What Young Feminists Think of Hillary Clinton

It's not quite what you'd expect.

This illustration can only be used with the Molly Mirhashem piece that originally ran in the 5/16/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. (National Journal)

Alexandra Svokos was six years old, growing up in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, when she became a Hillary Clinton fan. It was 1998, and Clinton had published Dear Socks, Dear Buddy, a collection of children's letters addressed to the first family's pets. Svokos became so obsessed with the book, she recalls, that she wrote her own letter—not to Socks the cat or Buddy the Labrador, but to Clinton herself. When she got a reply on official White House stationery with the first lady's signature, Svokos was thrilled.

Clinton was an early feminist icon for many women of Svokos's generation—long before they even began to think of themselves as feminists. Svokos, who's now 23 and a fellow at The Huffington Post, grew up with parents who called themselves feminists and practiced gender equality in the house, balancing household responsibilities and encouraging Svokos and her two sisters to "fight for what we deserved." Mostly, she says, feminism meant "girl power" to her—and that meant, in turn, rooting for Clinton when she made her first run for the presidency in 2008. Svokos was in high school then, and her ideas about feminism were still pretty simple; she admired Clinton "because she was a woman, rather than knowing much about what she stood for."

Eight years later, Svokos's notion of feminism has evolved—and the prospect of Hillary Clinton becoming president no longer fills her with unbridled excitement. Svokos says her ideas about feminism began to change when she studied economics at Columbia University, beginning in 2010. As she learned about economic inequality in the United States and around the world, she says, she began to see how gender, race, and class were intertwined—how, for instance, expanding access to birth control can stimulate an economy by enabling women to pursue their own careers.

Feminism came to mean something very different from girl power. And Hillary Clinton came to look like the symbol of an older generation of women more concerned with female empowerment—in particular, with white, middle-class, American female empowerment—than with broader issues of social and economic justice. Svokos says she'll vote for Clinton in 2016, but she's not expecting her to make social justice and inequality true priorities if she makes it to the White House. "I find her lacking, in that I realize she's not likely to push for the kind of change I'd like to see," Svokos says. "At the same time, though, I believe she knows how to manage politics and will be more than capable in the position."

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Among feminists of her generation, Svokos is hardly alone in her lukewarm feelings about Hillary Clinton's presidential bid. I recently interviewed 47 young women, most in their early to mid-20s, who call themselves feminists; they talked about what feminism means to them and shared their thoughts about Clinton's candidacy and public image. While the overwhelming majority of these women said they would likely vote for her in 2016, only about a quarter of them were enthusiastic or emphatic in their support. Jennifer Schaffer, a 22-year-old weekend editor at Vice, summed up a common sentiment among these women: "I'm glad we have a female presidential candidate," she told me, "but it's incredibly difficult to get excited about something that should have happened decades ago." A vote for Clinton, many said, would be a vote by default, because no other viable progressive alternatives—female or male—are in the offing.

While it's not exactly news that Clinton is a less-than-ideal candidate for many on the Left, the critique of her from those on the vanguard of contemporary feminism is more surprising—and potentially problematic for her presidential effort. To win in 2016, Clinton doesn't just need half-hearted support from young women; she needs them to be a base of her grassroots efforts, as fired up as young people were for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. But even as more and more young women are embracing the "feminist" label—with pop-culture icons like Beyoncé making it central to their public personas—the feminism that Clinton represents seems increasingly outmoded. While her campaign banks on young feminists like Svokos and Schaffer being "Ready for Hillary," these women say they're ready for more.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to U.S. Embassy employees in Athens, Greece, on July 18, 2011. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

HILLARY CLINTON came of age during the peak years of second-wave feminism. The first wave began in the mid-1800s, with women's suffrage as the goal; the second stretched from the 1960s to the early 1980s, and focused on reproductive and workplace rights. Writer and activist Betty Friedan is usually credited with catalyzing the second wave with The Feminine Mystique. Published in 1963, the landmark book called for women's liberation from housework, with Friedan famously writing: "We can no longer ignore that voice within women that says: 'I want something more than my husband and my children and my house.'"Š"

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As the feminism of Friedan and second-wave stalwarts like Gloria Steinem moved into the mainstream, some began to criticize it as a movement tailored to white women of means. Who, they asked, would clean the homes and care for the children of Friedan's liberated middle-class housewives? Where was their liberation? Such questions fed into a larger critique of second-wave feminism: that it saw white American women's concerns as representing those of all women.

