Perceptions, Gender, and the U.S. Presidential Election

Does the millennial generation perceive gender differently from the generations that preceded it?  From some of the recent media coverage of the upcoming U.S. presidential election, it seems so. In a New York Times article, titled  “Hillary Clinton’s Candidacy Reveals Generational Schism Among Women,” correspondent Sheryl Gay Stolberg described perceptions of feminism and gender among college women. “I couldn’t even tell you what a feminist is,” said one. “I don’t find gender that important,” said another. Others proudly claimed the feminist label.

Stolberg describes the generation as having a “more flexible view of gender than their parents considered.” And one of the online commenters to the article similarly maintained, “Younger adults do not have the same perception of gender as the older generations do and cannot be expected to vote along gender lines.” A pollster of millennial voters reported finding “surprisingly few difference” between millennial men and women.

Indeed, our social and cultural understandings of gender and gender identity have changed radically in just the last decade or so–basically since the millennials came of age.  Stolberg reports:

[I]n an era when gender identity seems increasingly flexible, as transgender figures like Caitlyn Jenner make news, “millennials do not see gender as binary,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist. Young liberals, she said, are eager to back gay and transgender candidates, “a uniqueness they see more than women.”

Ms. Camazine, the Penn State freshman, agreed, saying, “I think there would be more of a stir if there were a transgender candidate.” And while she would be “absolutely thrilled” to see a female president, she sees Mr. Sanders’s philosophy, and his emphasis on fighting inequality, as closer to her own priorities.

While gay and lesbian candidates have made strides into political life in recent years, one wonders how may transgender candidates there are out there for the millennial generation to support–at least for the time being.

In another New York Times article, titled “Why Sexism at the Office Makes Women Love Hillary Clinton,” Jill Filipovic, a journalist and lawyer, reported that “Mr. Sanders recently said, that ‘people should not be voting for candidates based on their gender.’” Describing the same college millennial cohort as Stoltenberg, Filipovic observed:

It’s not that young women aren’t feminists, or don’t care about sexism. For college-age women — Mr. Sanders’s female base — sexism tends to be linked to sex. Young women see their clothing choices policed as being too “sexy,” their birth-control options determined by their university or their boss, their right to abortion debated, sexual assault rampant and often badly dealt with on campuses.


This connection between sexism and being “sexy” (the focus of at least one classic comedy moment) –or the connection between gender and biological sex is one that many academic theorists have been concerned to challenge in recent years.  One now-classic theory subscribed to by many milliennials is the theory of intersectionality articulated in the 1980’s by critical race and legal theorist Kimberle Crenshaw. It is a powerful theory for understanding the “intersection” of various forms of oppression by race, sex, gender, class, and other identity categories.

At the same time, there is a way in which intersectionality theory emphasizes the “forest” of intersectional oppressions in a way that obscures the “trees” of particular forms of impression.  Some forms of oppression, while intersecting with others, are more salient to particular individuals than others.  And, of course, much of it has to be understood at the level of the particular experience of individuals–not in itself a bad thing, but not always one that can lead to generalizable more-or-less universals that can form the basis for sustained political action. If all injustice is intersectional, then where does one begin to fight?

Another popular theory is the theory of performativity articulated by the polymath theorist of philosophy, rhetoric, and other disciplines, Judith Butler, particular in her noted book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Therein, Butler deconstructs feminism and gender in a theory that the Amazon blurb describes as
“as celebrated as it is controversial.” In a nutshell, Butler describes gender as something not natural, biological, and unchanging, but as a social performance, based on cultural scripts that can themselves be interrogated and subjected to challenge. The theory seems liberating and for many LGBT and others of “queer” sexual and gender orientation, it has been.

But what about women who experience sexism, discrimination, even femicide in the U.S. and especially around the world? What does the idea of gender as a performance offer them by way of liberation? In a widely noted critique of Judith Butler’s theory, originally published in The New Republic, philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues not much and that it may have certain pernicious qualities.  In the widely quoted conclusion to the article, Nussbaum maintains.:

Many feminists in America are still theorizing in a way that supports material change and responds to the situation of the most oppressed. Increasingly, however, the academic and cultural trend is toward the pessimistic flirtatiousness represented by the theorizing of Butler and her followers. Butlerian feminism is in many ways easier than the old feminism. It tells scores of talented young women that they need not work on changing the law, or feeding the hungry, or assailing power through theory harnessed to material politics. They can do politics in safety of their campuses, remaining on the symbolic level, making subversive gestures at power through speech and gesture. This, the theory says, is pretty much all that is available to us anyway, by way of political action, and isn’t it exciting and sexy? In its small way, of course, this is a hopeful politics. It instructs people that they can, right now, without compromising their security, do something bold. But the boldness is entirely gestural, and insofar as Butler’s ideal suggests that these symbolic gestures really are political change, it offers only a false hope. Hungry women are not fed by this, battered women are not sheltered by it, raped women do not find justice in it, gays and lesbians do not achieve legal protections through it.

In the view of this writer, Nussbaum’s is a powerful critique of a certain hip nonchalance about gender and sexism visible in certain sectors of the body politic today. It has generated some rather regrettable responses from feminist icon Gloria Steinem and defender of powerful women everywhere, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. But it is a critique that is worth heeding as some young women casually disregard the feminism that empowered them and Berniebros spew rape threats around social media.

For if gender is a performance, then it has an audience. It is a two-way interaction. And in certain cases it won’t matter if a woman is walking down the street secure in the myriad facets of her complex, but not exclusively gendered identity. If she is perceived as an object, as something to dominate, she will be.  This sort of dominance, which feminists condemn as sexism is worth challenging–whereever it emerges and in whatever form it assumes. Feminism is for everyone.