Gender politics suddenly comes to the forefront

On Bill Maher’s show, the feminist icon Gloria Steinem was speculating about why young people, and young women in particular, were so solidly behind Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton and she said something that surprised me.

“Women are more for [Clinton] than men are. …First of all, women get more radical as we get older, because we experience. …Not to over-generalize, but … men tend to get more conservative because they gain power as they age, women get more radical because they lose power as they age.

And, when you’re young, you’re thinking, where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie…”

In that last sentence, I thought that she was insulting young women by suggesting that they were supporting Sanders merely because they were seeking men, denying them any sense of independent political thought and agency. Needless to say, she was criticized for her remarks and later apologized on Facebook, saying that she “misspoke”.

But her other comments about the correlation of aging, power, and gender was something that I had not heard suggested before.

There are several propositions that she seems to conflating: (1) that men get more conservative as they get older; (2) that women get more radical as they get older; (3) that men get more power as they age; (4) that women lose power as they age; and (5) that more/less power correlates with conservative/radical views.

Each of these propositions should be independently testable. I haven’t heard if there is convincing evidence to support any of them though there may well be and it just hasn’t crossed my path. The fact that she apologized for her remarks is likely because she does not know of any either and had not really thought it through, always a dangerous thing if you are a high profile figure speaking on controversial issues in a very public forum.

Meanwhile, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright created another controversy by seeming to also patronize women by suggesting that they were required to put gender loyalty above all else.

Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright introduced Hillary Clinton at an event in New Hampshire on Saturday, telling the crowd and voters in general: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”

“People are talking about revolution. What kind of a revolution would it be to have the first woman president of the United States?”

The preposterousness of this is much greater and can be exposed by asking her whether she would suggest that women automatically should prefer Carly Fiorina or Sarah Palin over any male candidate, Bernie Sanders or otherwise?

Of course, we have to take Albright’s comments about special places being reserved in hell seriously because she herself has an entire suite reserved there for her own appalling response back in 1996 when she was asked whether the US-backed sanctions on Iraq had been worth the estimated deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children. She callously replied that the ultimate price paid by all those children was worth it to achieve US goals. Watch.

In trying to defend Albright’s remarks Clinton, taking a leaf out of the Republican playbook, hauls out political correctness, that people are far too easily offended these days.

“I don’t want people to be offended,” Clinton said. But when asked if she understood why some women did take offense, she suggested political correctness had made Americans overly sensitive.

“Good grief, we’re getting offended by everything these days!” she said. “People can’t say anything without offending somebody.”

Clinton even used her gender to defend herself from the charge that she is a creature of the establishment, saying in the last debate, “Well, look, I’ve got to just jump in here because, honestly, Senator Sanders is the only person who I think would characterize me, a woman running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment.”

But surely she must know that the establishment welcomes anyone who serves their needs. In fact, they particularly welcome women, minorities, and any marginalized groups into their fold, provided they are not in too large a number to dominate, because it helps them claim a legitimacy that they would otherwise lack and deflect accusations that they are an exclusive club.


  1. Reginald Selkirk says

    “Women are more for [Clinton] than men are. …First of all, women get more radical as we get older

    What about the other half of that assumption -- that a more radical person would support Clinton over Sanders? Makes no sense to me.

  2. says

    Yeah, I have already encountered someone attempting to equate misogyny with saying Clinton’s “we came, we saw, he died” quip was horrible. Because apparently you can’t criticize Hillary without hating her entire gender.

    I was amused to see Bill Clinton came out with that tack. I mean, he ought to know how to detect sexism when he sees it. Assuming he owns a mirror.

  3. says

    more/less power correlates with conservative/radical views

    Since one of the objects of power is more power and the preservation of power, it makes sense that power would adopt more conservative positions. And, yes, I’ve often been suspicious of faux radicals that are simply trying to coat-tail into power by supporting bids to overturn the establishment.

    It’s almost a tautology to say that the establishment is conservative and conservatism generally favors protecting the status quo. That’s what “establishment” is.

    Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

  4. sonofrojblake says

    (3) that men get more power as they age; (4) that women lose power as they age

    Is that really controversial? I can readily think of superficial arguments in favour of both those propositions, for given definitions of “power”. I can’t readily think of any kind of argument in the opposite direction.

    (Disclosure: I’m a middle aged white employed European male, and I’m pretty much at what I suspect will be the peak of my power. For damn sure I’m a hell of a lot more “powerful” than I was when I was twenty, for instance. On the other hand, it hasn’t made me any more conservative. If anything, I’m a sight more progressive in my politics now than I was then, simply by virtue of the education power of the internet.)

  5. anat says

    There is a difference between ‘older men *now* are more conservative than younger men *now*’ and ‘men get more conservative as they get older. Just pointing this out, in case Clinton was trying to use a known fact to mean more than it does.

