How Millennial Women Feel About Hillary Clinton—and Bill’s Sex Scandals
Hillary Clinton’s problems with young women just keep coming.
This weekend, her campaign was forced to contend with a pair of statements that have many young feminists up in arms. The first came from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who, while speaking at a Clinton rally in New Hampshire, chided attendees about the importance of electing a female president, saying, “A lot of you younger women think it’s done. It’s not done.” Then, during a Saturday night appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, feminist icon Gloria Steinem told Maher that she thinks young women are supporting Clinton opponent Bernie Sanders because, “The boys are with Bernie.” (Steinem has since apologized.)
On Monday morning, even as Albright and Steinem’s comments continued to tear through Americans’ social feeds, a new threat arose: Kathleen Willey, a former White House volunteer who has accused former President Bill Clinton of sexual assault, told Reuters that she has agreed to work for a political action committee created by Roger Stone, a former advisor to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Willey’s announcement threatens to reignite a controversy that reared its head earlier in the campaign. In an early January CNN appearance, Trump called Bill “one of the great woman abusers of all time” and Hillary, in turn, an enabler. Carly Fiorina joined in during the Jan. 14 Republican debate, saying that, “unlike another woman in this race, I actually love spending time with my husband.” Even Girls creator Lena Dunham—who has been stumping for Hillary—has previously expressed “conflicted feelings” about the way the Clintons attempted to discredit women who accused the former President of sexual offenses in the ’90s, according to a New York Times report.
For Hillary Clinton’s campaign, this raises a vital question: Will Bill Clinton’s dalliance with Monica Lewinsky—and sexual harassment and rape accusations that have been levied against him by other women—further undermine Hillary Clinton’s support among millennial women, a demographic that she is fighting so hard to woo?
To get a sense of the answer, Fortune spoke to a number of women, ages 23 to 30. Most identify as feminists, with many across the political spectrum still considering which candidate to throw their support behind. We asked these young women the question on the mind of so many pundits and pollsters: Does Bill Clinton’s sexual history affect how you feel about—and whether you would vote for—Hillary Clinton?
Not surprisingly, the women in our highly unscientific survey did not speak with one voice. However, there were certain trends that emerged, which, interestingly, did not break down along party lines:
To one group of young women the idea of judging Hillary based on her husband’s behavior is at best irrelevant, and at worst, sexist. As 30-year-old publicist Eva Zimmerman, put it: “I consider Hillary Clinton as a politician independent of her husband, Bill Clinton. Just as I would never associate Bernie Sanders as a politician with his wife, Jane Sanders, I would never associate a politician as a politician with their spouse.”
For others, Hillary’s decision to support Bill and dismiss the women who accused him of sexual misconduct is proof that the former Secretary of State has violated some of the pro-women positions that she’s been espousing in her campaign. Charlotte, a 23-year-old state legislative aide who asked that her last name not be used, says that Hillary’s defense of Bill demonstrates that she is “a purely political animal” who “lacks principles.”
While this view was in the minority with the women Fortune talked to, it’s clear that something is stopping Clinton from connecting with millennial females: Sanders won 84% of people aged 17 to 29 in Iowa, according to NBC exit polls. A USA Today poll released in the run-up to the caucuses found Sanders leading Clinton by 50% to 31% among Democratic and independent women aged 18 to 34.
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Among those who told Fortune that they believe Hillary Clinton’s candidacy should be considered separately from her husband’s sexual past, the arguments fell under a few general themes.
Focus on the issues
For some young women, the question is less about the specifics of the Clinton marriage and more about the media’s interest in candidates’ private lives—to the detriment of a national discussion of issues.
Our culture is “too concerned with the sexual lives of those in the public eye, especially when those overshadow policies and laws,” says Joanna R. Demkiewicz, 25, a registered Democrat who is currently undecided regarding the election. “I’d rather talk about the U.S. government’s elusive relationship with Rwanda during the height of its 1994 genocide than Monica Lewinsky.”
For Demkiewicz, co-founder of women’s lifestyle magazine The Riveter, Bill’s affairs and the allegations against him have no bearing on “what I know about her leadership, experience in politics, and plans for the future of our government.”
