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Still not sure about what Gloria Steinem meant with the “boys” thing

Girls at a Bernie Sanders events at a Des Moines, Iowa, high school
“Um, yeah, I was told there would be boys.” #wheretheboysat

News right now is discussing a comment by Gloria Steinem — not so much one that she made, but more one that she made apologizing for the first one that she made. The first one happened Friday during an appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher (available in full here; the pertinent part stars at 2:43) during which she made an as-yet-unexplained comment appearing to imply that young women support Bernie Sanders in order to get boys.

I think it’s only fair to provide the quote in its entire, just a tad bit lengthy context, because for one, she does say a lot of positive things about young women becoming more involved in feminism and activism. But then this comment comes in entirely out of left field, and there was no tricky editing that made it sound like anything other than it was — it was just there, without explanation, even when she was given an opening to do so.

Maher. There are people, among them Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who have said that the younger generation of women are very complacent about Roe vs. Wade, that they weren’t around before, and they don’t have an appreciation. Do you think that’s right?

Steinem. You know, I don’t think so. I mean, I find the young women very, very activist, and they’re way, way more feminist, and, you know, feminist than — we were like twelve crazy ladies in the beginning, now it’s the majority. But I do think that gratitude never radicalized anybody. You know. I mean, I did not say, “Thank you for the vote.” I got mad on the basis of what was happening to me. And I think that that’s true of young women, too. So they’re mad as hell because they’re graduating in debt, and they’re going to earn a million dollars less over their lifetime to pay it back. You know, they’re mad about what’s happening to them.

Maher. They really don’t like Hillary, though. What do you think that’s about there? “Mom likes her so I have to…” You know.

Steinem. First of all, I mean, she does have a huge gender gap and race gap. I mean —

Maher.. Huge.

Steinem. Yeah, women are more for them than men are, and she has the black —

Maher. But not younger women. They’re more for Bernie.

.Steinem. It depends where you ask, but I do think that Bernie —

Maher. America. No, really. In America, it’s just true.

Steinem. It doesn’t — I mean, first of all, women just get more radical as we get older, because we experience —

Maher. Women get more radical.

Steinem. Yeah. It’s the opposite of men. I don’t mean to overgeneralize. I’m sure that you’re getting more radical. But men tend to get more conservative because they gain power as they age, and women get more radical because they lose power as they age. So it’s kind of not fair to measure most women by the standard of most men, because they’re going to get more activist as they grow older. And when you’re young, you’re thinking, you know, where are the boys, the boys are with Bernie, or, you know…

Maher. Ooh. Now, if I said that — “Yeah, they’re for Bernie ‘cause that’s where the boys are’ — you’d swat me.

Steinem.No, but it’s not — No, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t, because the boys are saying whether — No. Because, I mean, hello? How well do you know me?

Maher. Not that well.

Sitting, analyzing, giving both a close and a generous read, the only things I can infer are that 1. “the boys” are physically with Bernie, campaigning for them, and thus girls are following to be near them, or 2. “the boys” are philosophically with Bernie, supporting him and planning to vote for him, so the girls are doing likewise a. to gain their approval, or b. because they don’t feel comfortable making their own decisions and are waiting to see what “the boys” are choosing.

If anyone has other interpretations, please drop them in comments.

Regardless, it’s a statement that Steinem needed to walk back, and she agrees, because she did exactly that, posting Sunday on Facebook that her quote was “misinterpreted.”

In a case of talk-show Interruptus, I misspoke on the Bill Maher show recently, and apologize for what’s been misinterpreted as implying young women aren’t serious in their politics. What I had just said on the same show was the opposite: young women are active, mad as hell about what’s happening to them, graduating in debt, but averaging a million dollars less over their lifetimes to pay it back. Whether they gravitate to Bernie or Hillary, young women are activist and feminist in greater numbers than ever before.

It’s absolutely true that, as noted above, the beginning of her statement did applaud young women for their involvement in activism and electoral politics. But then she came in with the “boys” comment, and the reason I’m finding it hard to let that go is that she still hasn’t explained where the hell it came from. Talking about young women following “the boys” isn’t implying that they’re not engaged in activism — it’s implying that they’re shallow boy-chasers whose engagement are driven and steered by their pursuit of the opposite sex. It’s insulting, it’s heterocentric, and it had to have come from somewhere. I’m not going to get all I demand explication! about it, but I’d like to know what she meant by it, and I don’t think the comment can’t be accepted as fully walked-back until she addresses that part of it directly.


26 thoughts on Still not sure about what Gloria Steinem meant with the “boys” thing

  1. No idea, but I also don’t think Hillary is the choice for the radical left. I think that’s probably Bernie.

    Note: Hillary-voter, though I like Bernie in theory.

    1. I would say her take is more of a condescending one than an interesting one. I get the need to jump to the defense of Steinhem, but boiling down Bernie to “boy stuff” and Hillary to “girl stuff” made me want to throw up. It was a thousand words of trying to justify what was in fact a dismissal of young women’s views. Holding certain political views and opinions isn’t the same as some confused 19-year-old loudly proclaiming how much she likes whiskey and hot dogs.

