I have spent most of my adult life feeling grateful to Gloria Steinem, whose clearheadedness and apt prose helped turn me into the feminist I am today. She has devoted her life to making the world a better place for women, and has, in many spectacular ways, succeeded.
Women run for president. We lead companies. We are astronauts. Supreme Court justices. We have the right to rule our own reproductive lives. We have our own credit cards and our own mortgages. You like that? Thank Steinem, and thousands of other feminists, who fomented this country’s second feminist wave.
(And not only that, she has done it with a flair for the enduring mot juste: “If women could sleep their way to the top,” she once said, “there would be a lot more women at the top.”)
Eventually, though, the times catch up to us all. And then, sometimes, pass us by.
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Ms. Steinem, much as it pains me to say it, you are living in the past.
The other night, Steinem, 81, told comedian Bill Maher that millennial women are flocking to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders instead of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential contest because, basically, they want dates. Eventually, she implied, they will come to their senses.
“They’re going to get more activist as they get older,” Steinem said, implying that a vote for Sanders is not an activist vote. “And when you’re young, you’re thinking ‘Where are the boys?’ The boys are with Bernie.”
“Now if I said that — ‘Yeah, they’re for Bernie cause that’s where the boys are’ — you’d swat me,” Maher said.
“No, I wouldn’t,” replied Steinem. Um, maybe not, but everyone else would.
On Sunday, recognizing the disservice she has done to her candidate, Steinem posted a non-apology on Facebook: “In a case of talk-show Interruptus, I misspoke on the Bill Maher show recently, and apologize for what’s been misinterpreted as implying young women aren’t serious in their politics.”
That was no misinterpretation. That was exactly what she implied. And that was exactly what she meant. She is wrong, of course, but that’s exactly what she intended to say.
How do I know this?
Because I have not only been admiring Steinem for years, I have been listening to her.
The idea that women become more radicalized as they age and men become more conservative is an article of faith for Steinem-era feminists. Steinem has often said that girls refuse to call themselves “feminists” because they don’t want to compromise their ability to get a date on Saturday night. What she told Maher was simply a 2016 version of something she’s been saying for decades.
But the old order no longer obtains. Her gaffe contained a multitude of questionable or incorrect assumptions and insults, starting with heterosexism, something that politically engaged millennial women (who range in age from 18 to 33) know when they hear.
(On Saturday, apparently competing with Steinem for worst campaign surrogate, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright made a similarly obnoxious gaffe. Addressing young women in New Hampshire, she said, “Young women have to support Hillary Clinton. … And just remember, there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” One word: Ugh.)
Clinton compounded the insults on Sunday, when she was asked about Steinem and Albright on “Meet the Press.” “Good grief,” she declared disingenuously. “We’re getting offended by everything these days. People can’t say anything without offending somebody.”
Let me back up for a moment and acknowledge that it’s perfectly possible that millennial women are being swayed against Clinton by sexist forces that permeate our culture so insidiously we don’t even recognize them anymore. No one is totally immune to the conservative — and sexist — drumbeat against Clinton, which has been pounding in the background of our national political soundtrack for two-and-a-half decades: She is shrill, she is dishonest, she is corrupt, blah, blah, blah.
But it’s also possible, and far more likely, that they may simply dislike her for lots of valid reasons: her coziness with Wall Street, her $675,000 in Goldman Sachs speaking fees, her vote in favor of the Iraq war, her collusion against women who accused her husband of sexual improprieties, and, just maybe, her inability to understand why Steinem and Albright’s remarks were offensive.
And they may find in Sanders an idealistic, authentic politician who abhors the toxic influence corporations have on our political institutions and thinks college educations should be free.
But they are certainly not flocking to Sanders because they want a date.
They all have Tinder for that.