A Moment for Empathy Across Generations

Women and feminist men across the country are celebrating Hillary Clinton’s nomination, and that is as it should be.

I say this as a Bernie supporter who learned this week that she’s not a fan of Sarah Silverman and ultimately thinks Hillary’s not the person we need for the job of president in 2016 (for reasons I won’t get into here for the sake of staying on topic, and acknowledging fully that the only plausible alternative is orders of magnitude worse).

102-year-old Geraldine Emmett, a delegate for Hillary Clinton, was born before women had the right to vote.

It’s possible to make that judgement and still be deeply moved to see a woman nominated by a major party for president. (Not to claim that I’ve achieved it, but I always liked F. Scott Fitzgerald’s line that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.) And at least Hillary is not Sarah Palin or a modern US Margaret Thatcher, who, if they had been the first, would still have broken that glass ceiling.

So upon this historic occasion, I thought it was worth reflecting.

It seems that Boomer women (and those even older!) are especially excited. My mom for one is thrilled. I suspect she feels disappointed because while she is clearly over the moon about Hillary’s speech, all I would say when she asked if I watched it at all was, “It was okay. I have mixed feelings.” I was clearly raining on her parade.

I’ve also heard Boomer women argue that no one faults men for their ties to Wall Street, so it’s not fair to fault a woman. This, to me, seemed to touch on the difference between the Millennial experience and the Boomer experience. Imagine an alternate universe in which Hillary won in 2008 and Barack Obama was the one who had to wait until 2016; imagine that the financial system melted down right around the time Hillary was elected, limiting its relevance to her campaign, but that by 2016, Obama’s friendly links to Wall Street were a matter of public debate. I can state with certainty that I’d be holding that against him, too. And it would be wrong to claim that I and others were holding a double standard against him because he’s black.

At the same time, as a democratic socialist, I’ve thought many times before that when speaking to people of color, I should keep in mind that maybe from their perspective, the system is working just fine; all they want is to get to participate in it. Similarly, some women might just want an equal chance to be hedge fund managers.

Life is complicated. Experiences are diverse.

Meanwhile, Millennial women still see sexism, for sure—including violence and more moderate forms of blatant disrespect against women, a continuing failure to equitably distribute domestic work, et cetera, et cetera. But it must be said that we really don’t get what it would be like to not be able to apply for a credit card without having a husband’s signature on the application. We don’t get what it would be like to be expected to automatically put our husband’s careers above our own. I had the chance to watch She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, a really fantastic documentary on the women’s movement, hosted by the Democratic Socialists of America, sitting alongside female Boomer members of the organization who were there when it happened.

Wow. To me, it’s all academic. I understand it intellectually, but I don’t understand it experientially. Viscerally.

In a way, the thanks that these activists get is precisely that we don’t get it. It’s a rather cruel irony of victory. Thanks to that movie, I understood a little more clearly what you really had to go through.

New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote a piece last weekend, Behind Hillary’s Mask, in which she lauded Hillary as a wonderful, courageous, hard-working woman. Women in the comments section were going wild, their love for Hillary visibly gushing from their keyboards. As I read this, a thought struck me: it was about that guy who in 2004 allegedly said he was voting for George W. Bush because he wanted to have a beer with him. Anyone anywhere left of the political center ridiculed this man: “Who would vote for someone for such a dumb reason? You’re never going to have a beer with the President!” But reading Ms. Collins’ column, I got it—and not in a manner I intended as judgmental toward Hillary’s fans. Rather, I felt like my empathy expanded a little bit. If anyone ever said such a thing about beer with Bush at all (and my cursory research suggests that this was in fact a response to a pollster’s question, not something that anyone made up on his own) I think it just means that people want to vote for someone who they think gets them. People usually go out for drinks, after all, with people who understand them and their world. And that’s why it occurred to me that the women who were really pumped about Hillary might similarly be people who, if asked the right question, would answer that they, in fact, would like to go have a mimosa with her.

And I respect that.

Gail addressed my comment in her response yesterday. (Oh! I feel heard! I feel validated! Thanks, Gail.) I actually quite liked her response. I wish I could reword the latter part of my quickly-dashed-off comment (NYT sometimes closes its comments while I’m still working on refining them; otherwise I like to reread things I write after a few hours), as I would like to emphasize that I don’t think my concerns trump older women’s. The sentiment I did not successfully convey there was the genesis for this blog post: namely, that we can’t truly share in another group’s visceral, defining struggles, but we can open up, listen, and do our best to wrap our heads around others’ experiences.

Gail, I am happy to grant your request for patience as you celebrate, and by all means, please do continue to remind us what it was like when you couldn’t get credit cards. We need to remember that.

Speaking as only one female Millennial but suspecting others will relate, for me, the most visceral experience in my political life is my anxiety over the financial system, both on a societal level and in my own life. The burden of debt with which we started adulthood has limited our lives in ways that previous generations don’t seem to have broadly experienced. We spend a lot of time talking about this, and our discussions about the future always start with “but what about your debt?” While a woman in a previous generation was justifiably upset when she couldn’t get a credit card on her own, we are inclined to see credit cards as a symbol of the expectation of perpetual debt.

So as I watch in particular the Boomer women celebrating—and looking justifiably disappointed that younger women are not all cheering quite as enthusiastically alongside them—I imagine, well, maybe in 2048, when I’m almost 66, Presidential nominee Kshama Sawant will be accepting her party’s nomination (and I don’t know what party that will be; maybe a new one!) and I will be over the moon because they’re talking seriously about a socialized capital market or a 30 hour work week in a society that has come to consider profit a means to support human life, not human life a means to support profit. And the young people will say, “Well, of course it is!” And I’ll shake my head at them, saying, “You youngsters born in 2016 don’t know how it used to be! You have no idea how anxious we were back then! You just take it all for granted.”

We’ll only get there, of course, if we young people who are so upset about this work as hard as our moms’ generation did to secure for women greater control over the course of their lives, up to and including the ability to aim to be President of the United States.

That’s the lesson we should take away from our elders’ reaction. And so I’ll pause for a time, as Ms. Collins so kindly requested, and let them enjoy this moment of glory.

Thank you, ladies. You made this possible.


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