      I’m female and and a feminist and a long time reader of feministe and I’m just, I don’t know, confused and disappointed by established feminists telling women that we don’t know what’s going on in our own heads if we’re supporting Bernie Sanders.

    2. I have the greatest respect for Jill, and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her (here at Feministe; I managed to make it onto the planet before her), but her answer here is weak. She says some true stuff — that traditionally “boy things” are valued over traditionally “girl things,” and that girls and young women frequently go through a “I’m not like other girls, I’m a cool girl, watch me smoke a cigar” phase, and that there are social rewards to girls liking “guy stuff” — but she never establishes why those things, and not genuine political positions, are why young women support Bernie Sanders. (She also doesn’t address non-heterosexual women who support Sanders without any reason to “follow the boys.”) Basically, she just echoes Steinem’s (rather insulting) assertion that politically, girls are going where the boys are, without any stronger supporting evidence than “girl stuff vs. boy stuff.”

      On top of that, she dismisses criticism of Gloria Steinem as the cool kids telling the old lady to shut up — as if, again, it’s knee-jerk cool-chasing rather than people criticizing her because of legitimate, personally held concerns. Jill says that “it’s difficult to discuss the nuances of cultural misogyny without sounding like you’re saying young women don’t know their own minds,” and that’s true, but she’s not doing a very good job of it.

    3. I don’t think Jill’s answer is weak at all. I think Caperton’s dismissal of a valid analysis of gendered social pressure is weak. It’s amazing how many feminists apparently think sexism is over, since they seem to be having trouble with a pretty great experimental design on sexism. Here we have Clinton and Sanders, white, old, from the north east, senators, pretty much the same policy positions, except one is a man and one is a woman.

      All the conversations here about sexism and how given similar backgrounds, women are disadvantaged, and scrutinized more harshly, and how politics is dominated by men, and we balk at a claim that young men’s solid support for Sanders is influenced by cultural sexism and that young men influence the opinions of young women?

      We’re going to pretend that men’s opinions do not have power, and that those opinions are not shaped by sexism?

      And you have Steinem, on a talk show, being prompted by the host, thinking her way through an analysis of gender as related to a Presidential campaign. She offers a single sentence, and before she can clarify at all she is literally interrupted by her male host so he can chastise her. She didn’t even get to finish the remarks that everyone is criticizing!

      1. “Here we have Clinton and Sanders, … pretty much the same policy positions, except one is a man and one is a woman.”

        Pretty much the same policy positions? Huh?!? To pick one, Hillary Rodham Clinton (yeah, USED to use her own name as well as her husband’s back then), in her unelected position as First Lady had ONE assignment given her by her husband, to come up with a solution to the healthcare problem. After much thought, she failed. Nothing passed. It was left to Barack Obama to come up with his inadequate partial solution. After lo these many years, she FINALLY recently for the first time uttered the words “Single Payer” (never said nor even considered before, due to pharmaceutical money) because of whom? Bernie Sanders! + I suppose the difference in credibility/honesty between them went right past you. THAT couldn’t be a confounding factor!

      2. I didn’t dismiss Jill’s analysis of social pressures. I think it was perfectly valid and said so in my comment. I’ve written posts here myself on that exact subject. What I questioned was the causal link — girls are influenced by societal pressure and the influence of male opinion, ergo young women who support Bernie Sanders must be doing it for male approval. Correlation isn’t causation. If you want to make that kind of an accusation — tempered by three offhand lines in the entire piece conceding that well, yes, some of them do like Sanders for his policy positions — you’re going to need to bring some more convincing evidence. It’s possible to acknowledge that young women are subject to undue sexist pressure without painting an entire subsection of the electorate as biddable cool-chasers.

        As for Steinem’s appearance on Real Time, I agree that it would have been nice to have heard her finish that sentence, and I bristled at the number of times Bill Maher interrupted her. But I was waiting for some kind of an explanation after Maher’s comment about her swatting him, and what she gave us was the start of an explanation that collapsed into “Hello? How well do you know me?” It seemed to me like she didn’t feel she even needed to compose an explanation, because we should just assume it was fine. And then she followed with a note on Facebook, where she had all the time in the world to explain her position, and she just called it a “misinterpretation” and never explained what “where are the boys” was really supposed to mean. If it was really supposed to be a comment about the misogynist pressure that young women are under in the “man’s world” of electoral politics, that would have been a perfect time to say so, but she didn’t.

      3. @Wordwizard
        The only difference in credibility and honesty between Sanders and Clinton is that one has been subject to massive ongoing sexist scrutiny from the Republican party and press for decades and the other has not.

        This continual glee/disappointment cycle of those who proclaim that this time, they really have found an honest and faithful politician, is bemusing.

        @Caperton
        Maybe after many many years of feminist activism and public speaking, Steinem no longer enjoys playing the “what I would have said in public if I were your perfect fantasy feminist hero” game for every time she comments on mainstream politics and makes Fox News.

