A record number of experienced female candidates have run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. But Americans apparently don’t want women with plans in the Oval Office—they want a man.
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Elizabeth Warren was not supposed to lose in New Hampshire. She spent most of last summer and fall as a front-runner in the Democratic race, taking hits from bankers and fellow candidates alike. Her early organization invested hard in the first two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, with the expectation that momentum could slingshot her into the lead. Now, after a bungled Iowa caucus—in which Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Bernie Sanders wound up essentially tied for first place, with Warren just behind them—Warren has performed so poorly in New Hampshire that she will leave the state with no delegates whatsoever.
It’s too early to write a postmortem on Warren’s campaign. Her campaign manager, Roger Lau, argues that the field will still be wide open come Super Tuesday. Primaries can surprise you. No one predicted that Buttigieg would be the man to beat in the first two contests (he and Sanders nearly tied again last night, with the South Bend mayor losing by one percentage point and getting an equal number of delegates). No one expected a last-minute surge from Amy Klobuchar.
However, it’s also not useful to puff Warren up or engage in spin. She was expected to lose New Hampshire, but she was not expected to come in a distant fourth, behind Klobuchar, and barely ahead of Joe Biden. While the other candidates have clear weaknesses—Sanders, despite four years of media coverage and a passionate supporter base, is currently struggling to eke out victories over a small-town mayor; Buttigieg and Klobuchar, despite their strong showings in heavily white states, have no support among voters of color; Biden is toast—it’s not clear that any of those weaknesses will favor Warren herself. Coming up with complicated long-shot delegate math is not analysis, it’s just what people do when they’re losing.
Right now, Warren is losing the primary. This loss comes after almost every candidate of color—with the exception of potential right-wing spoiler and running joke Tulsi Gabbard—was edged out of the contest. Warren is one of three women left in what was once a historically female-dominated field. One of those women, Klobuchar, has struggled to poll over 5 percent for the vast majority of the contest, and the other, again, is Gabbard. It is not hard to see the writing on the wall; the forces that gave us an all-white Democratic primary may soon give us an all-male primary as well.
But not all of Warren’s struggles can be attributed to gender. Warren is arguably paying the price for becoming a frontrunner too early. Like Hillary Clinton in 2016, she was forced to run as if she were already the nominee, explaining and justifying all of her plans in elaborate detail (How many times was she asked how she’d pay for Medicare for All?) while the long-shot candidates were free to snipe at her from the sidelines. She was also seen as the most legitimate progressive threat, and therefore, had the most establishment artillery aimed at her; while Sanders was largely dismissed as a long shot, the ire of Wall Street types and tech barons was concentrated almost exclusively on Warren.
Yet, if Warren is paying the price for disproportionate scrutiny, that scrutiny cannot be disentangled from our wider pattern of denigrating women who ask for power. Every single serious female candidate this year was attacked and caricatured in terms, which over time, all started to sound the same: Kirsten Gillibrand was a lying, inauthentic, opportunistic backstabber and Kamala Harris was a lying, inauthentic, opportunistic cop and Elizabeth Warren was a lying, inauthentic, opportunistic snake. And on and on. Every line of attack conveyed essentially the same point, which is that women are untrustworthy and immoral, and that power-seeking women are the worst of all.
Warren’s collapse also tracks, to an alarming degree, to the fact that she was forced to face the question of sexism head-on, when someone leaked the story that Bernie Sanders had told her a woman couldn’t win in 2020. Though supporters of other candidates (okay, one other candidate) angrily accused her of manufacturing the story for her own gain, no one who understands workplace sexism could view this as a positive development. By forcing her to defend her own ability to compete with men, it drew attention to the fact that all other presidents—and all the other frontrunners—were, in fact, men, and allowed the presumption of female weakness to creep in, “don’t think of pink elephants”–style, along the edges. It allowed Warren’s enemies to cast her as uppity, or a whiner, or, most often, a vindictive, castrating feminazi who punished her well-intentioned male colleagues for honest mistakes. In subsequent New Hampshire polls, though Warren retained equal support among women, her support among men dropped by over two-thirds.
None of this is remotely unfamiliar. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was also cast as monstrous—in that instance, a lying, inauthentic, opportunistic robot and/or serial killer—and the public fury against her reached shrieking heights whenever she mentioned sexism. She, too, was accused of playing the “gender card,” and, despite selling literal Gender Cards on her website, never quite found a comeback that worked. She, too, was expected to provide more detailed and comprehensive plans than any male candidate, and was then torn apart for the details of those plans, while Sanders was able to skate by without any detailed policy proposals. Supporters of Kamala Harris, the most serious female contender aside from Warren in 2020, also frequently complained that the media amplified their candidate’s slip-ups and ignored her policy proposals, denying her media coverage except in times of scandal. Even Amy Klobuchar, currently enjoying her moment in the sun, has arguably only escaped vilification because no one took her candidacy seriously until a few weeks ago.
Women are expected to work harder than men, and are held to a higher standard, in order to “deserve” power, and then they’re torn apart for the moral abomination of wanting power in the first place. There are competent women and “likable” women and never the twain shall meet. Yet this is not about hating women—at least, not these specific women. Nor is it really about believing women can’t lead. Because the fact is, many people who don’t want Elizabeth Warren to win the Democratic primary do want her to be president. They’d just prefer it if the title went to a man.
As early as last spring, men were eagerly anticipating that Sanders would ultimately claim credit for most of Warren’s policy proposals: “Really appreciating this policy shop for the Sanders administration that we currently call the Elizabeth Warren campaign,” tweeted Matt Karp. Even as Sanders supporters slime Warren as a fake or a snake or a DNC plant, his campaign is “helpfully” leaking stories that he’s considering her for vice-president—and maybe Treasury Secretary, and who knows how many other jobs after that? The chief appeal of a VP Warren, men keep accidentally saying aloud, is that Sanders wouldn’t have to do any presidenting: “My dream Sanders-Warren ticket would very much see Bernie as the titular organizer-in-chief, with Warren taking over the running of the administrative state,” progressive commentator David Walsh tweeted.
The plan is not to wipe Warren off the map. It’s to cannibalize her—portray her as incompetent and unfit to lead, and then reincorporate her into some man’s campaign in a support role, thus reaping the benefit of her work, the value of which is obvious even to some of her most inflamed detractors. Our denigration of female presidential candidates is rarely about those women. It’s about restoring traditional gender roles. It’s about keeping women down, under men’s control. It’s about keeping women out of the seats of power, so that they can fulfill the role we’ve told them is natural: subservient, supportive, the cheerleader or house mother or power behind the throne, the woman who eases a man’s burden and facilitates his success without asking for more than vicarious glory. We, as a culture, don’t believe women can’t lead. We believe that they shouldn’t—that a powerful woman is a violation of the natural order, that men are demeaned by being made to answer to a woman, and that even the most qualified and brightest woman should hope for no more than to prop up a less bright man.
That attitude will continue to damn any woman with any talent or promise if we let it—not just in politics, but in any industry or line of work you might care to name. It’s only when the presence of a powerful woman does not seem like some kind of cosmic violation that we can let the people who are most qualified to lead, actually lead us. It’s too soon to tell what will happen to Elizabeth Warren. This is still a volatile race, and it’s already taken several unexpected turns. The task of normalizing female power is still ahead of us, and will be ahead of us for a long time. She can win, but only if we’re willing to let female power step out from behind the throne and into the light of day.
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