In 1989, a term emerged for a feminist philosophy that would include women of color and other marginalized groups: "intersectionality." To the uninitiated, the word might sound like unwieldy academic jargon. But without my bringing it up, many of the women I spoke to said intersectionality was the foundation of their feminism—and of their skepticism about Clinton. First coined by legal scholar and professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, the word refers to the connections (the "intersections") between different systems of oppression—not just sexism, but also racism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism. It's a recognition that a black woman, for instance, is not affected independently by racism and sexism—those forms of discrimination are inextricably linked, which makes her experience sexism differently from a white woman and racism differently from a black man.

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The concept itself was far from new; it stretched as far back, at least, as Sojourner Truth's famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech in 1851, in which she highlighted the dramatic differences between the ways black and white women experience sexism. "That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere," Truth said. "Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman?"

"I think it's problematic to assume that just because she's a woman, she's the best spokesperson for all women."

Now the idea had a name. But in the 1990s, as intersectionality was gaining popularity in academic circles, Hillary Clinton was bringing her own, more traditional brand of feminism to her role as first lady. Her domestic initiatives included adoption, foster care, and child care. In 1995, Clinton gave her famous Beijing speech to the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women, declaring that "women's rights are human rights." She helped to form the Justice Department's Violence Against Women Office and partnered with then"“Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to found the Vital Voices Democracy Initiative, a series of conferences devoted to promoting female leaders and involving women around the globe in politics.

In the early and mid-2000s, after she left the White House and took up residence in the U.S. Senate, Clinton largely shifted away from a women-centered agenda as she worked to bolster her presidential résumé. At the same time, young bloggers like Lauren Bruce (Feministe) and Jessica Valenti (Feministing) were bringing feminist theory out of the Ivory Tower. "Each month seemed to bring a new site with feminist content," Rebecca Traister writes in her 2010 book, Big Girls Don't Cry. "At various points there were about six sites calling themselves The F-Word."

Social media changed the landscape of feminism. Young women who might not learn about feminism in their schools or communities could find primers on Tumblr blogs with names like intersectional feminism 101. Their feminist awakenings thus involved, from the start, debates about second-wave feminism's perceived failures of inclusivity. "Anyone who entered the feminist conversation in the Internet age has immediate access to not only research about those failures, but also to a lot of the conversations about them," says feminist organizer and writer Shelby Knox, who's 28. "The barriers are a lot lower for participation in the movement."

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Young women could now do more than read about feminist issues and discuss them in class; they could find communities of women on Twitter or Tumblr whose experiences they could relate to—or who could open up new vistas for them on what other women's lives are like. They could participate in the creation of a new feminism—one that would be a far cry from Friedan's. By 2011, the writer Flavia Dzodan was famously declaring on her blog: "My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit." Her words became a rallying cry.

As young women's notions of feminism evolved and broadened, so did their idea of what constitutes "women's issues" in the political arena. "If you're taking intersectionality as the foundation of this kind of feminism, you wouldn't just be concerned with how any particular policy issue is affecting women," says Gwendolyn Beetham, director of the Global Village at Douglass Residential College, the women's residential college affiliated with Rutgers University. "But you would be asking, 'Which women, and how?' And you would be asking this whether or not you are a member of one of those groups."

To young women like Sylvie Edman, a 20-year-old student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Clinton embodies "corporate feminism," which Edman defines concisely: "It's empowering women who are already powerful." Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO and author of Lean In, are often name-dropped in this context; while they experience sexism, the thinking goes, they've been able to dare greatly because of their race and class—while being helped along the way by working-class women and women of color who didn't have the same opportunities.