        1. Maybe after many many years of feminist activism and public speaking, Steinem no longer enjoys playing the “what I would have said in public if I were your perfect fantasy feminist hero” game for every time she comments on mainstream politics and makes Fox News.

          And that’s certainly her right. I just figured that if she felt compelled to go to the trouble of apologizing on Facebook for a comment she made, she might also want to actually address the comment she was apologizing for. Like, at all. But she’s free to do whatever she wants.

  2. I’m unenthusiastic about both Dem candidates, but will vote for Clinton because Sanders will be annihilated by Rubio. That said, while there are plenty of sexist reasons not to vote for Hillary, the argument that the only reasons to oppose her are sexist is risible. The majority of Sanders supporters I know were hoping Elizabeth Warren would run, and would switch in a heartbeat if she announced.

    1. Really? Because Clinton is losing to Rubio and Sanders is winning in polling. Plus youth support would be on Sanders’s side, elimination a major argument for Rubio. Ron Paul is already saying Rubio is a terrible choice for liberty voters which are a large group of the right wing youth.

      1. Really? Because Clinton is losing to Rubio and Sanders is winning in polling.

        This means literally nothing. Head-to-heads before the convention have zero predictive power. Ditto for looking at national polling in state-by-state elections.

        Sanders is toast, mostly because he tied/lost in his third-best state (Iowa); there’s no way he wins in SC or Nevada or anywhere that’s not overwhelmingly white and liberal (Iowa, NH, Vermont, Mass, Oregon).

    2. I find the “I would totally vote for like, this other woman who is not running for president” to be a little suspect. Plenty of liberal men are sexist but will not acknowledge it. There’s just something about Clinton they don’t like… they can’t quite put their finger on it… but Sanders does not have that problem for some reason.

      1. I’m not saying no sexism is involved, ever, but maybe what some liberal voters don’t like about Clinton is that she’s a conservative. Maybe.

      2. I find the “I would totally vote for like, this other woman who is not running for president” to be a little suspect. Plenty of liberal men are sexist but will not acknowledge it. There’s just something about Clinton they don’t like… they can’t quite put their finger on it… but Sanders does not have that problem for some reason.

        I mean, a significant number of the people I’m referring to were literally members of Draft Warren.

    3. I haven’t seen even the most ardent Clinton supporter claiming that every single criticism of her isnsexist or based in sexism. That’s a load of straw.

  3. I think she’s right that women become more radical and feel their power more as they age because they experience more sexism. Injustice is a radicalizing process. I have nieces and nephews who are political. The young men are very vocal, very “out there” in support of Bernie. In the exuberance of youth, unfortunately, that seems to translate into a disrespectful, anti-Hillary meanness of spirit. One niece is a closet Hillary supporter who has told me she is afraid to speak out in favor of Hillary because she is fearful of being ridiculed by “the boys.” I find that very sad. I also find it very sad that Maher wouldn’t let Steinem finish her sentences. I kept wondering what she was going to say before she was interrupted.

  4. Well as any night-club owner will tell you, let the boys in for free and the girls will gladly pay in to get at them. Oh wait…

    But Steinem still hasn’t explained why she thinks young girls are being led by their libido where young men are being “radical” or “rational”.

    And it doesn’t make sense anyway. For most of the young women who are supporting Sanders,their support goes no further than going to a polling booth and casting a vote, or responding to a pollster. The “boy” angle is a non-sequitur.

  5. I really wish Gloria had reiterated what she said earlier–young women aren’t pushing for Hillary because they are mad about what is happening to them NOW and Hillary hasn’t advocated for free college, so Hillary is having a hard time connecting with them.

    The “boys” comment seems to be an extension of her comments that young women aren’t really radical (I’m not sure I would really agree with her that older=more radical). I think she could have just said something that “young women are also much more comfortable with hearing radical things from dudes rather than women” and called it a day.

  6. Book: Women in Power: Myths & Truths. Topic: Feminism

    My earliest memory of feminism is from the late 70’s when I was a teenager being raised by a single mother since the age of 2. I remember my mother being optimistic about the discussion of feminism and the concept of equal pay for equal work, which was taking place.
    But, then I remember how it was then suddenly perverted by stay home moms and conservative men.

    Suddenly, the discussion became about how a stay home mother’s job in raising kids was equal to the man’s work in providing for their families. I sensed my mother’s disappointment.

    Now, as a single mother myself, I laugh at the suggestion that work done by a stay home mother is equivalent to work that pays the bills. Any woman who has had a job that could pay for the mortgage, bills and children, must agree.

    For wealthy stay home moms, or as I call them – the Ladies of Privilege – their work income would have to be substantial to pay for their nice homes, car, shopping allowances, etc.

    In other words, in the 70’s the discussion of feminism was perverted by those of privilege. Suddenly, a feminist morphed from a woman who wanted equal pay for equal work into an ugly, manly, lesbian man-hater.
    Now, 40 year later, women are still not yet one-fifth of the governing body that’s meant to represent their views and interests, even as they account for more than 50 percent of the population.

    40 years later, women still have not made significant progress. I propose that this is because we primarily elevate women based upon who the men in their lives are, rather than for their individual accomplishments.

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