An illustration of male candidates Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Beto O'Rourke and Pete Buttigieg in front. Female candidates in the background.

Election 2020

We’ve Learned Nothing From Election 2016

News outlets are obsessed with Beto and Buttigieg, but it’s the five veteran female lawmakers running for the Dem presidential nomination who deserve deeper coverage. Where is it?

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We’re watching women fight for fair media coverage. We’re hearing dismissive, privilege-soaked comments from men. We’re hosting an extended discussion on the nuances of inappropriately touching women and breaching their personal boundaries. In this environment, the run-up to 2020 feels like a particularly noxious episode of déjà vu. Despite being told that these problems were the unique result of a particular candidate, we are seeing the same issues bedevil an entirely new set of women, diverse in background, accomplishment, experience and, tellingly, shortcomings.

The signs are unmistakable: Misogyny is still shaping our politics in 2019.

Now, some may feel it seems unfair to call it misogyny rather than, say, sexism. After all, the term is typically applied to the idea of hating women, and gaps in media coverage don’t really encapsulate the violence. Misogyny is not determined by intent but by impact, however, and it is too easy to dismiss anything less than violence as sour grapes.

Headlines asking whether women are likable aren’t posted with inchoate rage, and it’s true that gently touching a woman’s shoulders or hair without her consent isn’t the same as sexual assault. But these actions, like their more brutal cousins, are still emerging from impulses fed and formed by a society that doesn’t treat women as fully human—as the social, economic, and political equal of men.

To recognize this is to illuminate the myriad ways that misogyny guides and defines our polity. We routinely discuss income inequality and wealth concentration, but rarely mention that women and children make up 70 percent of the impoverished, and that men are 83 percent of the 1 percent. Despite the fact that women make up just over half of the population and an even greater portion of voters, we treat “women’s issues”—reproductive rights, child-care costs, and the pervasive damage of domestic violence—as niche concerns, part of the “culture wars,” untethered from our broader politics. Consider: Half the country elected a man who openly bragged about sexual assault and ogling underage girls, and within weeks of doing so, our polity told his opponent, the first woman to headline a major party presidential ticket, to go home “and knit.”

So is it all that surprising then, that we see tremendous gaps in coverage between the growing pile of white male candidates and Senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Kirsten Gillibrand, and Representative Tulsi Gabbard—five female veteran lawmakers—contending for the Democratic nomination? It’s the product of disproportionately white, male-led newsrooms that rarely celebrate the feminine as “cool” and make assumptions about who is worthy of consideration. When Beto O’Rourke says that he wings speeches and is “born” to lead in a race with numerous prepared, engaged women who had to fight sexism even after being elected to high office, who come to the table with policies they’ve sponsored and proposals at the ready, it is an ugly reminder of the work women have to do to be considered competent versus the unearned entitlement of men. And when we engage in defenses and normalization of a senator and then a VP touching women and girls in intimate ways without their consent, we are really having a dialogue about women as things that men are entitled to rather than people who deserve to have their boundaries respected.

The quality of media coverage of women seeking power, the speed with which men ignored, dismissed, and diminished women as voters and opponents, the ways we treat women’s bodies as public property—these were all issues raised in 2016. That we are still grappling with them again shows how deeply embedded misogyny is and how unserious we are about truly resolving it.

One of the most potent examples of this attitude can be summed up in a single statement. Recently, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of a mid-size Midwestern city running for president, said that Hillary Clinton’s “mistake” was in not speaking to a certain type of voter. In this interminable post-mortem of 2016 and the attendant discussions, Buttigieg could not have been confused about the nature of his statement or the context in which it exists. As this administration inflicts unspeakable suffering on the vulnerable groups that fueled Hillary Clinton’s large popular vote margin and narrow electoral loss, Mayor Buttigieg centered the values and the needs of the white male voters who accommodate it. He reinforced the idea that white men are more valid, as voters and constituents, than the women and POC who powered Hillary Clinton’s coalition. He dismissed both the way Clinton connected with a wide array of voters and the comprehensive solutions she offered all Americans. And notably, he diminished the accomplishments of the most successful woman in American political history in the face of the tangible force of a misogynistic smear campaign that hinged on always having a reason to hate her even if that reason was never the same.

In a paragraph, Buttigieg replaced the achievement and obstacles of a woman who received 65 million votes with the declaration and judgment of a man who has never won more than a few thousand. And when people defended this woman, men rushed in to defend … Mayor Pete.

If we must take anything from this, it is that men cannot continue to foist responsibility for receiving misogyny and fixing it onto women’s shoulders. Too many men have been comfortable consolidating blame on a woman for getting unparalleled vitriol, facing historic challenges, and taking unprecedented damage because it is uncomfortable to do the work of challenging their assumptions and giving women and femininity the power of equality.

It is not reasonable to expect women to do the work of making ourselves more palatable to men, to structure our thoughts and aspirations for male consumption, to be the driving force in male improvement. It is not fair to ask women to reach nebulous and arbitrary thresholds men designate for us before we are worthy of approval and support. It is not right that women alone respect the beauty, breadth, and complexity of our humanity.

Like Hillary Clinton, the women of the 2020 campaign are “uninspiring,” “flawed,” and “unappealing,” according to the media, which treats the white, male Democratic candidates like budding rock stars. The women, though are simultaneously too heavy on policy and too light on details. And despite long résumés and accomplished careers, they are, like Hillary, getting a fraction of the attention, adulation, and value of their male peers. This is the reality of misogyny, and it would be foolhardy to imagine that the next woman nominee would be less vulnerable to it than the last. If we don’t want them to “be like Hillary” in November 2020, men will have to choose to learn from women’s history rather than merely repeat it.

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