Some of the concerns raised by the women I spoke to about Clinton were traditional "women's issues" like reproductive justice and equal pay. But just as many brought up police brutality, criminal-justice reform, and environmental issues as primary concerns—and as integral to what they mean by "feminism." Some of the most commonly expressed critiques of Clinton echoed those of many left-of-center Americans: She's "hawkish" on foreign affairs, "part of a political dynasty," and simply "not very progressive." Collier Meyerson, who writes for the website Fusion, told me that her ideal candidate "wouldn't be part of a legacy, and wouldn't be a career politician." A candidate more like Barack Obama—"somebody who is rooted more in community-organizing"—would fit the bill better, Meyerson says.

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Ayesha Siddiqi, the 24-year-old editor-in-chief of the online magazine The New Inquiry, says that this range of concerns should be no surprise. "Feminist issues," she says, "are no more complicated than the issues of people's lives." But that philosophy makes young women's views of Clinton—and her campaign's efforts to galvanize them behind her—very complicated indeed.

At April's Women in the World summit, Clinton talked about inequities in what women are paid, taking care to note the "even wider gaps for women of color." Will such rhetoric speak to young feminists' concerns that she's a classic "corporate feminist"? (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

AT THE ANNUAL Women in the World Summit in New York this April, Sam Viqueira stuck out from the crowd. The summit, a high-powered gathering of leaders and activists launched by former New Yorker and Daily Beast editor Tina Brown in 2010, this year featured a keynote address by Hillary Clinton. Most of the women in attendance looked like Clinton's crowd, her generation: Dressed business casual, the mostly middle-aged women flocked to the free coffee and Luna bars on offer, chatted in small groups, and snapped selfies in front of a Dove-sponsored backdrop. The 17-year-old Viqueira and her high school friend stood off to the side in a small lounge, looking like they were dressed for a regular day of school. They'd taken the train in from Maplewood, New Jersey. "To me, feminism isn't only about wanting equality for all genders," Viqueira told me later, "but wanting and advocating for the equality of all oppressed groups, which can and do intersect."

In some respects, Viqueira exemplifies the rising generation of feminists—and their conflicted feelings about Clinton. She grew up with three sisters and parents who were big on women's empowerment, encouraging the girls to play sports and study math and science. But she credits social media with teaching her about the intersection of race and gender, and the issues women face outside of the United States; she first read the term "intersectionality" online when she was just 15 and now follows a lot of young women on Twitter who help broaden her perspective.

This spring, she's taking the first gender-studies class ever offered at her public high school. Next fall, Viqueira will be old enough to cast her first vote. That has led her, like so many other young feminists, to think long and hard about what Clinton would—and wouldn't—represent as the first woman president. "It's nice to see a strong female candidate running for president," Viqueira says, but she can't help wishing it were a woman with a different track record. She's particularly troubled by Clinton's support of the 1996 welfare-reform bill her husband signed and of the Clinton-era crime-fighting legislation that, among other things, lengthened prison sentences for drug offenses. At best, she says, Clinton has been inconsistent on social-justice issues; at worst, she has been a hypocrite.

While Viqueira is hesitant to say she'll vote for Clinton, she acknowledges that the limited options for progressive-minded voters will probably push her in that direction. But it bothers her to see Clinton held up as a model feminist: "I think it's problematic to assume that just because she's a woman, she's the best spokesperson for all women."

While her deep résumé impresses many young women, Clinton has to grapple with past policies that are anathema to others. (Luis Acosta/AFP/GettyImages)

Clinton's first presidential campaign relied heavily on that assumption. An internal campaign memo from March 2007, written by the campaign's chief strategist and pollster, Mark Penn, and published in The Atlantic the following year, advised Clinton thusly:

1) Start with a base of women.a. For these women, you represent a breaking of barriers.b. The winnowing out of the most competent and qualified in an unfair, male-dominated world.c. The infusion of a woman and a mother's sensibilities into a world of war and neglect.

2) Add on a base of lower- and middle-class voters.a. You see them; you care about them.b. You were one of them, it is your  history.c. You are all about their concerns (health care, education, energy, child care, college, etc.).

