Queen Anne boomers root for Bernie Sanders. A postmillennial hosts a phone bank for Hillary Clinton. As Washington state’s caucuses approach, women here are as divided as anywhere over the Democratic candidates — but in some unexpected ways.
Linda Mitchell watched disappointedly in 2008 as a number of local women she thought of as “stalwart feminists” backed Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. Most notably, then-Gov. Chris Gregoire endorsed Obama right before the Democratic caucuses, giving him a last-minute boost in a heated contest.
This year, Mitchell, a communications consultant who started the Facebook page Washington Women for Hillary, said, “I have not experienced that disappointment.”
Many of the state’s prominent women, including Gregoire, are lining up behind Clinton. “I find her to be the most qualified person running,” the former governor said in an email.
“She knows how to get things done,” added King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who also supported Obama in 2008.
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And while they say it’s not their main reason for supporting Clinton, both Gregoire and Kohl-Welles said they would be excited to see a female president. “I think we need to break that ultimate glass ceiling,” said Kohl-Welles.
But with Sen. Bernie Sanders generating impassioned support in advance of the state’s March 26 Democratic caucuses, Clinton is far from a shoo-in among Washington women.
Consider Galaxy Marshall, a sophomore at Seattle’s Nova High School, who assails every older classmate she can find with information about how they can register to vote and why they should support Sanders.
“I consider myself to be a feminist,” said the 15-year-old, who added that she’d like to see a female president. But, she said, “I don’t think it should be the deciding factor.” For her and many of her friends, that would be socialist Sanders’ plan for “radical change,” including making public colleges free.
“An inspiring figure”
In Washington state, as elsewhere, women are divided over the presidential race — particularly on the Democratic side. The spectacle of a female front-runner locked in a close race with a male insurgent has generated fraught debates about how important gender should be in choosing a candidate, how female politicians are judged and what, if anything, women owe each other when they vote.
The local divide does not always follow the national narrative. While many millennials and post-millennials are flocking to the 74-year-old Vermont socialist, their mothers often are, too. And Clinton, 68, also has young fans. “I know plenty of Hillary supporters among people my age — especially in Seattle,” said 24-year-old Morgan Steele, who hosted a phone bank for Clinton in her apartment.
Steele, who coordinates a prenatal program for Sea Mar Community Health Centers, and who focused on women’s health issues at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, recalls getting chills when she saw Clinton’s announcement that she would run. “She is such an inspiring figure,” Steele said.
The young woman cited Clinton’s landmark 1995 speech in Beijing, when she was first lady. Over the objections of her husband’s aides, who considered the speech too controversial, she declared: “Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.”
For Liz Berry, a 32-year-old lobbyist for trial lawyers, Clinton’s experience stands out, rendering the former senator and secretary of state “the most prepared to run this country.”
“When you listen to foreign-policy debates,” she said, Sanders “can’t keep up with her.”
Berry observed something else about the debates. “If Hillary got on stage looking like Bernie, with dandruff on his suit jacket, his hair crazy and waving his finger, she would be completely discounted. She has to have her hair and makeup done.”
As the immediate past president of the National Women’s Political Caucus of Washington, which works to get women elected to office, she said she feels even more frustrated when she talks to her neighbors in Queen Anne — female baby boomers who are “all about Bernie.”
“I was shocked,” Berry said. Having lived through the women’s liberation movement, those are precisely the women she would expect to support Clinton.
Mitchell, who is another past president of the local Women’s Political Caucus, said she often hears women say, “I would love to support a woman.” But, she said, “It’s always not that woman. Well why not?”
Yet, many female Sanders supporters are just as frustrated by the implied and overt criticism they hear from other women.
“I get really angry,” said Marshall, the Nova sophomore, referring to the infamous remarks by Madeleine Albright (“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”) and Gloria Steinem (“When you’re young, you’re thinking: ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.’ ”).
Marshall is insulted by the idea that women should pick a candidate just because “she’s a woman, I’m a woman.”
Just 12 years old, Frieda Powers of Seattle already dismisses that kind of feminism. “True feminism,” she said, “is researching each candidate and choosing who you vote for.”
A sixth-grader in a Hamilton Middle School program for advanced students, Powers can’t yet vote, but she went to Sanders’ website anyway to read his positions. She came away a die-hard fan.
His support for a single-payer health-care system, providing universal coverage through a publicly funded entity, particularly won her heart. Her family is insured through a plan made available by the Affordable Care Act. But the coverage proved lacking when tested by a series of family health crises, she and her mom, Kelly Powers, recounted.
When Frieda Powers’ sister had to have foot surgery, for instance, her parents were told the plan’s network didn’t include any anesthesiologist in the state. So the family paid thousands of dollars out of pocket.
Frieda Powers told the story in a statewide essay contest put on by the Sanders campaign for young supporters. Because of medical bills, she wrote, “my dad works from 7-9 every day now, I barely get to see him.” She won the contest.
Her sister Ruby Powers, 15, is just as enthusiastic about Sanders; both stood in line for five hours last August to land a spot in the front row at the candidate’s University of Washington speech.
The girls’ ardor helped sway their mom, said Kelly Powers, a onetime staffer for the League of Women Voters.
“I thought it would be great to have a woman president,” she said. “But then I started unpacking her positions,” she said of Clinton, noting she was particularly troubled by the former senator’s vote for the Iraq war.
Some women take an even dimmer view. Nikkita Oliver, a UW master’s student and Black Lives Matter activist, holds Clinton and her husband responsible for profound damage to black and brown people through a sweeping crime bill they supported while he was president. The 1994 bill dramatically toughened penalties, disproportionately affecting minorities.
“I don’t think Hillary Clinton has an actual race analysis,” Oliver said. Mind you, she’s not sure Sanders does either, given what she sees as his resistance to letting two Black Lives Matter activists disrupt an event at Westlake Park during his August visit. (Sanders also voted for the 1994 crime bill.) Still, she’s leaning toward Sanders, whom she considers the lesser of two evils.
Other women sound torn, even if they’ve made up their minds.
“This has not been an easy choice,” said state Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle. She said she believes in electing women and pointedly noted she’s the lone woman in the race to succeed retiring U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott. “It’s five guys and me,” she said. “I find that incredibly telling.”
So the possibility of a female president was “a huge pull,” Jayapal said. Yet, in the end, she endorsed Sanders. “I really think Bernie Sanders is forcing the conversation to the left,” she said.
Will it come at the cost of hard feelings among women? Jayapal hopes not. “We shouldn’t let a choice for president divide us,” she said.