It is not surprising to learn that Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign had a sexism problem. It is more surprising — and much more disappointing — that Bernie Sanders does not know how to convince women that he cares.
Politico and The New York Times reported this week that 24 individuals — men and women — had signed a letter calling for a meeting with Sanders about the toxic environment that developed over the course of his previous primary campaign. The New York Times further reported the allegations: Women were groped and mocked for reporting it (“I bet you would have liked it if he were younger,” one manager reportedly told a woman who said she had been touched by an unnamed campaign surrogate), paid thousands of dollars less than male colleagues with similar jobs, or marginalized when they refused to share hotel rooms with managers.
The staffers who signed the open letter have emphasized that they are asking for a meeting with Sanders in order to strengthen his potential 2020 candidacy, not tear him down. “They stressed that they hoped their letter would not be reduced to reinforcing the ‘Bernie Bro’ caricature,” according to the Politico report, meaning they did not want to characterize Sanders and his supporters as unilaterally, unfixably sexist — and said sexual harassment is endemic to political campaigns everywhere. Survivors who have come forward have typically expressed their strong and continuing support for Sanders’ policies.
If the Times report or the open letter had been handled graciously, it could have been interpreted as a sign that a 2020 Sanders campaign would be a Me Too vanguard. That is not how it was handled.
When CNN’s Anderson Cooper questioned Sanders about the sexual harassment allegations, the senator avoided addressing them for several minutes, prefacing his comments about the allegations with a monologue about how his primary campaign had been a successful force for good. He denied knowing about the harassment, framing it as a distraction from his more important work — “I was a little busy running around the country trying to make the case,” he said — and apologized “to any woman who felt that she was not treated appropriately,” rather than simply saying, point-blank, that multiple women were harmed.
I didn’t feel like I was not treated appropriately. I wasn’t. There is no subjectiveness to this.
Zoey Jordan Salsbury, former president of American University Students for Bernie
The response from survivors has been one of deep pain.
“That half-hearted apology he throws in is the 1st any of us female staff have heard out of him in the 2 years since we brought this to his attention in early 2017,” tweeted Masha Mendieta, who repeatedly has alleged that Sanders knew about the problem.
“I’m not quite sure how to put into words how furious I am right now,” tweeted Zoey Jordan Salsbury, the former American University Students for Bernie president who spoke to HuffPost about her experiences in November 2017.
“I didn’t feel like I was not treated appropriately,” Salsbury told me Thursday in an email. “I wasn’t. There is no subjectiveness to this.”
“His apology sounded like a classic non-apology that so many women know all too well,” she added. “And it only came after he mentioned how many states he had won. … I wish I had gotten a true apology a year ago, when I came forward. Instead I got a call from a lawyer who blamed me for being harassed.”
The survivors are right to protest: In one breath, Sanders minimized the allegations to a matter of hurt “feelings” while also implying such matters were beneath his notice. He talked up how successful his campaign had been ― then said the women who worked on it, and who made it so fabulously successful, were not people he paid attention to or cared about.
“Bernie wanted, and likely wants still, to be president of the United States,” Salsbury told me. “Staffing up a campaign and then a government is a crucial part of that job. You can’t dismiss abuse that happens under your authority because you’re ‘a little busy.’”
Sanders addresses gender politics when and only when someone forces him to. He acts like someone who does what he’s been told is most feminist but ultimately doesn’t get what the big deal is or why all these women are yelling.
Sexual harassment and sexism are a problem in every industry and at every point on the political spectrum. There were reports of sexual harassment on Hillary Clinton’s and Kamala Harris’ campaigns, too; when power is patriarchal, women who work in and around politics will experience violence no matter who they support. But Sanders seems unable to convince women that he takes it seriously, and that failure is on him. In fact, this has been a recurring problem for Sanders, who tends to respond dismissively, even aggressively, to anyone who presses him on issues outside his bailiwick. Gender is one of them: He has finger-wagged reporters who questioned him about the desire for a female president, and he called Planned Parenthood a part of “the establishment” when the organization opted not to endorse him.
In response, Sanders’ supporters have said he is about substance, not token gestures. He invariably votes pro-choice. He advocates for substantial paid family leave. His 2018 campaign for re-election to the Senate included strong policies against sexual harassment. By aggressively dealing with poverty, he mainly benefits women and children, who are the majority of the nation’s poor. If you believe the most economically progressive candidate is the most feminist candidate, then in most scenarios, the most feminist candidate is Bernie Sanders.
In reality, many women still feel he is indifferent to their cause — and this is now evidently true even for some women who care deeply about him, who gave substantial parts of their lives to his campaign and went through hell to “make the case” to the American people. Sanders addresses gender politics when and only when someone forces him to. He acts like someone who does what he’s been told is most feminist but ultimately doesn’t get what the big deal is or why all these women are yelling. In blowing his apology to the women in question, he gave ammunition to those arguments — and at exactly the wrong moment.
When Sanders declared his candidacy in 2015, he was a unique phenomenon. Many voters were willing to overlook his flaws simply because there were no other avowed socialists in Congress. In 2018, the Sanders movement is much bigger than Sanders himself, and many of the standard-bearers for the left flank of the Democratic Party are women.
There’s Elizabeth Warren, who was advocating aggressive economic populism well before Sanders rose to prominence, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has young Democrats ready to ride or die for her, and, yes, the women who worked on and around the Sanders campaign. Sanders may have been a vehicle for some of those women to advance their own ideals, but he is not the sole embodiment of them. He would do well to listen to those women, and to make the changes they need.
If Bernie Sanders can’t speak to women about their concerns, they are more than competent to replace him — and continue speaking for themselves.
Sady Doyle is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock and Fear … and Why.