Madam President? Five Candidates on What It Will Take to Shatter the Most Stubborn Glass Ceiling
ELIZABETH WARREN practically leaps off the armchair in her Washington, D.C., condo when it hits her. “I got here today courtesy of three bags of M&Ms and a very cooperative toddler,” she says. By here she means the candidacy for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. I’ve just sat down with the Massachusetts senator, on taupe-colored furniture that looks plucked from a corporate-apartment catalog, to talk about the 2020 election. I mention in passing that I need to make the 4 p.m. Acela back to New York to relieve my babysitter. This reminds Warren of a lengthy story, told with expressive hand waving and a recitation of “Wheels on the Bus,” from her years as a working mom. She was about to start Rutgers Law School and desperately needed day care for her daughter Amelia. The only acceptable option she could find in the Newark area required that children be “dependably potty trained.” Amelia wasn’t even two at the time, but Warren spent all weekend luring her to the kiddie toilet with a rainbow of M&Ms. On Monday, Warren says, “I looked at the form . . . at Amelia, at the form, back at Amelia . . . and ‘Yep! Dependably potty trained, all right!’ ”
It’s an indelibly female story from a candidate who—like most of the other women running for president—would rather not talk about her gender on the campaign trail. Warren doesn’t lace her speeches with promises to make history or shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling. The steamy spring afternoon we meet in D.C., she is wearing her usual uniform of black tank top and black slacks, more proletariat rab-ble-rouser than solid-white suffragette.
And yet her gender is a subject she and the other female candidates can’t escape. (The day before, I’d heard an MSNBC pundit declare that Warren was not a “connectable female”— which led to a panel debate titled “Can a woman beat Trump? Some Democrats wonder if it’s worth the risk.”) Perhaps that’s because they have so little else in common. The six women running for the Democratic nomination come from different backgrounds. They range in age from 70 (Warren) to 38 (Representative Tulsi Gabbard). They are lawyers and senators, professors and soldiers and even an author and spiritual adviser to Oprah Winfrey (Marianne Williamson). They disagree on campaign tactics and policies. I spoke to Senator Amy Klobuchar just after she came out against Warren’s plan to cancel most student debt and make tuition at public colleges free. (And don’t even get the other women started on Gabbard’s foreign-policy positions.) But they also form an unlikely sisterhood in the inspiring, baffling, often infuriating contest to defeat President Trump.
While each has so far trailed the leading male candidates—Warren and Senator Kamala Harris poll closest to the top of this group—collectively they have smashed our stubborn assumptions about powerful women and permanently changed our notion of what a presidential election looks like. For the first time, multiple women stand on the presidential-debate stages, their presence signaling to millions of Americans that the era of a dozen men—and maybe a lone woman—arguing the issues is over. (When Governor Jay Inslee touted his record on women’s rights in the first debate in Miami, Klobuchar chimed in with, “I just want to say, there’s three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.”)
These candidates have also, inevitably, reminded us of the hurdles, bordering on bulwarks, that women at the highest level of American politics still face. To many of us, watching the 2020 race unfold has felt less like a celebration of rah-rah feminism and more like a daily, live-tweeted, televised pelting by the patriarchy. Indeed, we cannot assess any of these candidates without also assessing our own biases. Debates about who is “electable” (or not) have become a smokescreen for lingering discomfort with what we have still, after 243 years as a republic, never seen: the election of a woman president.