    As for Albright’s remark: Yes, I think women should look after women’s interests (well, everyone should), but we need to look after the interests of all women, not the interests of one particularly privileged woman. Considering the state of women’s earnings, perhaps supporting the one who promotes the interests of low earners will help more women, and help them more?

  6. doublereed says

    I really didn’t like Gloria Steinem’s apology. It was as if people misinterpreted what she said, when they really didn’t. Frankly, she came off as an old-timey sexist saying that, and even Maher pointed that out (He was even rather shocked by the statement, saying “Ooo… now if I said that…”) It was very surprising coming from Steinem.

    But it sounded like she was also saying that Bernie Sanders was less radical purely because he is a man. The whole thing seem to be a mess of generalizations and bad information.

    I’ve seen a lot of articles talking about Bernie Sanders supporters and their sexism. Here we see Hillary Clinton supporters showing their sexism as well. It’s honestly very strange to me.

  7. doublereed says

    @4 sonofrojblake

    Is that really controversial? I can readily think of superficial arguments in favour of both those propositions, for given definitions of “power”. I can’t readily think of any kind of argument in the opposite direction.

    I think there are obvious arguments against women losing power as they age. Work and networking experience, the same as men. Why would you necessarily say that this is reversed for men and women? The default position would be that it’s about the same for both sexes. When I think of “powerful women” a lot of them are older, like Clinton and Warren.

    Even factoring in sexism, many times being “pretty” is used to argue against a woman’s competence. So when they’re older they may be taken more seriously just because people aren’t demeaning them for being a “pretty face” or whatever.

  8. fentex says

    On the subject of becoming more conservative as one ages, this is a copy of something I wrote and believe on the topic a while ago…

    With so many over 65s voting Conservative, it kind of points to the fact that as you get older, you normally get wiser.

    I think it’s partly physiological.

    As you get older and obtain wealth and take on responsibilities (including mortgages and other debt) there’s obvious incentives for you to adhere closer to the status quo as chaos and disruption is more threatening to you than when you were younger and more nimble.

    But I also notice my visceral reactions to things changing and at odds with my considered opinion. As I age I find my first, unreasoning, reaction to things increasingly at odds with my philosophy and considered thought and I need to be increasingly careful in holding my tongue while processing.

    From my personal experience I am convinced there is a physiological change, perhaps related to ongoing age related frailties – I cannot run as I once did, I would not back myself as readily in a fight as I once would have, I am not as strong as I once was and it occurs to me that beneath the concious mind these things may make a person more fearful and reactionary towards the world just as passing youth invests one more in the status quo passing fitness may make one more scared of challenging differences.

  9. says

    I think people in general get more radical about things that affect them and ignore everything else.
    How many older white women really give a damn about racism and it’s effects?

  10. Pierce R. Butler says

    doublereed @ # 8: Why would you necessarily say that this is reversed for men and women?

    Well, if you interpret “women’s power” as the ability to short-circuit men’s brains by pulling back their shoulders and wiggling their butts… but I’d hate to think Steinem’s own brain has glitched down to that level.

  11. John Morales says

    There’s an interesting article in Vox which takes a different perspective, based on Moral Foundations Theory: Donald Trump supporters think about morality differently than other voters. Here’s how.

    Clinton supporters, in contrast to Sanders’s supporters, score slightly below the national mean. This may be one of the most important differences between the two candidates: Clinton attracts voters less concerned about individual autonomy. For instance, Clinton opposes legalizing recreational marijuana and until recently opposed legalizing same-sex marriage, while Sanders supports legalizing marijuana and voted against DOMA back in 1996 when President Bill Clinton signed it into law.

  12. doublereed says

    @13 Pierce

    But then what is the analogous “men’s power” if you define “women’s power” this way? Is the idea that men get more sexually attractive as they age and women get less? That seems to be the general idea, but I don’t actually understand where even this idea comes from. Is Bernie Sanders a sex symbol or something? Even if women were more attracted to men above their age, that wouldn’t necessarily translate to men getting sexier as they age.

    I wonder if Steinem had older women telling her similarly condescending things when she was a young activist. I’m sure she did, and I wonder how she reacted.

  13. Mano Singham says

    robertbaden @#12,

    I don’t think that one can generalize like that. I myself know white women my age who are infuriated by racism.

    As I said in the post, these are empirical questions that can be tested and measured but I don’t know if they have.

  14. Dunc says

    Quite a good piece from Amanda Marcotte on this, I think: Dowd, Steinem take the bait: Sexist “catfight” narrative around the Clinton campaign takes hold in latest case of nasty gender politics.

    Younger women support Sanders in higher numbers than older women do. This is not surprising. Younger men also support Sanders more than older men do. The politics of idealism have always had more sway with younger people than with older, battle-hardened people. But rather than accept the simplest and likeliest explanation —that men and women tend to be more alike than different – much of the mainstream media has been eager to portray the age gap between women as a titillating catfight between jealous old hags and nubile bimbos.

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