Why Bernie Is the True Feminist Choice
This article was originally published in Jacobin.
We are feminists, and we are voting for Bernie Sanders. In fact, we support Sanders precisely because we are feminists.
Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and their supporters, including those on the New York Times editorial board, are strongly making the case that the time has come for a woman to be president. Warren and her supporters have been especially persistent in these appeals to gender politics. If Bernie Sanders weren’t in the race, we might agree. But the Sanders campaign represents a historic opportunity — for women.
Don’t get us wrong. We’d like to see a woman president as much as anyone. But not if it costs us the chance to build a movement that can actually improve the lives of the vast majority of women. The Sanders campaign offers just that chance.
Everyone knows that Sanders champions the interests of the 99 percent against those of “the billionaire class.” What is less well understood is that his campaign — and the growing movement behind it — effectively address sexism, not only its overt forms, but also its deeper roots in capitalist society.
While Bernie’s signature policies — Medicare for All, free public college tuition, $15 minimum wage, a Green New Deal, strengthening unions — aren’t always recognized as feminist, they target social injuries caused by gender, as well as by class and race.
After all, the vast majority of low-wage workers are women. To raise the minimum wage is immediately to enlarge female freedom — both on the job and at home. And to expand collective bargaining rights is to give us a powerful weapon in the fight against sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace.
Similarly, Medicare for All, which Sanders alone unreservedly supports, disproportionately benefits women, who use more health care services than men and thus have higher medical costs. The gains are especially great for black, Latina, and native women, who are uninsured at higher rates than white women under the current for-profit system.
Then there’s the Green New Deal, which is rightly understood to benefit everyone. But that is because the policy is not only ecological and pro-working class, but also anti-sexist and antiracist. At present, women and communities of color are forced to fight tooth and nail for survival basics, like clean water in Flint or Dakota. They will gain disproportionately from green infrastructural investment — and from the well-paying union jobs that go along with it. The Green New Deal embodies an activist promise — to confront capitalism’s planet-burning policies — and the entrenched racist and patriarchal sinews that hold the system in place.
Of all the candidates in the field right now, Sanders is also by far the strongest on what are often called “gender issues”: reproductive rights, childcare, family leave, and trans rights. It’s easy to give lip service to such things, and some of the other candidates do, but the Sanders campaign identifies the material social resources needed to turn rights on paper into real freedoms. Bernie’s version of Medicare for All, for instance, provides full access to reproductive health care, including abortion, something we feminists have been fighting for decades. This is the only truly pro-choice position: After all, what good is the right to abortion if you can’t afford one or find a provider?
Certainly, Elizabeth Warren deserves credit for elevating the issue of childcare in the campaign and speaking eloquently about it. But Bernie Sanders has been advocating universal childcare for young children for decades, sponsoring legislation in 2011 with the aim of providing both childcare and early education to all children, from the age of six weeks until kindergarten. Sanders is also the only candidate in the race serious about protecting, improving, and desegregating public K-12 education (the closest thing our society has to universal childcare), including by raising the pay of its (majority-female) workforce.
In general, then, the Sanders campaign does not treat “women’s issues” as mere add-ons. Unlike the policies of most of his rivals, Bernie’s presume that reforms in the organization of wage work must go hand in hand in with reforms in the organization of unpaid care work — and vice versa. They thus express a core feminist truth: the two domains are so deeply intertwined that neither can be transformed alone, in isolation from the other. Only a coordinated makeover of both at once can enable women’s full and equal participation in society.
Sanders is also the best feminist choice on immigration and foreign policy. Our country has unleashed catastrophic military violence on Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East; it has sponsored countless coups and destabilizing imperialist schemes in Central and South America — all with specifically gendered effects. In these regions, as elsewhere, women are primarily responsible for the safety and survival of families and communities. This labor, always challenging, becomes punishingly so when violence, conflict, and authoritarian repression have made normal, daily life impossible. For those charged globally with raising the next generation, trying to protect children when fleeing violence at home, only to face a militarized border and a US regime eager to jail children, has become a horrifying trial. Sanders and the movement behind him are the only political forces intent on changing our murderous immigration and foreign policies, a top priority for any serious feminist movement.
Equally important, the Sanders campaign correctly identifies the social forces that stand in the way of its feminist and pro-working-class goals. The billionaire class and megacorporations (banks, pharmaceuticals, IT, insurance, and fossil fuel companies), as Bernie often stresses. But feminists have a special duty to oppose the progressive neoliberals among our number: those happy to hobnob with plutocrats who enthuse about “leaning in” and “cracking the ceiling,” while abandoning the vast majority of women to corporate predation. We should also oppose those who instrumentalize gender grievances, deploying them not to benefit women, but to undermine Sanders, divide the Left, and bolster the centrist and conservative cabals that have repeatedly and callously failed us.
Conversely, the Sanders campaign correctly identifies our most likely and promising allies: unions, antiracists, immigrants, environmentalists, and all manner of “workers” — both paid and unpaid. It is only by allying with these forces that feminists can muster the power we need to defeat our enemies and realize social justice.
Absent such a perspective, and the alliances it helps foster, feminists risk being sucked into the sort of unholy alliance with Wall Street that secured the 2016 nomination for Hillary Clinton and thereby brought us Donald Trump. The last thing we need to do now is repeat that debacle!
Finally, feminists should consider who among the candidates can be counted on to fight for women — and indeed for all of the 99 percent. Other candidates have some feminist planks in their programs. But they have simultaneously signaled their willingness to make their peace with the donor class further down the road. Among the candidates, only Sanders understands the need for a mass popular struggle that postdates the November election. Only his campaign is committed to building a movement for the sort of big structural change that women need.
The Sanders campaign understands, too, that such a movement requires expanding our sense of solidarity. By asking us “to fight for people we don’t know,” it challenges feminists to join in antiracist, ecological, immigrant rights, labor, and other pro-working-class struggles, even as we also fight against sexism.
Will we rise to this challenge?
This election presents a clear choice. What is our primary or most pressing aim: To install a woman in the White House and hope the gains trickle down to everyone else? Or to join and help build a campaign that directly prioritizes the needs and hopes of the vast majority of women? Similarly, what is the true meaning of feminism and of women’s equality: Male/female parity within the privileged classes, which means equal-opportunity domination of everyone else? Or gender equality within a society organized for the benefit of the 99 percent?
In other words: Will we be suckered by cynical invocations of feminism from those who seek to undermine a progressive mass movement? Or will we support the only candidate in the race who is advancing a politics that will actually improve the lives of all those women who belong to the 99 percent?
Bernie Sanders is that candidate. It is not despite but because we are feminists that we proudly declare our support for him.
Bernie is the true feminist choice.
Nancy Fraser is a professor of philosophy and politics at the New School for Social Research. She is the author of Fortunes of Feminism, Unruly Practices, and coeditor of, most recently, Feminism for the 99%.
Liza Featherstone is a columnist for Jacobin, a freelance journalist, and the author of Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart.