It was supposed to be a relaxing couple’s weekend upstate. On a Friday in November, Rachel* and her boyfriend, Steve*, a comedy writer she describes “a big ol’ liberal Jew,” left New York City for a quiet lodge in the Catskills. They cozied up on the couch on Saturday night to Netflix-’n-Chill the Democratic debate, but the mood turned unpleasant when Steve remarked he wasn’t sure he could trust Hillary Clinton.
“I’m not even a big Hillary Clinton supporter,” Rachel says. “But as a woman, I had to step in.” Bernie Sanders was “just a guy with big ideas,” she told her boyfriend, whereas Clinton was a seasoned politician. When Steve questioned Clinton’s qualifications, Rachel reminded him Clinton has spent her entire career in public service. “I couldn’t not yell about it,” Rachel says. “I was in escalation mode.”
Things went nuclear when Steve called Hillary, “strident,” Rachel adds — “a famously gendered insult.”
Soon, the couple found themselves in a shouting match about whether Steve’s support for Bernie was the result of his own unconscious gender bias. “Why are men who support Bernie automatically sexist?” he predictably asked her. How could he not see that it’s impossible to discuss Hillary vs. Bernie without gender politics factoring in? Rachel responded.
“Liberal guys hate being told they’re sexist,” Rachel says two months after the incident. “It’s almost as bad as being told they’re racist.”
The Bernie-Hillary gender divide isn’t only causing mayhem for the Democratic Party, whose elite worry about Sanders’ electability in a general election. It’s also causing relationship drama for heterosexual, liberal couples, as support for the two candidates is divided along gender lines. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found 61 percent of Democratic men in Iowa favored Sanders (and 30 percent favored Clinton) while Clinton has earned the support of 55 percent of female voters. And when a boyfriend likes Bernie and a girlfriend likes Hillary, identity politics and accusations of latent sexism turn an intra-party rift into a lover’s quarrel.
Some liberal women are finding their supposedly progressive-minded male partners might not be as tuned into gender politics as they hoped, or worse, unwilling to acknowledge their quiet sexism when confronted about it.
“They fall silent,” says Rebecca Jo, a writer in New York who tried to point out to both her current and ex-boyfriends that their bromance with Bernie might be gendered in some way. “And these are extremely liberal people.” Some dudes go on the defensive, insisting their preference for Sanders has nothing to do with gender. Or they refuse to acknowledge why women care about seeing a woman in the White House. “I don’t know that men realize the lack of powerful women we have to look up to,” adds Rachel.
The gender rift was encapsulated by a moment in the first Democratic debate, when moderator Anderson Cooper asked Clinton how her presidency might differ from Obama’s. For Clinton, it was an opportunity to distinguish herself from an administration considered too centrist by many Democrats and to steal back some of the progressive sheen she’d recently lost to Sanders. “Well, I think that’s pretty obvious,” Clinton answered, ready to capitalize on the moment. “I think being the first woman president would be quite a change from the presidents we’ve had up until this point, including President Obama.”
For Sanders lovers, this moment proved Clinton was willing to wield her gender in the most cynical way possible, using it to obfuscate her centrist policies and appeal to identity politics. After all, if Clinton’s logic were true, then pro-life Republican candidate Carly Fiorina was a progressive choice, too. Her answer was political in the worst sense of the term.
Clinton supporters, however, literally applauded. Finally, here was a frank admission from Clinton herself that shattering the glass ceiling was a reason to elect her unto itself. If Democrats were serious about dismantling a system that’s kept women underrepresented in politics, Clinton implied, then they’d be better off electing a woman instead of yet another man. That’s a point that some liberal men struggle to understand, even when their girlfriend is a Clinton supporter.
“I would love to untangle it from the gender dynamics,” says Roy Bohyn, Jo’s boyfriend and a Sanders supporter. “But it’s hard to pick apart whether someone’s idea of Hillary is colored by her being a woman.”
Jo, for her part, argues that it’s just as likely that Bohyn’s support for Sanders is colored by his being a man. “I don’t think they realize they’re considering Bernie because, without even trying to, he is in the old boy’s club,” Jo says. “Hillary doesn’t have the privilege of getting your vote just because she’s someone you’d grab a beer with.”
Jo says she tries to explain this calmly and simply to Bohyn and other men in her life. “It’s not really a heated conversation. But there comes a point where they don’t have much else to offer the conversation,” she says.
Straight liberal bros despise the very idea of “identity politics” — it’s an affront to our precious intellectualism. Identity politics values cult of personality over ideas. That’s the province of troglodyte Trump supporters or the people who voted for George W. Bush because they “wanted to grab a beer with him.” And yet here are those same liberal men eschewing Hillary, arguably the most qualified presidential candidate in history, to side with a candidate who looks like them, all the while dismissing the role gender plays in that decision (and alienating their girlfriends in the process).
“I tell everyone [my boyfriend] left me for Bernie Sanders,” jokes Kate McKee. At the end of the summer, Zack Burley, her boyfriend of two years, moved from New York to join the Sanders campaign in Colorado. “Bernie turned out to be an awesome candidate but there was still that part of me that was like Screw you. Hillary’s worked so hard for this,” she says.
Burley’s response was typical in this debate: “I’m a policy guy. I didn’t put a lot of stock into the gender politics side of it, at least the symbolic part of just getting a woman into the White House.”
Of course, as a Sander staffer, he certainly knows plenty of women who are supporting Sanders. Despite Clinton’s overall lead with women, a recent USA Today poll found that many young female voters are more fond of Sanders than they are Clinton. “Young women have been taught their whole lives that women can be anything they want to be,” liberal pundit Krystal Ball told Glamour in a piece explaining the trend. “So even though we have never had a woman president, it doesn’t feel like a particularly exciting accomplishment to get one woman into one position of power” — especially if it’s not the right woman. Meanwhile liberal dudes can use Bernie’s hyper-liberal views as a shield from any accusations of latent sexism.
This election is the first time Huffington Post columnist Lauren Duca (a Clinton supporter) and her “aggressively liberal” fiancé (a Sanders supporter) have had diverging opinions on politics. It’s manifested itself in recurring “heated arguments” — as well as the occasionally worthwhile teaching moment.
When Duca’s fiancé giggles at one of Bernie’s trademark rants, Duca points out that Hillary — or any female politician, for that matter — could never get away with being so demonstrative. “And he’ll say, ‘You’re right. I have to check my privilege.’”
Burley’s response has been similar. “I had taken it for granted that as a guy, I can look up to Lincoln, I can look up to Washington. But as a woman, there’s no presidential role model,” Burley says. “I underestimated what it would feel like to be a woman and see a woman president.”
Ultimately though, it was Burley and Bernie who won out: McKee has since switched her allegiance to the underdog Senator from Vermont.
But the other couples haven’t reached a consensus. Instead, the boyfriends are left pondering their privilege while their girlfriends are left defending a female candidate who might not be as liberal as they are.
“My fiancé is still very swept up in the exciting principles Bernie stands for,” Duca says. “In a perfect world, we would have a female president who stood for that.”
*Names have been changed.