In this college town, the year’s political debate got heated when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was chosen as a commencement speaker.
Students at Scripps College, a women’s liberal arts school, picked Albright, the nation’s first female secretary of state, for the honor.
She had notably introduced Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire in February with the words, “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” It was a trademark phrase she had used countless times before, but Albright later apologized for her timing.
There were other issues with her on campus. Twenty-eight faculty members signed a letter of protest, writing that their opposition was based on Albright’s record as U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and secretary of state and her support of “several policies that led to the deaths of millions of people,” including sanctions against Iraq and a lack of intervention during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
Some Scripps students objected to Albright as speaker because they wished to see a person of color.
But the appearance by Albright, who addressed graduates on Saturday, also highlighted the dilemma facing millennial women voters in California’s approaching Democratic presidential primary. At the college, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles in Claremont, the Bernie vs. Hillary debate is vigorous, touching on feminism, its icons, women in politics and, ultimately, who should be the next president.
Students have gathered to hear campus talks by activist Angela Davis and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, but their brand of feminism doesn’t always jibe with that of their forerunners. Many students are quick to identify as feminists. While some say gender is important to their vote this year, others say defining feminism today is different than for past generations.
“As a feminist, I feel I should evaluate people not on their gender, but based on their qualifications and contributions,” said Emma Cranston, 22, a Scripps senior majoring in math and economics. She said issues like stimulating the economy, student debt and the Black Lives Matter movement weigh heavily on her mind this election.
Mia Shackelford, a Scripps junior, said she was “annoyed” by Albright’s “place in hell” remarks because they felt out of touch.
“You’re not thinking about race … (or) LGBT issues,” said Shackelford, 21, of San Francisco. “You’re not thinking about class issues.” Shackelford said she believes in a “more inclusive feminism.”
Her generation’s political consciousness was shaped, she said, growing up during the Great Recession, watching as their parents’ retirement funds shrank and older siblings had trouble finding jobs after graduation.
“The most important issue that I always think about is the economy,” said Shackelford, a mathematical economics major. “That matters a lot to me.”
While Sanders has spoken about tackling mounting student loan debt and income inequality as signature issues, Clinton stresses her commitment to equal pay and paid family leave.
The prospect of the first female president excites some of Clinton’s young supporters, who also cite her credentials, knowledge and work promoting women’s equality.
“I know that Hillary is going to be a champion of women’s rights,” said Anna Cheyette, 18, noting Clinton’s support for paid family leave, universal child care, raising the minimum wage and reproductive rights.
Cheyette, who is finishing her first year at Scripps, said gender does come into play when choosing a candidate. She said the presidency is the ultimate glass ceiling, and a female commander in chief symbolically sends a strong message about women breaking societal barriers and biases.
“It is so important that we get women into positions of power,” said Cheyette, who is from Berkeley.
Haley Goodman, a junior majoring in international relations at neighboring Claremont McKenna College, said that foreign policy experience is crucial. Goodman, 20, hails from Chappaqua, N.Y., where Clinton lives, but she said the overriding reason she supports Clinton is her leadership ability.
“She has the best ideas, the best policy, the best experience,” Goodman said.
Similarly, Theresa Wong, a senior majoring in economics at nearby Pomona College, said gender will not determine her choice this election year. The concerns of any traditionally disenfranchised group should matter, Wong said.
“Being a feminist isn’t just necessarily supporting a woman but also the intersections of race, gender and sexuality,” said Wong, 21.
Today’s young women have a strong sense of social justice, said Vanessa Tyson, an assistant professor of politics at Scripps. She has noticed that her students are “more focused on evaluating candidates in terms of how they help the least fortunate, particularly women who are struggling.”
“They’re thinking beyond symbolism,” Tyson said. “They care passionately about accountability.”
While Sanders remains the most popular candidate among millennials, Clinton leads presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump by 36 points among those 18 to 29 nationwide, according to a poll of about 3,100 young people released April 25 by Harvard’s Institute of Politics.
But among young women, just 26 percent polled said Clinton would most improve women’s lives in the U.S., compared with 30 percent for Sanders.
For Annie Carroll, a Scripps junior majoring in politics and international relations, growing up during a period of economic uncertainty has made her think about reforming Wall Street, income inequality and corporate greed – all factors driving her support for Sanders.
“All of a sudden overnight, I just knew that my parents and all of my friends’ parents … our financial security was just suddenly undermined,” said Carroll, 22, of Glencoe, Ill. “All I understood was our banks were corrupt and our government failed us.”
Carroll, who said she is a feminist, sees a difference between how she views the election compared with older women in her family, who may see a vote for Clinton as the next logical step in feminism.
“I’m not voting for a woman, but I’m voting for women,” Carroll said. “We all care about women’s issues. We’re just trying to get there in a different way.”
Journalist Marisa Agha is based in Southern California.