Even for an older white man speaking at an event for women of color, the reception Bernie Sanders received at the recent She the People summit was chilly. Unlike the other 2020 candidates at the forum—including another white man—several of Sanders’ responses were met with groans. At one point, he answered a question about the recent increase in hate crimes by turning it back to a conversation on universal health care, drawing boos.
The reaction to Sanders did not surprise women’s rights advocates. The senator has one of the strongest and longest records on reproductive rights and pay inequality of the 2020 contenders, but he’s often criticized for not taking leadership on or prioritizing these issues—and, more recently, for failing to learn from his past missteps.
“You can put lipstick on the pig, but in the end the senator is someone who is actually very proud of not changing his ideas,” Sarah Slamen, a Texas organizer and Sanders’ 2016 state campaign coordinator in Louisiana, told The Daily Beast.
“I want to believe that old dogs can learn new tricks, but I don’t see it with this dog,” she added.
Sanders is a longtime supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and set the standard for demanding 12 weeks of family leave during his 2016 presidential campaign. He co-sponsored the Paycheck Fairness Act and included pay equity for women workers on his economic agenda. He spoke about the need for equal pay as recently as last month, at a campaign stop in Alabama.
He also was one of the first to vote against the Hyde Amendment, which blocks medication funding for abortion. (Joe Biden, Sanders’ closest competitor in the polls, recently said he still supports the amendment though he changed his position on Thursday night.) A 1972 article from Vermont’s Bennington Banner newspaper shows the senator vocally backed abortion rights even before Roe v. Wade was decided. Both Planned Parenthood and NARAL give Sanders their highest rating on reproductive rights—though Planned Parenthood noted in 2016 that Sanders has not introduced any women’s rights legislation himself.
“Bernie has been a decades-long champion for women’s rights and as president he would be a tireless advocate for gender equity, diversity and inclusion in policy and in practice, as he is today,” the campaign said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
The problem for some, however, is not with Sanders policies, but the way he presents them. His laser focus on economic issues has pushed his stance on gender issues to the background, at a time—post-#MeToo movement, with more women in Congress than ever before—when many feel they should be at the forefront.
“It can’t just be the polices,” said Destiny Lopez, co-director of the All* Above All Action Fund, who attended the She the People summit. “You have to be able to engage in a dialogue about race and gender and the inequities in our system as a result of those two dynamics in particular.”
“We have to be able to talk about it, because we’re never going to be able to address those issues head-on just through policy,” she added.
One example came last month, as states like Alabama and Georgia passed a series of extreme abortion restrictions. Candidates including Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris rolled out extensive proposals to protect abortion rights, promising to codify Roe v. Wade in law. Warren’s plan includes a federal law enshrining the right to abortion access, while Harris’ would require some states to obtain federal permission before passing abortion restrictions.
Ironically, many of the plans drew from bills that Sanders has already supported—and even co-sponsored—in the Senate. In a campaign swing through the South, Sanders made a well-received plea for men to get involved in reproductive issues. He also posted tweets calling the abortion bans “disgraceful and “unconscionable.” But in an off-the-cuff moment on May 19—just days after Alabama passed its near-total ban—he outraged reproductive rights advocates by telling NBC’s Chuck Todd that so-called “sex-selective” abortions were a serious issue.