A collage of black and white photos of Kamala Harris, Elizabeth warren and Hillary Clinton

All the Rage

“Principled” Is the New “Unlikable” for Female Politicians

Now that we have a viable female front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination, a previously praised candidate is suddenly a “liar,” a “sell-out,” and untrustworthy. How will we ever elect a woman president?

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At some point, men are going to have to cope with the possibility that Elizabeth Warren is exactly who she says she is. The 2020 Democratic primary began with more viable runs by women than ever before in history. Now, with less than two months to go until the Iowa caucus, Warren is the only woman left with any kind of shot. Predictably, her competitors are sharpening their knives, casting Warren as a sell-out, a liar, and an untrustworthy careerist. Now, a woman who is famous for taking principled stands is forced to produce receipts to prove she has principles at all—because, no matter what we say, we do not want and cannot deal with principled female politicians.

The latest round concerns Warren’s past as a corporate lawyer. After releasing her tax returns from that time, in response to pressure from Pete Buttigieg, her income was trumpeted in headlines like CNN’s “Elizabeth Warren made at least $1.9 million for past private legal work over three decades,” which typically failed to explain that this averaged out to about $65K per year. The work itself was cast as shady, nefarious pro-corporatism, not only by conservative outlets like the Washington Times (which labeled her a “high-powered corporate vulture”) or Tucker Carlson (who recently proclaimed that “she is like Mr. Burns on The Simpsons”) but by the very “leftists” who used to embrace her: “Progressives, Trust Your Gut,” went one Guardian headline, “Elizabeth Warren is not one of us.” In the article itself, Nathan J. Robinson insists “there were good reasons for progressive leftists not to trust that Elizabeth Warren was on their side.” His first two such reasons were that “Warren worked at Harvard Law School training generations of elite corporate lawyers [and] did legal work for big corporations accused of wrongdoing.”

Some of this is classic 1950s sexism, casting Warren as scary and selfish because she dared to have a career of her own. The problem is not her fees—which, again, hardly left her rolling in filthy lucre—but that she charged for her work at all, rather than doing it out of the goodness of her heart. There’s a distinct “get in the kitchen” tone heard when someone like Robinson lists, among a woman’s negative qualities, the fact that she taught at Harvard. But there is also a subtler sexism, which should be familiar to us after two straight presidential campaigns featuring female front-runners: Warren is untrustworthy and unbelievable by default. Any areas of her life that we can’t see into are presumed to be repositories of malice and trickery; none of her actions can be taken at face value, but each and every one must be interpreted in terms of the scary, corrupt creature we assume her to secretly be.

Warren’s actual work as a lawyer has proven nowhere near as scandalous or mercenary as her enemies would like to believe. This Monday, CNBC found that Warren was not only not undermining the little man in secret, she was actively turning down cases that conflicted with her values: In 2006, Warren was approached by TransUnion and Equifax to work on a settlement to consumers. Warren ultimately declined to take the case after the National Consumer Law Center told her it had concerns about the size of the settlement, which was not enough to cover victims’ real damages. When the companies’ lawyer, Lee Sherman, told her he would not permit her to take the National Consumer Law Center’s side in the case, Warren wrote back to him crisply, warning him not to threaten her, and stating quite plainly that “I will offer expert reports when I think they are appropriate. You cannot strong-arm me either into writing such a report for you or withholding one from someone else.”

The private Warren, in other words, is very much like the public Warren. We just don’t want to believe it. It’s easier to cast her as two-faced and duplicitous and scheming, to attribute any stance she might take to her own hunger for power—not because of anything she’s done, but because casting women as creatures of appetite, motivated by their own petty gain and gratification rather than logic or intellect or even basic moral principles, is just what we do in a patriarchy.

