Interview and forward by Liv Capelin
Graphic by Abbie Holbrook
Due to the corona virus outbreak, the United States is predicted to have the largest death toll in the world, with experts estimating 1.7 million Americans dying from the virus. Amidst all this, there is also an election set to take place at the end of the year, with Bernie Sanders recently dropping out of the race many feminists have been left asking: will Joe Biden be capable of raising feminist issues within his democratic campaign?
COVID-19 may change the US elections in ways not previously seen. Some even suggest it might provide a pretext for Trump to delay them or at least provide a further opportunity for the Republicans to suppress the vote of those likely to vote against them. With candidates having to put their campaigning on pause in order to ensure the safety of the population, the virus changes the landscape for the election, creating issues and strategies that are unprecedented. This includes rising feminist concerns that women from the US will need to navigate. When some women are bulk buying tampons and sanitary items, how will those more impoverished access these necessities? How will women in domestic violence situations seek help during self-isolation periods? And if women are to contract COVID-19 are they able to access help through their private health insurance, what if they don’t have health insurance, or have an unaffordable deductable?
It is clear that Donald Trump has never really had feminist issues at the forefront of his mind. And with no female democratic candidate in the running for the primaries, it raises concerns for American feminists of “who will have our backs and stick up for feminist issues?”. I talked to Dr Katrine Beauregard from the ANU shortly before Sanders dropped out of the race. We discussed the polarising views held by women about these campaigners and who she would be backing in the US election.
Liv: To start us off, I wondered if you wanted to introduce yourself and your background a little?
Dr Beauregard: I am Dr Katrine Beauregard. I am a Senior Lecturer at the School of Politics and International Relations. My research and teaching mostly focus on Gender and Politics. Specifically, I focus on women’s representation in legislatures and its consequences on citizen’s behaviour and opinions.
L: It was very clear in 2016 that the majority of Americans had little regard for sexism and gender inequality when they voted in Donald Trump. Do you think feminist issues will become more of a concern in the upcoming 2020 election? Or with no female candidate in the race, do you think these issues are bound to be left behind?
B: First, I think it is important to note that while sexism was an important factor explaining how Americans voted in 2016, it was not for all Americans. It was mostly white American men and women that supported Trump. Among these, individuals who exhibited high levels of sexism were more likely to vote for Trump. African American men and women, on the other hand rejected Trump strongly.
Second, if the world goes back to normal before the November election, I do think feminist issues will be of concern only because the four years of the Trump administration has brought up a lot of concern among women. For instance, the mid-term election, saw an increase in the number of women elected in Congress. Also, Biden, has promised to nominate a woman as his VP. This might open the door to discussing feminist issues. But the world feels very uncertain right now. We might still be affected by the pandemic in November and in this case, it will be a very different election from what we have seen before.
L: It is important to acknowledge that whilst discussions regarding Bernie and his campaign are important, it is more likely at this point in time that Biden will be the US’ democratic candidate. In comparing Sanders and Biden, who do you believe would be the most progressive in terms of feminist goals and why?
B: There are obvious issues in regard to Biden’s past in Congress. For instance, he has voted in favour of legislation (Hyde amendment) banning federal funding for abortion. Sanders on the other hand, has made more progressive (and feminist) promises. However, Sanders has not done much in the Senate. Over the years, he had many opportunities to sponsor (feminist) bills and enact legislations but has not done so. So, promising something without being able to deliver is an issue. Especially considering how the American political system works. The President needs support from Congress (both House and Senate) to enact his or her [sic] agenda. While Sanders might have a more progressive agenda, he probably will have a lot of difficulty working with Congress.
In this context, a lot of American feminists prefer Biden if only for practical reasons. He has the better chance of beating Trump, which is the ultimate goal. Once elected, he might be able to be pushed to enact a more progressive and feminist agenda.
Also, while Sanders proposals might be more progressive and feminist than Biden, there is the issue of the Bernie Bro. In their more extreme form, they represent the type of toxic behaviour that feminists denounced in politics (harassment, sexist remarks, etc). The fact that a large segment of Sanders supporters are hostile to some women, is problematic for feminists.
