We need to talk about sexism and Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders doesn’t think a woman can be elected president. At least, that’s what Elizabeth Warren says he told her, in her own home, in December 2018. “Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate,” Warren said on Monday. “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”

This type of bombshell that can easily derail a campaign. With only three weeks to the Iowa caucuses and a Democratic debate tonight, the Sanders team is scrambling to control the damage, immediately denying the comment and accusing the staffers who initially leaked the comment of “lying.” Yesterday, Sanders himself weighed in on the issue, telling CNN it is “ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn’t win.”

Sanders supporters are quick to dismiss the comment as a misquote at best and a malicious fabrication at worst. And, as Vox founder Ezra Klein tweeted last night, “people communicate unclearly and it’s possible that what Sanders meant to say is not what Warren heard and nobody in this disagreement is lying.” Sometimes giving the benefit of the doubt is the graceful and generous thing to do, and maybe this is one of those cases. There’s a nagging sense, though, that Sanders said exactly what he meant because Sanders has a long and often troubling record when it comes to how he talks about women and women’s issues.

It’s worth looking back to 2016, when Sanders was running in a contentious primary against Hillary Clinton. He certainly never ran an overtly sexist campaign the way Donald Trump did in the primary, Sanders nonetheless had a series of moments which raised concerns about whether he seriously prioritized women’s issues. It cast a pall over his campaign then and has raised serious questions about whether Sanders takes women—and feminism—seriously.

Sanders supporters are quick to point to the fact that the Vermont senator has a consistent record of voting for women’s rights on a range of issues from reproductive rights to equal pay. But, as Katha Pollitt wrote for The Nation in 2016, “there’s a difference between someone who votes the right way, and someone who introduces legislation and champions the issue.” That problem has not gone away. For feminist activists, simply voting the right way is not enough. “You have to be able to engage in a dialogue about race and gender and the inequalities in our system as a result of those two dynamics in particular,” Destiny Lopez, the co-director of the All* Above All Action Fund, told the Daily Beast in June 2019.

Speaking to and about issues affecting women (and, for that matter, other marginalized groups) has long been a problem for Sanders. Part of this is due to his leftwing populism which eschews identity politics and believes class is the primary axis of oppression. Sanders honestly believes that a coalition of the working class is the only thing that can affect real, structural change—and he seems willing to compromise on issues such as abortion if it means building and maintaining that coalition.

In 2017, Sanders caused some controversy by campaigning for an anti-choice candidate in Nebraska. “The truth is that in some conservative states there will be candidates that are popular candidates who may not agree with me on every issue. I understand it. That’s what politics is about,” he told NPR at the time. It’s tough to square this “I’m just being pragmatic” dismissal of concerns with Sanders’ own unyielding zeal for economic and healthcare issues (such as Medicare for All) and raises questions about Sanders’ priorities. The senator is a true believer when it comes to democratic socialism, yet on reproductive rights he is willing to compromise—a worrying sign for feminists concerned that a President Sanders might be willing to sacrifice access to abortion in order to overhaul the economy.

Perhaps this explains why Sanders was so quick to dismiss two of the prominent women’s reproductive health groups in the country. When, in 2016, Planned Parenthood and NARAL—a pro-choice lobby—endorsed Hillary Clinton over him, he lambasted them as “establishment.” It is a ludicrous statement to make about any reproductive rights organization generally and the oft-vilified Planned Parenthood—that bogeyman of the right—in particular, especially because they decided to endorse a woman instead of you.

To Bernie Sanders, though, that anyone would want a woman president (or a Black president or a Latino president or a gay president) is a ridiculous desire. “We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age,” Sanders told Vermont Public Radio last year.

At first blush, this sounds sensible enough—people ought to and usually do consider all sorts of issues when voting for a candidate, including and perhaps especially their policies—but, as Isabella Gomez Sarmiento explained in an essay for Teen Vogue on why Bernie Sanders lost her support, “this, to me, feels like the equivalent of him telling everyone who is not a straight, white, cisgender male that we shouldn’t care about seeing ourselves represented in our government.” Sanders is reluctant to or incapable of understanding that, when it comes to voting and public policy there is more than the class struggle to contend with. This was another bone of contention raised by Katha Pollitt in 2016. “The problem is less that Bernie focuses on class and economic inequality than that he doesn’t seem to understand that the economy, like society generally, is structured by gender and race,” she wrote at the time.

In fairness to Sanders, though, he does seem to understand that some people do vote—at least in part—based on a candidate’s sex (or race, or sexual orientation). When asked why Elizabeth Warren was surging in the polls last summer, he cited her sex. “I think that there are a certain number of people who would like to see a woman elected, and I understand that,” he told CNN. The problem is not only that Sanders doesn’t think that’s a good thing, but he also seems to think that’s the only reason a woman might be gaining in the polls and not, say, her thoughtful, bold, progressive policies.

All Sanders could see with Elizabeth Warren was that she was a woman, but ironically he often seems patently incapable of noticing sexism—at least if it comes from his ideological allies. Sanders received a lot of criticism for endorsing Cenk Uygur—a man with a known history of sexist remarks—in his run for the House of Representatives despite Uygur’s history of sexist remarks. Uygur, Sanders said, “has shown enormous courage in standing up to the greed and power of the corporate elite, and has spent his entire life fighting for justice and the needs of the working people of our country.” Part of that “enormous courage” includes objectifying women, including discussing their physical attributes and whether men would perform oral sex on them. (Jezebel does a deep dive into some of Uygur’s sexist comments, if you have the stomach.)

To Sanders’ credit, he retracted the endorsement, but the fact that it was given at all is concerning. Sanders saw a man who spoke his leftwing populist language and that’s all he heard. Being unwilling to hear sexism or listen to women who point it out has real world consequences. When female staffers on Sanders’ 2016 campaign alleged they were victims of sexual harassment and pay discrimination, as well as given menial tasks compared to those assigned to their male counterparts, Bernie initially denied any responsibility for this, responding that he was “busy running around the country” and had no knowledge of these complaints. Again to his credit, he later unveiled a plan to combat sexism within his 2020 campaign, but it was only after the media furor over the allegations regarding his 2016 campaign.

It’s regrettable, though, that anyone, but especially a progressive seeking the Democratic nomination, would need such a plan. It’s worth asking whether his fervent pursuit of ending income inequality has blinded him or calloused him to other injustices—especially sexism. The next president of the United States must be willing to prioritize women’s rights. It’s an open question as to whether Bernie Sanders would.

Bernie Sanders is the darling of the left, and he has many admirable qualities. His lifelong pursuit of a fairer economy and more equitable society are commendable. But there are serious questions about the way Sanders views women and women’s issues which he needs to answer. I suspect Elizabeth Warren will force him to do so in tonight’s debate. How he responds will be key, because regardless of whether Bernie Sanders thinks Trump can be defeated by a woman, women could end up defeating Bernie Sanders.

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer with a decade of experience covering US and UK politics, media, and culture. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. He lives in Tennessee. 

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