Illustration by Joy Kolitsky
Hillary Clinton suffered from an “enthusiasm gap” in 2008 that cost her the election when Barack Obama captured the enthusiasm of young people and people of color.
But 2016 will be different if Mitch Stewart, a former Obama campaign aide in 2012, and his fellow strategists at the Ready for Hillary PAC succeed. While Clinton has not yet officially said she is running, the Ready for Hillary PAC is independently creating a shadow campaign organization— building mailing lists and positioning staffers—that will be on hand once she does.
Given the potency of the “war on women” campaign of 2012, will young, feminist voters give Hillary another look?
Last spring, Feministing founder and author Jessica Valenti wrote of her growing yearning for a woman candidate even though she voted for Obama against Clinton in 2008. “I’ve made a full transition from youthful idealism to jaded orneriness” because of “intractable sexism,” not the least being that “the leading cause of death for pregnant women is murder by a partner.” A woman President wouldn’t create a feminist utopia, she wrote, “but there is something to be said for the power of figureheads.”
The problem is, the activist core of the millennial generation—the young women organizers and leaders of their campus Democratic clubs who help generate the enthusiasm of their peers—may not be interested in supporting a primary candidate who, while holding some liberal positions, once served on the board of Walmart and remains cozy with the Wall Streeters she represented while a U.S. Senator from New York.
That doesn’t mean they aren’t excited about the prospect of a woman President, or that they wouldn’t work hard for Clinton if she made it through the primaries. But they are keeping their options open.
Adriana Cortes offers no opinion about Clinton. But she gushes about one person who is not even running for President: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. driana Cortes is a twenty-five-year-old organizer with Feminist Campus, a project of the Feminist Majority Foundation, and a trendsetter. A native of Watsonville, California, and the daughter of Mexican immigrants, she was an activist at Cal State Fullerton before becoming an organizer for the U.S. Student Association and the Service Employees International Union. Now based in Los Angeles for the Feminist Campus, she says she is “really focused on reproductive health.” She laughs when asked about her other concerns. “The list is pretty long,” she says. It includes better wages for fast food workers, government violations of Internet privacy, immigration, health care, and access to higher education.
Cortes offers no opinion about Clinton. But she gushes about one person who is not even running for President: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
“She’s amazing! She’s doing a really good job going after bankers and folks who are really responsible for the economic situation we’re in,” says Cortes. “I wish there were more politicians with that kind of integrity.”
Warren’s courage to speak economic truths rarely heard from the well of the Senate resonates with Cortes and other young people who are experiencing an economic assault not seen since the Great Depression. College graduates of all backgrounds are having difficulty finding good jobs. Only 65 percent of millennials are employed, down from 71 percent in 2007 before the big crash. One study found half of those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine who had jobs were only working part-time.
And they earn peanuts.
More than a third of poverty-wage workers in 2011 were young workers between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
They also face a new burden that did not afflict previous generations: Thanks to government disinvestment, they carry the highest student debt ever recorded. Student debt in the United States has exploded from $200 billion in 2000 to $1.3 trillion today. The Project on Student Debt recently determined that the class of 2012 took $29,400 in debt with them, on average, when they received their diplomas. And this figure doesn’t even include graduates of for-profit colleges, which don’t release debt data.
No wonder Elizabeth Warren, who has made Wall Street chicanery and the resulting unfair debt burden on students and consumers her cause, is a hero to this generation. But in December, Warren repeated her pledge to serve out her Senate term. “I am not running for President,” she said.
Another huge factor in 2016 will be the rising generation of young immigrants whose activism propelled the DREAM Act.
Chitra Panjabi is a twenty-nine-year-old immigrant who was recently elected membership vice president of NOW. “My platform was diversifying the organization and reaching out to young feminists, feminists of color, and immigrants,” she says. The women’s movement needs to “make America better for everyone who lives here,” and tackle immigration, racism, and economic disparity.
“Two-thirds of minimum wage workers are women,” she notes. “The minimum wage of women at the federal level isn’t enough to take care of your family.”
Based inside the Beltway, but not active in Democratic politics, she likes both Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton.
“Here are two strong, independent women who have amazing achievements to their name,” she says. “There are real women candidates out there. I think it’s an idea that still makes people uncomfortable.” For her, the issue is that Democrats “need to fight harder for ordinary women” by defending Social Security and the safety net.
Laurie Bertram Roberts is the mother of seven children and a “flyover feminist,” a term crafted by women in Oklahoma to denote red state activists.
Now thirty-five and at the tip of the millennial generation, she is a doula and newspaper columnist in Jackson, Mississippi, though a native of the Midwest. She is also the president of the Mississippi chapter of the National Organization for Women, and she sits on the national board.
“I’m doing some work around birth issues because I’m in Mississippi and infant mortality is ridiculously high,” she says. “I think birth work is a feminist issue that feminists don’t talk about. Older feminists had their kids. They fought for Roe and birth just isn’t on their radar.”
Roberts is not keen on Hillary Clinton. When I raise the question of supporting her for President, she sighs and then points out that Bill Clinton “passed the worst welfare reform ever.”
Roberts says she’s confronting several different issues in her daily life right now. “I feel like everywhere, racism smacks me in the face,” she says. “I’m working on issues of class and poverty because I’m poor. I’m always working on those three things: birth, racism, and poverty.”
I ask her if there’s a national political figure she likes.
She doesn’t hesitate.
“I do love Elizabeth Warren,” she says. “She brings perspectives to the table that other people aren’t looking at. Liberal politicians don’t talk to people who don’t make a lot of money. We don’t exist. She doesn’t just say ‘middle class,’ which assumes we are all middle class. It decreases solidarity for people who should acknowledge we are the working poor. So I love her for those things.”
Amanda Bragg is president of the College Democrats at New College of Florida in Sarasota. Although from a small town an hour north of Tampa, she doesn’t identify with the red politics of the older, white residents of rural Florida.
Putting medical marijuana on the ballot is one of her goals, and fighting “for gay marriage and LGBTQ issues in general.”
“I’m very excited about Hillary Clinton,” says Bragg. “She’s one of my idols in politics. She’s just very good at what she does. But I’d also like to see Elizabeth Warren take a higher executive position. She is the voice of progressive Democrats and brings out the issues younger Democrats are interested in, things that affect us, like immigration, people who are trying to stay in school here. We see people being taken away because of a law that we see as arbitrary.”
She also stresses the harsh economic climate: “Young people have to work and need help along the way, not just health care but a job market that has room for college graduates to enter.”
Sharon Durkan is a Smith College senior from Georgia who is vice president of the College Democrats of Massachusetts.
She is also concerned about economic inequality and the threat to reproductive rights.
“I think those are really important to women of my generation,” she says.
About Hillary, she says: “I’m really inspired by her, but I’m excited to see who else steps up to run.”
That is exactly the position officially taken by Emily’s List, the group promoting pro-choice Democratic women for office.
“It’s not just Hillary. There is a deep bench of qualified Democrat women” who can run, if not in 2016 then in 2020 and beyond, Emily’s List proclaims on its website.
Last May, Emily’s List launched Madam President, a project promoting the idea of a Democratic woman candidate.
Among its contenders: Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, who took what suspiciously looked like a campaign trip to Iowa in August 2013, Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, and New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen.
Some of the women on Emily’s List’s roster signed a letter organized by Senator Barbara Boxer of California urging Hillary to run, and ABC reported that all sixteen Democratic women Senators signed the letter.
But at least among the younger women I talked with, Hillary isn’t progressive enough to be their top contender.
Abby Scher is a sociologist and journalist based in New York. She is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Published in the March 2014 issue of the magazine.