Women Should Help Women

It is common for groups who are discriminated against or have little power in a society to turn on one another rather than joining forces against the powerful group keeping them down. As far back as the book of Genesis in the Torah, we see Rachel and Leah, two of the matriarchs of the Jewish people, competing over their husband Jacob. The text tells us he loved Rachel and didn’t love Leah. Their father, Laban, tricked Jacob into marrying Leah when he really wanted to marry Rachel, and he married Rachel later, as well. The sisters, instead of being angry at their father, turn on each other as they try to provide sons and get Jacob’s affection.

This week, I’m reading and hearing about how Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright, lifelong feminists, have separately made critical comments about young women who support Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton. The New York Times characterized it as older women “scolding” younger ones. On his radio show, Brian Lehrer seemed to me to encourage women to criticize Albright and Steinem.

The whole interview of Steinem on Bill Maher’s show reveals that most of what she said was positive about young women — she referred to them as “activist” and “way more feminist.” The line everyone is quoting, that young women are interested in where the boys are and that’s why they support Bernie Sanders, did sound anti-feminist and heteronormative. She has apologized for it. One sentence should not negate 50 years of activism and her status as a feminist icon.

The quote from Albright that’s all over the news and Internet is, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” She said it a little tongue in cheek, as she expressed her support for Clinton and urged other women to support her. I do think she believes women need to help women, but I don’t think she meant that women should support Hillary Clinton only because she is a woman, or that young women shouldn’t think critically about their political choices. After all, Albright was not out there encouraging women to support Carly Fiorina or Sarah Palin because they are women.

The nuance that there wasn’t room for at a political rally was this: When women look at Sanders and Clinton, if they find that the candidates’ political positions are similar to one another (which they are), then the fact that Clinton is a woman and would be our first president who is a woman, should weigh in her favor. Furthermore, women should recognize the continuing institutional sexism that Clinton has to face every day, which doesn’t allow her to be an angry, “anti-establishment” candidate with carelessly, endearingly messy hair like Sanders. Women should interrogate their own reactions to the candidates to see whether they are being influenced by the sexist bias in our national discourse. We should look deeper than the sound bites, the glee that ensues when it seems like women are turning on each other. Men should do this as well, not just women. It impacts us all, and it is easy to overlook.

I agree that women should help each other. We should think critically about the candidates, for sure. We should support those whose positions we agree with, and who we believe can achieve what they advocate. We should also recognize that women who have achieved what Clinton has have to be even more extraordinary than their white male counterparts do to get there, and that should count in their favor. Above all, we as women should not denigrate each other lightly. We need each other’s support to continue toward the goal of equality between genders.

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