A collage of photos of Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris, and Kristen Gillibrand.

2019 Reinvention

We Need to Rethink the Way We Talk About Women In Politics

Male candidates are dubbed the lovable underdog, the savior, the great source of hope. But women are most often the leaders we’ve most needed.

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Throughout 2019, DAME will delve into the systems that fuel culture, drive change and influence our lives. Each month is anchored by a forward-looking theme. In January, we explore the question, “What if everything we talk about is ripe for reinvention?”


Tomorrow, on January 3, 2019, history will be made when 131 women will be headed to Congress, serving as senators and representatives. In the House of Representatives, this reflects an increase of female reps by a whopping 25 percent; in the Senate, six states will send all-female delegations. And all of this progress is the result of the hard-fought November midterm elections. For the last two years, women have been standing up. We marched. We phone-banked. We canvassed. We fund-raised. And most importantly, we spoke up. We said, “Me too!”  We said, “I’ll run!” We said, “Enough!” And finally, we had an outcome that wasn’t soul-crushing. After two years of suffering through a relationship with our abusive country and thinking nothing was going to change, we had a reason to celebrate instead of mourn.

So naturally, the internet could not let it stand.

No sooner had the Texas Senate race been called for incumbent and Mar-a-Lago Ball Washer Ted Cruz, than #Beto2020 started trending on Twitter. The very Beto O’Rourke who was defeated by the unpopular Cruz. This was followed by a spate of think pieces on a Beto presidential candidacy, including one by a Democratic insider calling him “Barack Obama, but white” in a stunning showstopper of oblivious, privileged white male hero worship. If there was a Great British Baking Show for out of touch whiteness, Paul Hollywood would have given this person a handshake and Prue Leith would have handed them the coveted cake stand.

I like Beto, to be clear. But our culture’s insane need to elevate male candidates, even those who lost, to presidential status, while ignoring, belittling, or trying to silence the many women who actually won (Kamala Harris, Mazie Hirono, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand) and who are out there doing the actual, presidential-level work, reeks of ingrained sexism. When Elizabeth Warren announced her 2020 candidacy on New Year’s Eve, the press immediately pounced, framing her as “unlikable,” “unelectable,” and poised to fail. And if we’re going to advance candidates on the basis of almost doing the impossible, where was #StacyAbrams2020 or “Andrew Gillum for President”?

It’s starting to feel like 2016 all over again. And we’ve learned nothing from it.

Case in point: All the #Beto2020 chatter was just an amuse douche to the double-standard entrée we’d be forced to swallow days later when a small group of U.S. Representatives started talking about Nancy Pelosi’s ouster as party leader, despite having delivered the election gains that allow us to have a Speaker of the House to elect in the first place. Not being ousted: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who lost seats but is a man, which magically makes all of his deals with Trump disappear, like that time he fast-tracked 15 of his judicial appointees. In an Obi-Wan Kenobi–like move, Schumer was able to wave his penis like a wand, telling Democrats, “This is not the fuckery you’re looking for” getting them to cry foul about Dianne Feinstein’s efforts to protect the anonymity of a sexual assault victim instead.

We need to stop grading our female candidates on a curve where being a white guy gets you an automatic A and being a woman gets you called a C-U-Next-Tuesday student. In 2016, a woman received more votes for president than any white man ever. And yet the only person far too many Democrats believe can save us in 2020 is a white guy. If it’s not Beto, it’s Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders or Sherrod Brown who are being floated as our only chance in the next presidential election. When a woman or person of color is mentioned it’s as the number-two spot. Listen up, White Male Democrats (and Bernie Sanders): We are not your sidekicks. We are done being your Hermione Granger who does all the studying and planning while you get to be “the Chosen One” because you once touched tips with Voldemort’s wand.

And part of ensuring that we’re judging our female candidates like we judge our males is paying attention to how we talk about them. In 2008, I defended Sarah Palin. She’s a horrible human unqualified to watch Veep, let alone be Veep. However, I defended her against those who criticized how much she spent on clothes. Why didn’t we know how much Biden spent on suits? He was running for vice-president, too. Maybe if we stopped talking about what our female candidates wore and how they looked, they wouldn’t need to spend so much money on their appearance.

How we talk about these things matters. Allowing people to complain about Hillary’s voice without questioning why they’re complaining about it is exactly why we’re here today, trying to force ourselves to be happy that we gained back the House, even though we can’t get fuck-all done without the Senate and it doesn’t matter anyway because these Republicans govern with a lawlessness that steals votes, fixes elections, defies orders, obstructs justice, and supports white nationalists and rapists. I’m so sorry you thought Hillary sounded like she was yelling at you. You know who is going to yell at you? Me, if I see you touting one more white man for 2020 without mentioning women and people of color with the same or better qualifications. I will make “shrill” seem like a Southern drawl offering you a cool drink on a hot summer day if I hear how he just “excites” you in a way they don’t. I will make “loud” and “lecturing” sound like mere suggestions being whispered in a library by someone with a sleeping baby if you continue to make your approval a rock on a hill and every female candidate Sisyphus trying to get it to the top.

In March 2016, I started a secret Hillary group in response to the double standard with which people—mostly white men—were treating her versus Bernie Sanders. I started the group because when a person dared to point out and confront this double standard we found ourselves harassed with a level of vitriol that would have been ironic satire were it not actually happening in real life. We got used to qualifying everything with, “I know she’s not perfect, but …” as if anyone has ever been perfect. We developed the caveat, “I don’t like everything she does, but …” as if we have ever had to utter these same phrases about a male candidate. When we expressed our excitement for her candidacy we were berated, screamed at, and patronized until we asked ourselves, “What Would Hills Do?” and so we stopped engaging so much and just quietly went about doing the real work. And then we had to watch as the media claimed there was no enthusiasm for her, as if the harassment we endured hadn’t forced us to be quiet and deny our own experiences, like so many women about so many things before us. Don’t be loud. Don’t be opinionated. Don’t correct a man. Don’t say your husband hits you. Don’t talk about your rape.

Make no mistake, this is a form of oppression. And it worked. We could have had the first female president. Instead, we are in danger of losing our reproductive freedom, voting rights, LGTBQ protections, and so much more. And the worst part is that this oppression didn’t come from the party that has been actively in our faces trying to oppress us. The oppression came from inside our own house. And maybe that is the biggest argument against #SomeWhiteGuy2020: They just don’t get it. How can you help people toward progress if you don’t fully understand what is standing in their way and the part you play in it?

The way we talk about women in politics matters. But more importantly, we need to be able to talk about the way we talk about them. We can no longer afford to discuss this in secret groups or quietly do the work. Our voices may be shrill or annoying or loud or lecturing, but they’re not going away. They can’t—unless we want to disappear with them. Once more for the people in the back who didn’t hear: “Enough!”

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