Wednesday, 2 March 2016

What (U.S.) Women Owe Women: Vote Bernie Sanders

What (U.S.) Women Owe Women: Vote Bernie Sanders

Last week (February 25-27, 2016) I attended an academic workshop in the US. One day I was chatting with another woman participant about the responsibility of raising children while working as a scholar. The mother of a four-year-old, she worked in a US university. When her child was born she received exactly six weeks’ paid maternity leave, the minimum time considered necessary for her to physically recover from giving birth. By contrast, paid maternity leave (actually parental leave, because parents can share it) in Canada is now a year and in Sweden it is about 17 months. Not that Canada is paradise (I don’t know about Sweden): you don’t get this leave unless you have a steady salaried job. Many people don’t;  instead, they are paid by the hour or run small businesses of their own.

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Madeline Albright
I mention this because a while ago there was a furor in the newspapers about a couple of comments made by two prominent older women who support Hillary Clinton’s campaign to be the Democratic nominee for President. Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State under Bill Clinton in the 1990s, said “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support help each other”: she meant that women voters should support Hillary Clinton because she is a woman. Gloria Steinem, the famous American feminist now in her 80s, suggested that young women were voting for Clinton’s rival, Bernie Sanders, because that was where the boys were.

But if women really want to support other women, then they should vote for Bernie Sanders.  He is the one who is talking about abysmally low minimum wages.  He is the one who is talking about excessive (to put it mildly) student debt dogging Americans well into their adulthood.  He is the one talking about mass incarceration of (mainly male) African-Americans, without whom boy children lack role models and many women lack partners to help support themselves and their families. He’s the one who wants the serious immigration reform necessary so that “mixed-status” Hispanic-American families can begin to feel secure.

Americans (women and men) suffer not only from extreme income inequality and lack of secure, well-paying jobs (which is also affecting much of the rest of the Western world, including Canada) but also from a strong libertarian tradition that forces people to rely on themselves and does not accept collective social responsibility for children, much less for adults.  Women suffer from this tradition not only as women, but as mothers and as partners of other people, male and female. Sanders  is a democratic socialist; he understands how social structure and economic exploitation affect most people’s lives.   

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Susan Faludi
I admire Hillary Clinton and I think she will probably win the Democratic primaries: I hope for the sake of Americans and the rest of the world that she also wins the election. But I also hope that Bernie Sanders pushes her to the left. Susan Faludi, the author of “Backlash”, is probably right that Sanders would be beaten by a Republican candidate, so all his promised reforms would be for naught, whereas Clinton might be able to accomplish something worthwhile.  But Faludi is wrong to suggest that what’s going on is younger women’s rebellion against their old-school feminist mothers.  There’s a lot more at stake, and I think these young women know that. 

It’s about policy, not just identity. Maureen Dowd says that “young women supporting Sanders are living the feminist dream, where gender no longer restricts and defines your choices, where girls grow up knowing they can be anything they want.”  
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Maureen Dowd
This is nonsense. Neither boys nor girls can be anything they want in a society that does not provide the social supports that are common in the rest of the developed Western world, however undermined recently by economic stringency. If you are a girl from a wealthy family you probably have as much opportunity nowadays as a boy from the same family. But in the US today neither young women nor young men can look forward to being parents, to establishing stable families, to a life with adequate rest and leisure, to assurance that illness will not plunge them into poverty.

No one should support Hillary Clinton just because she is a woman; if Madeline Albright really cared about women, she’d be pressuring Clinton to adopt some of Sanders’ policies. As for Steinem, she ought to be ashamed of herself. During the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, one thing we women protested against was the assumption that we could not think for ourselves.

Young American women also think, and what many of them think is that they are facing very insecure futures in which they may never have a steady job, never succeed in paying off their student debt, never be able to afford their own home and never—in a country without a national day care system, universal parental leave, or even secure post-Obama medical care-- be able to have the children many would like to have.  And young American men, with many of the same concerns, think the same thing.


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