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Hey, guys — gender politics are central to this race, not a footnote

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Tuesday, February 16th, 2016
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I’m not sure about this, but I’m starting to wonder whether gender is playing a role in the Democratic primary campaign between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. What do you think?

Very funny, I know. In the wake of Sanders’ blowout victory in New Hampshire, I have had impassioned exchanges about this subject with almost every woman I know — with my mother, with my editor, with my two closest female friends and with numerous writers and journalists from the film world, the political world or the literary world who I know mainly through social media. Some support Clinton, some support Sanders and others feel torn and waver back and forth. One friend told me she had been rooting for Sanders since his campaign began, but now that Clinton looked like the underdog she felt guilty and was switching her allegiance. There was no unanimity about anything except for the fact that this is a big moment for feminism, for gender relations and for women in America.

On Tuesday night, as I drove to Sanders’ election-night headquarters in Concord, a caller to New Hampshire Public Radio said she was amazed and disturbed that younger women tended to favor Sanders, and that she thoroughly embraced Madeleine Albright’s comment about the ultimate destination of women who fail to support other women. “We are on the verge of revolutionary change here,” she said, definitely not referring to the revolution that involved feeling the Bern. “Some women seem to believe it just doesn’t matter.” On Wednesday morning, when I turned the radio on for my long drive to New York, the conversation was not over. Another woman called in to say that she was insulted by suggestions that she should support Clinton because of her gender, and said that the fact that so many younger women felt at liberty to vote on issues of conscience and core principle was a victory for feminism.

I suppose those women can’t both be right, in terms of the underlying moral and political question: Does the historic moment presented by Bernie Sanders’ left-populist insurrection trump the historic opportunity to elect our first female president? It’s in the nature of generational change for people on either side of the divide to mistrust each other. But on a perceptual level it struck me that they were both pursuing the same goal: women’s freedom and equality, a larger victory that would not belong to a candidate or a party, but to all women and all Americans. I was grateful to hear their voices, and when I was on the ground in New Hampshire I tried to talk to as many women as possible.

I can only assume that these conversations I have heard are taking place by the hundreds of thousands, or by the millions, in office cubicles and break rooms and schools and coffee shops, in West Tennessee and on the Upper West Side. Whoever wins, I am beginning to suspect that the soul-searching about gender (and the different but related discussions we are about to have regarding race) are the most important and most resonant aspects of this campaign, and cannot be separated from the big questions of economic injustice and inequality that have propelled the Sanders surge.

That is not a crypto-endorsement of Hillary Clinton, by the way. I share the widespread mistrust of Clinton, the sense that she cannot entirely be trusted, that is apparently felt by about half the American population. But when I examine that perception with as much objectivity as I can muster, I am forced to conclude that it is shaped by her unique status and by the strange and singular trajectory of her career in public life. In other words, I can’t help seeing her through the lens of gender politics, because she is our first and only serious female presidential candidate. None of us can help doing that. (She is the first and only serious female candidate for the second time, which is not irrelevant. I think we all have moments of “enough already with this lady.”)

I have said several times that I still think Clinton is the likely Democratic nominee, in part because the nomination process has been rigged to favor an institutional insider. I am also dubious about the assurances of ultimate party unity and the claims that, gosh, no matter who wins “we” will be in great shape. I believe the Sanders-Clinton clash has exposed a profound ideological gulf within the left-liberal Democratic coalition, which has been kept under wraps for many years. In a series of recent tweets, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie laid out a hypothesis that the Democrats now face a Hobson’s choice between two deeply problematic candidates with limited general-election appeal, and that this could be the year when the party’s purported demographic advantage in national elections evaporates. I have to say, that’s plausible. Right now, the Democrats had better hope the Republicans nominate Donald Trump, because their other guys all have a pretty good shot at beating either Clinton or Sanders.

I don’t think the gender question will determine the outcome of the Clinton-Sanders campaign, and there are abundant reasons to support or oppose each of them that have nothing to do with the fact that one of them is a woman and the other a man. But even to me that sounds faintly like an attempt to brush off the issue, which is much more than a sideshow or a footnote. I want to say clearly that it’s important for men to listen on this issue more than we talk. (Yeah, I know – here I am, with 1,000 words or more to tell you what I think! Contradictions abound.)

When women talk to each other, or to men, about sexism and misogyny and the less visible kinds of gendered discourse or perception that affect their lives, the resulting cloud of male defensiveness and male bluster makes it hard to see anything clearly, including Bernie and Hillary and each other. I’m not claiming to be exempt; I have overreacted to criticism from women more than once. But the way to “man up” in this context (if I may), even when you feel you’re being unfairly attacked, is to step back and try as hard as you can to reflect on why someone perceives your words or actions as she does, what unconscious assumptions you may have started with that made that possible, and how the larger social history of men and women in America shaped this moment of conflict.

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