Kamala Harris, the second Black woman in the Senate, had a record that was vastly more nuanced than a “Kamala is a cop” meme could convey—yet the public was in no mood to parse that complexity. Voters cared more about how Harris’s triangulation hurt trans people, or sex workers, or single mothers than they did about the fact that her caution was likely a byproduct of a life spent working in systems stacked against her. I cannot say that set of priorities is wrong—intent never outweighs impact—and Harris, for the record, was never my candidate, precisely because of these concerns. Yet the Elizabeth Warren story shows us something less pleasant about all this: Even if Kamala Harris had taken more risks, and made better decisions, she still might have been driven out of the race. And the people driving her out might have made the exact same claims.

It feels particularly brutal to watch this happen to Warren precisely because, until she ran for president, men liked to name her as a woman they would spare from this treatment. She was routinely invoked, in the heat of the 2016 election, as the anti–Hillary Clinton, the non-“centrist,” non-“fake” female option that men would love to endorse and vote for: “Hillary wants to be President for herself,” a perfectly nice man in a bar once told me, “but if it were someone like Warren, who actually wants to help other people, I’d be fine with it.”

This logic raises a few questions (everyone who wants to be president probably wants it “for themselves” on some level; that’s why they’re launching their own campaigns, rather than working on someone else’s), but it does line up with our standard ideas about female labor. Women are acceptable when they’re performing the traditionally feminine task of caring for others; they become scary and unlovable when they put themselves first. (Recall that Hillary Clinton was much more “likable” before she decided to run for president.). I believe the men who said this to me in 2016 were telling the truth, or at least, that they believed themselves to be truthful. Yet when “someone like Warren” does run—someone who is exactly like Elizabeth Warren, on account of being Elizabeth Warren—she’s not treated much differently than the moderate, “careerist” centrist women. In fact, she is accused of being a moderate, “careerist,” centrist woman herself.

It is completely possible to object to female candidates on their record, and there has been a backlash to the compromise-happy, wishy-washy centrism of the Democratic Party—which is probably a good thing. Yet that backlash often doesn’t take into account the nuance of institutional sexism and racism (and anti-GLBTQ sentiment, and Islamophobia, and, and, and) and how it impacts candidates’ ways of seeking and thinking about power. Women and people of color in hostile environments often internalize the idea that they need to be “team players,” to be particularly diplomatic and accommodating, in order to reach positions of power. They make moves slowly, and compromise where they have to, for fear of triggering a backlash that would not only wipe them out, but set back everyone who looks like them. Those fears aren’t irrational, but in our current climate, which rejects nuance and “excuses” in favor of a list of unyielding demands, those very candidates are now particularly likely to be cast as sell-outs.

We push women to be good and pure and stand on principle, to be selfless, to serve others first, to make the right choices rather than the choices that will get them re-elected. We tell them to be more like Elizabeth Warren, or at least, more like the version of Elizabeth Warren people said they’d vote for in 2016. Yet when women actually do all that—when the real Elizabeth Warren actually stands up, and asks to be handed power—we punish them anyway. We tag them as careerists, elitists, “corporate vultures” and sell-outs anyway, less on the strength of anything they’ve done, and more because of our baseline assumption that women are deceitful. As happens so often, in patriarchy, there’s no winning this one: If you are careful and cautious, and proceed only as far as the moment will allow, someone will come along in a few years or decades and claim you were not brave. If you are brave—and Warren, who substantially sparked the Democratic Party’s swing back to economic populism back in the early aughts, and whose candidacy has inspired cold sweats among Wall Street executives and tech bros since its inception, certainly counts as one of our braver politicians—then not only will you make plenty of enemies, your own side won’t back you up.

Warren is a grown woman, and a tough person, and she can take care of herself. She is still a front-runner in the race, and she is among the few female candidates still standing—and the only one among the leading four candidates—in what was once a vibrantly and excitingly female field. Yet her candidacy, which once seemed like such a pure beacon of hope, has left a much more cynical message. When we tell women to be brave and pure, we aren’t pushing them to be better. We’re pushing them off a cliff.

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