L: In the 2016 election, 43% of white women voted for Clinton, while 53% of them voted for Trump. It was largely women of colour that supported Clinton. Why do you think the female vote is so divided in this way? And do you think we will continue to see such a divide between white and coloured women in the 2020 election results?
B: We probably will see some division along race among women. To explain this division, it is important to remember that women can also be conservative and sexist. White women especially might agree with Trump and sexist ideology as a way of protecting their position in society. Work by Lorrie Frasure-Yokley (2018) argues that white women will accept sexism in exchange for the protection of men and access to resources (shelter, support). It’s a bit of the patriarchy bargain, if you want. And in a context where the social safety net is very limited some women need men’s protection. Staying at home and taking care of children and not having to worry about money and a bad job can be appealing for some women. Going back to a time when you have less worries was what Trump was promising, so some white women are attracted to this and have voted for Trump. African American women on the other hand, because of their race, cannot make the same deal. Supportive conservative politics goes against their interests as African-American women.
L: Canadian-American activist, Astra Taylor, recently urged people to vote for Bernie Sanders claiming that his main policies: anti-war, global warming, free health care for all and free college, were all feminist issues. Do you believe this is so? And if they are, how will these policies specifically benefit the lives of women?
B: All issues are feminist issues in my opinion. All policies influence women and men (and different race, class, ability, etc) differently. I won’t go into all these policies, but take health care for instance, women are more likely than men to work in the sector and more likely to have a disability than men. As such, policies that guarantee access and funding to health care can benefit women to a greater extent.
L: Activist of Cuban-Jamaican decent, Aja Monet, recently commented on the US primaries in regard to the ‘black vote’. She has stated that “the movement (for Bernie Sanders) is actually a movement that will drastically shift the conditions for all black people. Rich, poor, middle-class”. However, the polls seem to show that Joe Biden has been much more successful in gaining the African American vote, why do you think this is?
B: Joe Biden has a longstanding relationship with the community. He was Obama’s VP, but his relationship with the community started before that. He has also received endorsement from leaders of the African American community. He is well known and that matters a lot. And, as I mentioned above, there is also the issues of whether Sanders can deliver on his promises and, more importantly beat Trump, which are very uncertain. African Americans know Biden, can work with him and believe he can beat Trump. That is a powerful argument in favour of Biden.
L: One of the main arguments that people raise in regard to feminism and Bernie Sanders, is what has become known as the ‘Bernie Bros’. These tend to be the somewhat intense, male supporters of Bernie, who have been described as somewhat violent in their approaches. They’ve also been frequently been accused of excluding women. Do you think these statements are true? Or is this a myth?
B: The Bernie Bros do exist. Progressive politics do have a long history of excluding women or putting their concerns aside. I think this is why a lot of feminists in the US are concerned about the Bernie Bros representing a movement within progressive politics that is not open to feminist issues. It’s the ‘just wait until we finish the revolution and then we can talk about gender/feminism’ problem of left-wing politics. In the past, gender and feminist claims have been pushed aside by progressive movement. The argument is that these issues will be resolved if we focus on the class and labour issues first. This has a potential of sidelining feminist issues. The Bernie Bros, by attacking women and feminists, seem to contribute to this movement. While there is affinity between feminist and progressive politics, there can also be conflict between the two movements.
L: Do you believe Sanders himself is doing enough to stop them?
B: I think Sanders is stuck between trying to keep his base engaged which is important in the American primary system and getting new voters and constituency to support him. He needs the Bernie Bros to keep campaigning for him so he cannot alienate them too much. But he also needs to distance himself and bring in voters who do not like the methods used by the Bros.
As of Wednesday 8th of April 2020, Bernie Sanders has suspended his presidential campaign. He leaves having brought many of his social policy ideas to the political mainstream. The future of the 2020 United States Election looks to be a confrontation between likely Democratic Nominee Joe Biden and Republican President Donald Trump – a showdown that the whole world will be watching.