for women’s rights. In 2006, Senator Clinton disappointed many feminists when she took a centrist stance on abortion, but regained political ground with them by pushing over-the-counter Plan B through the FDA, which finally made emergency contraception available to women of all ages in 2013.
Clinton’s equivocating has long aroused suspicion. The firebrand feminist writer and academic Camille Paglia wrote in an email to The Daily Beast that “Hillary Clinton’s feminism is a fraud. She rode her husband’s coattails to wealth and power, and she has amorally colluded in the vilification and destruction of female victims of her husband’s serial abuse.”
Clinton’s successes are also discounted by Gen Y-ers—the kind of progressive millennials you might think would be looking forward to voting for her.
bluestockings, a feminist multimedia publication, declined to be interviewed by The Daily Beast, explaining via email that they would “rather not expend energy discussing Clinton or her superficial, actively anti-intersectional, and carceral definition of and approach to feminism.”
(“Carceral,” for the dictionary-lacking, means supporting state mechanisms like the police and legal process to tackle crimes against women, without acknowledging the state and its mechanisms themselves harm women.)
Clinton’s ideological inconsistency over the years is another reason why progressive young liberals don’t trust her as a feminist. (Brandt told me she’s “not sure Hillary was ever progressive.”)
Alexis Isabel Moncada, a teen activist from Florida who founded the popular website Feminist Culture in March 2015 (the website has 126,000 followers on Twitter), is skeptical of Clinton’s political values.
“I feel like she’s trying to appeal to young women and liberals but it doesn’t seem like she genuinely cares about the issues she says she cares about,” Moncada said, noting Clinton’s various flip-flops on gay marriage. “She changes her ideals a lot.”
Indeed, when running for the Senate in New York in 2000, four years after she supported her husband and then-President Bill Clinton’s decision to sign the conservative Defense of Marriage Act, Clinton maintained that position.
“Marriage has got historic, religious, and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time,” she said at the time, “and I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been, between a man and a woman.”
On the Senate floor in 2004, she opposed a federal amendment barring same-sex marriage but insisted that marriage was a “sacred bond between a man and a woman.”
A month before winning a second Senate term in 2006, Clinton conveniently flipped, supporting a bill that would provide insurance benefits for same-sex partnerships in New York and claiming she would back legalization of same-sex marriage in the state.
She didn’t come out fully in support of gay marriage on a federal level until 2013.
Young progressives say her support of civil liberties has been unreliable at best.
Deva Cats-Baril, a 28-year-old community health worker from Vermont, doesn’t hold a grudge against Clinton for flip-flopping on gay marriage, but she believes Clinton should publicly admit to being “wrong” about her position in the past.
“Gay rights is a huge feminist issue, and her lack of accountability for not recognizing that before is a problem,” said Cats-Baril. “She’s in a huge position of power. She should also address the racism during Obama’s 2008 campaign.”
Like Brandt, Cats-Baril thinks Clinton’s mainstream white feminism falls short of intersectionality. As a woman of color (her mother is Lebanese and her father is Mexican), Cats-Baril wants a female president who recognizes that women are not oppressed equally.
“I think the whole pro-Hillary camp of feminism creepily mirrors the larger problems facing feminism today,” she told me. “It’s all about uplifting and forgiving white women, and entitlement when it comes to positions of power. There’s this sense of, ‘We’ll get a white woman in the White House and we’ll stand up for you,’ but I don’t believe it. White women get their rights first. Hillary’s not going to change anything for me. I don’t see her progressing feminism or equality.”
Cats-Baril points to part of the Lenny interview when Dunham, who is also battling a reputation for being an exclusionary white feminist, brought up police brutality and asked Clinton what she would do as president to mend the country’s “terrible fracture in race relations.”
As my colleague Sally Kohn wrote, Clinton’s answer here was “less than satisfying”—at least to Black Lives Matter activists (progressive feminists among them) and legions of Ta-Nehisi Coates fans calling for revolution.
Clinton proposed solutions like overhauling police training programs, demilitarizing police, and improving community-police dialogue. (It’s worth noting that her husband’s administration contributed to the militarization of police during a crime wave in the 1990s.)
She also stressed that “most deaths in low-income communities, communities of color, are not due to police...They have to respect the police, and the police have to respect the community.”
This is a far cry from what Black Lives Matter activists want to hear. Even Dunham was disappointed. She later told Mashable that “a stronger, angrier answer is what I feel is in order, because at this point it feels like a true social justice crisis that can’t be addressed through neutrality.”
Clinton’s bullet-point responses to police brutality will not win over millennials.
“The construction of whiteness rolls off her tongue,” said Cats-Baril. “It’s the politically correct version of saying ‘you people.’ And I feel like Hillary separates herself from people of color in her language all the time.”
Ferguson, Baltimore, and other racial outrages in the past year have mobilized progressives and captured the liberal zeitgeist. Clinton has always been an establishment figure, and progressive youths are clamoring for an iconoclast, particularly when it comes to this issue.
That’s why progressive young liberals like Brandt, Moncada, and Cats-Baril say Bernie Sanders is more of a feminist than Clinton: His activism is certainly more aligned with theirs than Clinton’s.
“I’m not sure he’s ever said that he’s a feminist but he has discussed women’s issues like abortion and the wage gap a lot,” said Moncada. Unlike Clinton, he’s held firm to his beliefs over the years.
To be sure, not all progressive feminists are rabidly anti-HRC. Dunham, for one, is progressive by many standards. Likewise 25-year-old Suey Park, whose tweets about race and gender earned her a large online following several years ago (in 2014, she was scapegoated for misinterpreting satire and being among the perennially offended with her #CancelColbert controversy.)
“Hillary’s definition of feminism isn’t that different from mine except that it lacks intersectionality,” Park said. She is unsure who will get her vote in the primaries, but she doesn’t like the idea of voting for Clinton simply because she’s a woman.
“The whole point of feminism is that there should be a multitude of different opinions, but at the same time I’m not going to be totally against her because she’s not as progressive on race or other issues.”
As much as Brandt would like to see a woman in the Oval Office, she doesn’t think Clinton’s right for the job.
“I don’t think we should have to compromise policy for chromosomes,” she said.
Cats-Baril hopes Biden will join the race. “He’s very transparent, and I don’t see that sense of entitlement that I see with Hillary even though he’s a white guy and has a lot of power.”
She added: “There’s more separation between identity and policy with Biden. I don’t see that with Hillary and it scares me.”
Being in the political spotlight for nearly 40 years might have something to do with Clinton’s inability to let her guard down and distinguish the person from the politician.
Her life has been a perpetual campaign, after all. And her positions of power have always been challenged by the Right, most notably in 1993 when her plan for universal health care—having been appointed to the job by her husband—foundered.
Clinton has always used her brand of inoffensive feminism to strategically distance herself from hoary stereotypes of the movement’s second-wave. She’s been criticized enough over the years for her pantsuits and lack of womanly touch, particularly as first lady.
Her vision of female leadership is certainly broad enough to make room for compromise while fighting for women’s equality, but not broad enough for radical politics. Unfortunately for Clinton, radical politics are all the rage right now—and progressive young liberals aren’t interested in compromise.