Women are not defined by their husbands
Audrey Suarez, 28, an international development consultant in Fairfax, Virginia, says she’ll “most likely” vote for whoever gets the Democratic nomination—especially since she lives in a swing state. However, she maintains that she’ll evaluate Clinton’s positions based on their merit, because “she is not Bill, nor is she the type of wife to simply be an extension of her husband’s opinions. She clearly has her own agenda.”
Demkiewicz bristled at the notion that by staying in her marriage, Hillary Clinton’s feminist credentials might somehow be tarnished. “I kind of resent the idea that feminists can’t be in complicated or private, imperfect relationships—if that’s how we want to label the Bill-Hillary relationship,” said Demkiewicz. “The fact that a feminist who is ‘cheated on’ has to be judged for the decision she makes in the aftermath—to stay with that person or not—is very problematic in my opinion.”
The implication—by Trump and others—that the couple should be viewed as unit only underscores what might be considered a feminist generation gap. Rachel Leftwich, 23, of Seattle, a registered Democrat who’s still deciding between Bernie Sanders and Hillary, puts it this way: “I think that it is extremely sexist to link any sort of allegations against Bill Clinton to anyone other than Bill Clinton. He is a powerful man who makes his own decisions. His wife should not be held responsible for his actions, but he should be.”
Lucy Steigerwald, a 28-year-old journalist who doesn’t plan to vote in the presidential election (though said Rand Paul has her “tentative support”), said of Hillary: “She seems smart and accomplished enough to be her own woman. Unfortunately, that woman turns out to be a corporatist hawk who was the last viable candidate to notice that the criminal justice system in the United States is warped, and is now pretending she was on that bandwagon the whole time. She is awful, but I think she has managed to get away from her husband’s long shadow as much as anyone could have expected her to.”
The personal is…personal
Brooklyn-based marketing consultant Laura Vogel, 30, is not a Clinton supporter—she favors Clinton rival Sanders. That decision has nothing to do with Bill Clinton, though. “I don’t really care about what he did in his personal life, nor do I care about Hillary’s choice to stay married,” Vogel said. “Her actions as an individual speak louder than any behind-closed-doors personal decisions could.”
Suarez echoed that view: “His actions have nothing to do with her philosophical perspective. Choosing to stay with him likewise is solely a personal decision.”
Alexandria Vail, 28, a self-described feminist Republican and a day care owner, said she had her own reasons for disliking Clinton as a candidate, such as the controversy around her use of personal email—ones that have nothing to do with Bill Clinton’s sexual proclivities. “If she wants to stay with a cheater, that’s her life,” said Vail.
For those who do believe that Bill’s behavior reflects badly on Hillary, two major themes arise.
Her treatment of other women
The resurgence of Juanita Broaddrick, who’s repeated her long-standing allegation that Bill Clinton raped her when he was campaigning for governor of Arkansas in 1978, has prompted some women to revisit Hillary’s response to these allegations—especially in light of the candidate’s current stance on sexual assault.
In a piece in Salon, millennial writer Silpa Kovvali called Hillary Clinton to task for her treatment of Broaddrick’s claim, arguing that Hillary “has gained a great deal from diminishing the seriousness of these allegations, and stands to gain a great deal more.”
Alexis Isabel Moncada, the 17-year-old founder of blog Feminist Culture, told the New York Times that she heard that Hillary Clinton had covered up sexual harassment claims against Bill, saying: “A lot of girls in my age group are huge feminists, and we don’t react well to that.”
Power over values
Charlotte, the state legislative aide—who says she’s supporting Rand Paul, but “would settle for Ted Cruz”—considers the Clintons a “power couple.” She doesn’t mean that as a compliment, but rather a very straightforward definition of “a couple who seem to only care about power.”
“Among us regular folks, women who have philandering husbands usually tend to leave them,” Charlotte said. “However, Hillary Clinton forgave Bill’s multiple transgressions and stayed with him for purely political reasons, to increase her power. I think that it goes to show a lot about a person, when she is willing to overlook slights against her and would rather increase her own power than stand up for her own dignity and for good principles.”
Clearly, there’s no definitive answer when it comes to how young women feel about Hillary Clinton. Will millennials ultimately decide that her husband’s sex scandals have no bearing on her candidacy—or will they punish her for her reaction to his misdeeds? We may have to wait until November to find out.