Feminist supporters of Bernie Sanders are often told their politics are oxymoronic because of the stubborn narrative that Sanders is powered by sexist “Bernie bros.” This story is not only insidious because it is untrue. It also distracts from the fact that a Sanders presidency would be the first feminist presidency: one willing to champion a feminism that knows our value systems must be overhauled if collective liberation is our goal.
The campaign itself is remarkably clear about this. On a Hear the Bern episode, Sanders’s press secretary Briahna Joy Gray interviewed Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on the relationship between “identity politics” and solidarity. Taylor pointed to the 1977 statement of the Combahee River Collective, a black socialist feminist group, as a key moment in the rise of identity politics. The statement was an analysis of oppression rooted in the experience of black women living in the United States (identity politics) that called for upending this oppression by finding common cause across difference (solidarity).
The episode unequivocally tied Sanders’s campaign to a black socialist feminist legacy that treats the liberation of the multiply marginalized as the only path to freedom for us all. For a presidential campaign, this is an astounding statement—and one that has not gotten the attention it deserves. This is not “lean-in” feminism, which tells women to elbow their way into the 1 percent. This is not the feminism favored by the Democratic establishment, where representation of a few women is offered up as sufficient for progress for all women. And this is not the feminism that twists past anti-capitalist labor activists into enemies of corruption that they understood to be fundamental—rather than exceptional—to capitalism.
Instead, this feminism understands that individual success stories and piecemeal reforms are no match for the interlocking systems of oppression responsible for so much misery, violence, and death in our country. It is a feminism that sees rampant inequalities across overlapping categories—of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, national origin, and indigeneity—not as glitches in an otherwise functioning system, but as logical outcomes of a society hell-bent on maximizing profit, and practiced at exploiting difference to do so.
Solidarity is at the heart of the Sanders campaign precisely because it has a clear diagnosis of this reality. This clarity is also why its policy proposals foreground transformation. Health care for all, housing for all, quality education for all, jobs for all, a healthy planet for all, and the elimination of medical and student debt for all. Historically, the invocation of “for all” inevitably meant for men, and usually white men. But Sanders’s 2020 run is giving us a distinctly feminist version of this old promise.
Why and how is this vision feminist? As some lone voices pointed out back in 2016, many of Sanders’s proposals would be a blow to gender inequality for the simple reason that women and children make up the majority of America’s poor, while trans people of color are nearly three times as likely to be living in poverty than the general population. Universal programs have the greatest impact on the most vulnerable among us across a number of issues: Sanders’s housing plan would bring an end to homelessness for families and LBGTQ youth as well as the predatory lending that peddled subprime mortgages most aggressively to African American women, many of whom then lost their homes.
The elimination of student debt would also drastically change the lives of women, because they hold two-thirds of the country’s $1.4 trillion debt, with black women holding nearly a third more than white women. And Sanders’s immigration plan calling for a federal Domestic Workers Bill of Rights would go a long way toward actually valuing the care work that dominates low-wage jobs and is overwhelmingly performed by immigrant women and women of color.
But it’s only when we step back and look at Sanders’s proposals collectively that their feminist character comes into focus—if we let it. Let’s take one of the most shameful social facts of the United States as an example: Black infants die at twice the rate of white infants, a reality since the 1980s. Single-payer health care would remediate the lack of prenatal care and general health care prior to pregnancy that contributes to this devastating reality. But poor birth outcomes cannot be attributed solely to inadequate health care. Long before the medical profession accepted this, socialist feminists in organizations like the Third World Women’s Alliance charged that for-profit health care was but a piece of a system that kept more black than white infants from reaching their first birthdays. Unemployment and low-wage work, the criminalization of addiction, unlivable housing, racist physicians, and the stress of living and raising children in a white supremacist, exploitative society exacted a toll on black women’s bodies that no amount of health care could treat.
Medicare for All is necessary to address black infant death, especially considering that black women age 15 to 44 face the greatest disparity in health care coverage. But where that proposal stops, Sanders’s plan to counter racial segregation in housing and make shelter affordable takes over, while the right to a union could make unlivable wages and sexual harassment on the job nightmares of the past. Decriminalizing addiction so that high-risk pregnancies are met with compassion rather than racially discriminatory punishment would align with Sanders’s overhaul of public education aimed at creating well-resourced, integrated public schools where the criminalization of black and brown children has no place. All of this, together with Sanders’s plans to decriminalize the border and invest $16.3 trillion in a Green New Deal, offer an alternative to what socialist feminists of color indicted as a system of “genocide by neglect” 40 years ago.
We could try to simply rein in sexism, racism, and inequality. But feminists should be unsurprised by the inevitable suffering that will follow if the foundations of our current value system remain unchanged. Finally, suffering will persist if the foundational logic that creates such inequalities remains firmly in place. For the first time ever, a presidential campaign is telling us this impossible calculation is one we do not have to make. We should take Bernie up on his offer.