For young feminists, Penn's memo, and Clinton's campaign, represented the antithesis of intersectional thinking. The problem isn't merely the assumption that women would be Clinton's primary base because of their gender alone; it's also the fact that lower- and middle-class voters are itemized as a separate group, with a different (and far more specific) set of concerns from those of "women." "With strategies like this," Traister writes, "it was not unjust to suggest that one serious problem with the Clinton campaign leadership was that it did not think much of the women with whom it was supposed to be making history." Traister notes that "Penn assured Hillary that internal polling showed that 94% of young women would automatically vote for the first female president. It was perhaps this confidence that led him to shrug off concerns about reaching them." In the end, according to a CBS News poll, Penn's initial estimates were way off: 53 percent of young women backed Obama over Clinton.

While these young women, rallying for Clinton in New York in April, are "Ready for Hillary," others say they're ready for more. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Far from a high-water mark for feminism, Siddiqi, The New Inquiry editor, sees Clinton's presidential campaigns as "the nadir of the 'Lean In' feminism moment. This is what you get when that's what your feminism looks like," she says. "You don't get a victory that all women can celebrate."

OF COURSE, plenty of young women will be celebrating next November if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency—including some who see themselves rooted in "intersectionality." Gabriel Clarke, a 20-year-old musician and student at Oakwood University in Alabama, says she had a wake-up moment during protests over the shooting of Michael Brown last summer in Ferguson, Missouri. "A young woman grabbed the microphone and said, 'I am a woman, but before I am a woman, I am black.' And I was thinking, that's not how we have to look at these things. That's not how we have to be. We have to understand that we are both of those things simultaneously."

Women of color like herself have long been "on the back burner in the movement," Clarke says. It's a welcome change that "people are starting to see that you can't have a social movement about equality and leave out everyone else who's not a white woman." But intersectional thinking hasn't dimmed her passion for electing Clinton. The first time Clinton ran, Clarke was just 13. She had a hard time taking the candidate seriously, she says, because of the media's relentless focus on her hair, clothes, and manner of speaking. But the summer before Clarke went off to college in 2013, her impression was changed by watching the documentary Miss Representation, which shines a critical light on the way women leaders are portrayed by the media. "It really opened my eyes and made me see Hillary in a totally different way," Clarke says. "They talked more about her pantsuits than her policies!"

Like most of the one-quarter of these young women who told me they're gung ho for Clinton, Clarke cites the candidate's extensive experience—the same experience others use to knock her as a "career politician"—as a prime factor in her support. Clinton, says Clarke, is obviously the most-qualified candidate in the race. "But that's the story of being a woman," she says. "You have to be ten times better than everyone else to even get your foot in the door." Clarke realizes that many feminists of color are "very skeptical" of Clinton, wondering "whether she will really be a champion or a voice for them, or only for white women"—and she gets the skepticism. But to her, there's something more fundamental at stake: "I think that even her as a symbol for women, that a woman can be president, is powerful enough."

This time around, the Clinton campaign isn't taking that kind of solidarity for granted. Young feminists' social and economic views may have been overlooked in 2008, but in the early stages of Clinton's second run, they've been front and center. You could hear it in her keynote at the Women in the World Summit, where Clinton talked about inequities in what women are paid, taking care to note the "even wider gaps for women of color." You could hear it in another speech she recently gave in New York calling for police reform and in her frequent invocations of income inequality. "Americans have fought their way back from tough economic times," Clinton said in the April video announcing her campaign. "But the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top."

Such talk is welcomed by Clinton skeptics like Viqueira, the 17-year-old, who sees the candidate "redefining her feminism to be all-inclusive." Collier Meyerson says that Clinton's announcement video—which, as pundits noted, took pains to feature just about every group of "marginalized" people in America—was a clear attempt to reach people ignored during her 2008 campaign. "My hope is that she continues with this thread," Meyerson says, "and goes on to pull in people from different socioeconomic classes, backgrounds, and races."

By and large, these women say they'll need to see more evidence of Clinton's new inclusiveness before their ambivalent support morphs into enthusiasm. "So far, she's hit on a lot of the things I'm passionate about," says Laura Brown, a 26-year-old fashion designer and seamstress in Los Angeles. "I want to see her prove it. I want to know it's genuine and not just part of the game."