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Bernie Sanders Is Winning Feminists, Even at Hillary Clinton’s Alma Mater

9 minute read

On the morning of her 22nd birthday, Wellesley College student Hannah Lindow woke up under a framed TIME magazine cover of Hillary Clinton, opened her dorm-room door (papered with Clinton stickers) and walked to the political-science department, where Clinton’s Wellesley senior thesis hangs next to her portrait. The president of Wellesley Students for Hillary is on a mission to convince other Wellesley students “just how kickass” Clinton is.

“She’s a bad bitch. She doesn’t apologize,” Lindow says. Her friend Lily Mohr, an enthusiastic first-year, agrees. “We have this saying, ‘Wellesley women who will,’” Mohr says. “Hillary is the Wellesley woman who did.”

There may not be a better home for Clinton’s die-hard fans than her alma mater, a private women’s college in Massachusetts. And yet even here, Lindow has her work cut out for her. Like many other college campuses in America, Wellesley students have been feeling the Bern.

In fact, outside of Lindow’s Wellesley Students for Hillary group, many women who support Clinton on campus tend to keep it to themselves, as if voting for their Wellesley sister has become taboo. In a casual conversation with a group of eight Clinton supporters, only one said she had ever posted anything positive on social media in support of her — the other seven said it wasn’t worth the blowback online. One young woman told the group she feared retribution when a friend tweeted a picture of her at a Clinton event.

That’s because supporting Bernie Sanders has become a shorthand for a progressive allegiance that is overwhelmingly popular among the younger generation. Exit polls in neighboring New Hampshire showed 82% of Democratic women under 30 backed Sanders, while 56% of women over 45 backed Clinton.

Those poll numbers show a generational divide among liberal women that suggests a sea change in feminist thought. For many older feminists, it seems only natural to support the most viable female presidential candidate to ever get this far, especially after the disappointment of the 2008 primary. But younger feminists are more likely to eschew traditional feminism in favor of “intersectionality“– the idea that social identities like race, gender and class are so intertwined that it’s impossible to prioritize one lens over another. In other words, a middle-class straight white woman would have very different concerns than a poor trans woman of color, and it’s unfair to assume that both would have the same priorities just because they’re women. And some young feminists say that in this context, Clinton’s gender seems less important than all the other ways she is privileged.

As a result, this Democratic primary battle has become for some a referendum on the future 21st century feminism. In a campus climate dominated by identity politics, voting along identity lines alone is now considered taboo. Given this shift, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Clinton can’t count on young feminists to support her just because she’s a woman, especially since Sanders’ rhetoric appeals to many young women who are concerned with issues of class. And the old guard of feminist icons, brought in by Clinton to shore up her support among women, has not been helpful. Fellow Wellesley alumna and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told New Hampshire voters that there’s “a special place in hell” for women who don’t support other women — a line she’s used in other speeches for decades. Then Gloria Steinem suggested young women were backing Sanders because “the boys are with Bernie.” (Both have since apologized.)

On the other side of the divide, former Republican candidate Carly Fiorina told young women as she suspended her own campaign to “not listen to anyone who says you have to vote a certain way or for a certain candidate because you’re a woman. That is not feminism.” And Clinton herself addressed this question in the Democratic debate Thursday night, backing away from the idea that women should get in line for a female candidate. “We need to empower everyone, women and men, to make the best decisions in their minds that they can make,” she said. “That’s what I’ve always stood for.”

“It’s like the tension you can often see between daughters and their mothers,” says Roxanne Euben, who teaches feminist political theory at Wellesley. “Daughters are saying, ‘Just because you say this is what this means to be a committed feminist, doesn’t mean I’m going to do this.’” There’s nothing young feminists hate more than being told what gender equality should look like, and Euben notes that the one consistent feature of feminism for the past century is that it’s always been up for debate.

Several patterns emerged in dozens of interviews with Wellesley students who support both candidates. No matter whom they support, students want to see a female President and admire Clinton as an icon. But both Sanders and Clinton supporters say that gender has little to do with their decision, and they resent the implication that it might. Young Sanders supporters buck against the notion that they “should” be supporting the female candidate, and Clinton supporters reject the idea that they’re only supporting her because she’s a woman.

Over and over, Wellesley students reiterated that intersectionality, not feminism, is their priority. For Sanders supporters, the Senator’s policies on poverty and inequality are more important than the symbolic win of seeing a woman President. For Clinton supporters, her practical agenda and myriad accomplishments — which her supporters say have often benefited poor women and people of color — are more appealing than her gender.

Yet Sanders appears to have the upper hand so far. “The only person who’s addressing intersectionality is Bernie Sanders,” says Katherine Gao, a first-year, noting that she sees a “generational divide” about the future of feminism. “Women’s rights is an important issue to me, but it’s not the most important issue to me,” agreed first-year Netanya Perluss.

That shift has had a chilling effect on what might have been a loud-and-proud campaign to make a Wellesley sister the leader of the free world. Professor Euben says she saw more T-shirts and campaign stickers when Clinton was running against Obama in 2008 than she does now, and speculates that Sanders’ full-throated progressivism could make Clinton’s moderation seem anemic by comparison. “Saying you’re for Bernie Sanders is also a way of performing your progressivism,” she says. “Moderation has never been sexy — only the Ancient Greeks really liked moderation.”

Perhaps most striking was the enthusiasm gap on campus. While Wellesley students who support Sanders were eager to discuss their thoughts on the election, crowding around the interview table in pairs of twos and threes, Clinton supporters were considerably more uncertain, even reluctant, to admit she’d get their vote. Besides the two dozen vocal Clinton fans attending Lindow’s well-organized meetings, many students mumbled their support, others looked discreetly around before saying they’re rooting for her. To loudly support Clinton, even on a campus like Wellesley, seemed like a brave choice.

It’s not that they’re afraid of the Sanders supporters on campus. Everyone agrees that the conversation on campus is remarkably civil and supportive (the two groups watched the New Hampshire returns together, along with a fledgling Wellesley for Rubio group) and that any online harassment is coming from outside the Wellesley community. Still, students on both sides described a pervasive sense that support for Sanders is both cooler and morally superior than support for Clinton.

That bothers Lindow, who helped design sweatshirts emblazoned with the famous picture of Clinton checking her BlackBerry. “Hillary is the grandma who says, ‘You can have one cookie, not two,’ and Bernie is the grandpa who says, ‘We can all have ice cream for dinner,’” she says, describing why some of her peers don’t get excited about her. “I don’t think she should have to be cool, and it bothers me that she has to be cool.”

Still, Clinton supporters are on the defensive, even at a campus like Wellesley. “People are apologetically Hillary supporters,” says Sabina Unni, a first-year student who supports Clinton. “Sometimes I feel like I’m always making excuses for her,” says Luci Navas-Sharry.

Others said supporting Clinton made them feel just as vulnerable to criticism as the candidate herself. “You’re opening yourself up to a lot of scrutiny,” says Alex Otero, a first-year student. “You’re taking on the burden of scrutiny that Hillary takes on when she runs for President.”

Many of the female students who support Sanders acknowledge they’ve never experienced gender discrimination the way Clinton has. “For my grandma, my mom, my aunt, having a woman President is really important,” says Clare Salerno, a sophomore Sanders supporter. “I haven’t been in the workplace, I haven’t really felt that.”

Salerno is one of the most enthusiastic Sanders supporters, but she says there’s a part of her excitement that’s bittersweet. “Sometimes part of me is kind of sad that he’s running,” she says. “Because before, I was excited about voting for Hillary.”

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Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com