I'm a feminist of a certain age. I earned degrees in math and computer science before STEM was a term, and I have made my career in technology. During the years when feminism was a dirty word, I used it frequently. When Hillary Clinton ran in 2008, I enthusiastically supported her. My husband reminds me that when he first supported Obama, I snarled, “Must women, who are not even a minority, be the last to be equal at every table?”
But I do not support Secretary Clinton’s nomination now.
It's not that my opinion of her competencies has changed. I still think she's smart, ambitious, focused, and competent. I still believe that for a woman to rise to the top of a major party, that woman has had to be twice as good at politics as most of her male peers. Clinton is that female politician who has proven herself adept in D.C. for decades, brushing off scandals real and imagined, and paying her dues.
That's the problem.
For we feminists of a certain age, the only way to survive in male-dominated fields was to out-play the boys at their own game. When you fight like hell just to be on the team, you don’t try to change the rules of the game. Clinton is old school. She knows how to play the game. She's very, very good at it. Unfortunately for her, the old rules are starting to look a lot like cheating to a generation that has been stripped of opportunity.
Each criticism of Clinton, if you look at it closely, boils down to suspicion of her excellence at the game of politics. She knows how to avoid committing to a position, and how to equivocate an answer. She's one of the best fundraisers in modern history. She brokers power as well as any male politician, and better than most. That's what feminists of a certain age do: We outperform the men around us at their own game to earn our place on the field.
But this new generation has been kept out of the game entirely. Voters age 18-29 were 9-20 years old when the great recession hit. They do not believe in job stability or family stability. Their generation — male and female — went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan and came home to poverty. They do not join unions. Why pay dues when you'll be moving on soon?
They've been told they're lazy, stupid, and apathetic so many times they've tuned us out. They fueled Occupy, a movement that not only changed our cultural conversation about wealth fundamentally and nearly overnight, but also accomplished dozens of concrete things from debt forgiveness to a widely lauded emergency response to Hurricane Sandy.
Our generation laughed. We passed around memes about kids who can't look away from their phones while those kids reinvented media, advertising, and journalism.
Is it any wonder this generation of feminists sees no debt to their elders? Gloria Steinem dismissed young women who support Sanders as boy-chasers. Madeleine Albright declared that there is a special place in hell for women who don't help each other. Her meaning seems clear.
I understand Steinem's offensive derision and Albright’s defensive anger: By the rules that feminists of a certain age accepted, Clinton’s candidacy is the final round in a game that has lasted our entire lives. It's not so much that it's her turn, as that it's OUR turn. Some of us have worked for this moment since we were fresh-faced youth, and in 2008 we were forced to wait just a little longer. For feminists of a certain age, being told to be patient—that this is not yet our moment—sounds all too familiar.
We feminists of a certain age expect the establishment to be against us. The idea that we could now be establishment is unthinkable to some of us. We expect most men to oppose us or patronize us. But we do not expect other feminists to oppose us. Sec. Albright speaks the truth for many women who feel fundamentally betrayed by a generation that has benefited from our efforts since birth. Where's the respect?
Here's the truth: Young women owe us nothing. They do not owe Clinton their hard-won vote, and they do not owe we feminists of a certain age a period of servitude. The game has changed for all of us, and the young women I know are prouder, stronger, and frankly less brittle than we were. They know things that we fought to imagine—like the inevitability of a female President—and they will not vote for a candidate they do not believe represents them simply because their cavalier elders demand loyalty.
They have, in fact, become exactly what we might have hoped for our daughters and granddaughters: confident of their equality. We fought to convince ourselves and our country that we should be equal. They were born with the message that they are equal, and they are fighting for the implementation of that equality.
They struggle for jobs not because women cannot work, but because jobs are scarce. They talk about intersectional feminism (a term coined after I graduated), and can’t imagine meaningful progress without coalitions of overlapping interests and diverse viewpoints. They recognize lack of access to health care as a major obstacle to reproductive freedom.
Gloria Steinem was 20 years old in 1955, and it is likely that in her pre-feminist world girls did follow boys' interests. I hope that this new generation will view her statement in that cultural context. Steinem is one of the heroes who moved culture so effectively that her work eventually outgrew her. We should all be so successful!
Today's young feminists will not vote for Clinton for her gender, or to repay a debt they did not incur. Why should they? They want to know what she will do for them, and her answers are falling short for many. Her campaign refers to the black vote as a "firewall," while black voters increasingly question what she's actually offering. Young people want to know where their jobs and health care will come from, and she counsels patience for moderate changes.
When asked how her Presidency would differ from a third Obama term, she laughed and said, “The first woman President would be quite a change.”
I cringed when she said that, and realized I no longer want her to be the first female President. As a feminist of a certain age, I feel some guilt. It is our turn. We have waited a very, very long time for our turn. Many of us—certainly including Clinton—have spent our entire lives working for it. As a feminist who is just barely of a certain age, my debt has been called due, and I feel the weight of my elders’ reprobation.
But the world has changed. We've raised an entire generation in the worst economic crash since the Great Depression. They grew up under a surveillance state, with constant background war. They grew up within economic disparity so great it is literally unimaginable, almost indescribable. They grew up in a world where a large portion of their responsible elders have simply denied scientific facts ranging from evolution to climate change... and continued to win elections.
So they’re going to make up their own minds. They see the white, male, Democratic socialist sit down and listen to the BLM activists who interrupted him. They see him seeking out Native American counsel, and they see him paying his interns a fair wage. They see policies promising real potential for jobs and education and health care, and they think it's entirely fair that the very wealthiest should give back some of their spoils to pay for it.
Those young feminists who support Sanders are not naive or disloyal. They are building a new world, and they are demanding a new politics that invites everyone to play. They are, in fact, doing exactly what we feminists of a certain age once wished for our daughters: thinking for themselves, unburdened by gender.
It may take all of our hard-earned grace and power to learn to respect them for it, but we owe them nothing less.