I figured the women now running for president would be propelled by the success of the newly elected women in Congress, of seemingly impossible Democratic victories across the country, of the power of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram feed and a newly potent era of political activism. These women could also run without the history (I refuse to say baggage) that Hillary carried with her. I still wonder how much of voters’ hesitancy about Hillary was based on sexism (my guess is a lot) and how much was discomfort with a political family that had weathered so many scandals (real and imagined) and loomed so large for decades. But whatever the answer, the women running in 2020 would surely enjoy a clean slate. Whatever skeletons were in their closets couldn’t possibly match those of the Trump White House. Harris allegedly flip-flopped on private insurance? Klobuchar ate a salad with a plastic comb and then snapped at a staffer to clean it? Warren had to apologize to the Cherokee Nation for claiming Native American heritage? Yes, well, Trump heaped praise on the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, (briefly) declared he’d gladly accept dirt on an opponent from a foreign power, and watched as both his personal lawyer and campaign chairman embarked on lengthy prison sentences. Finally, I thought, voters would no longer tell me (as they so often did when I asked why they didn’t support Hillary) that they would love to vote for a woman for president, just not that woman. There was no way that Harris, Gillibrand, Warren, Klobuchar, Gabbard, and Williamson could all be that woman . . . could they?
Five candidates representing a combined 40 years in Congress. Rather than being propelled, these women have seemed stuck in a sort of political purgatory, firmly, frustratingly sandwiched between Hillary’s loss and the country’s (eventual?) realization that a woman can be president. Studies conducted early this year by Northeastern University and FiveThirtyEight, respectively, found that the female candidates have received more negative coverage in the news media than their male rivals, and have had a harder time breaking through in cable TV and viral moments (unless you count Trump evoking the massacre at Wounded Knee to mock Warren). Depending on the day, these women have been eclipsed by a man who can speak Norwegian (Pete Buttigieg) or who played in a punk band (Beto O’Rourke) or who picked up $700,000 on a Wednesday night in Hollywood (Joe Biden). As I was reporting this story, David Axelrod, the former Obama adviser, praised Buttigieg’s taco-eating ability. (“He can eat tacos without apparently dropping any on his white shirt,” Axelrod tweeted). I tried to imagine a woman candidate (or any woman) being praised for eating, well, anything.
None of these candidates want to dwell on sexism and double standards—and even asking those questions feels a little sexist when you realize that the men in the race get to spend their time talking about issues, policy, their plan to defeat Trump, Irish modernist literature. Of course I still ask. What about the time a Boston radio reporter described Warren during her Massachusetts senate campaign as “a strand of pearls short of looking like the head of the P.T.A.”? Warren tells me that after that one she enlisted her husband, the Harvard law professor Bruce Mann, to be a sort of taste tester. He’ll scan news stories and then yell upstairs—“Clear!”—if they are safe for his wife to read.
On the topic of uneven media coverage, Klobuchar gives a flash of that cutting politesse known as Minnesota nice: “The public wants a leader to have an optimistic economic agenda, and they’re not really going to relate to you complaining that you didn’t get as fair press coverage as some guy who got up on a counter.” (She’s talking to you, Beto.) The Minnesota senator also says that the women in the race have so much elected experience (a combined 40 years in Congress) that they inevitably get tougher questions than male candidates with lighter résumés. “We’ve all been asked those questions because we’ve done the job,” Klobuchar says. “People who have less of that experience—there are no questions to ask. So they get the personal questions.” She pauses. “I’m happy to talk about my first pet.” (A turtle that ate raw hamburger, in case you were wondering.)
No matter how far we’ve come, the reality is that “the idea of a woman in a leadership position is still seen as ‘Oh, I don’t know if we can go there,’ ” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. That sentiment—echoed in endless debates on cable news—eventually can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, says Jennifer Lawless, a professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on women in politics. “It could signal to voters that these women won’t be as credible to take on Donald Trump.”It’s a concern the candidates say they hear over and over again. Kirsten Gillibrand likes to point out that a woman did technically beat Trump. “We must all remember that Hillary won the popular vote,” the New York senator says. “She was genuinely seen as the most qualified candidate.”
But Clinton’s defeat has, for the most part, been more of an albatross—a sign of See? We told you the country wasn’t ready. Walsh says many voters she talks to are still “shell-shocked” by the 2016 election. At a CNN town hall in Manchester, New Hampshire, a college student asked Warren (who has age and hair coloring and not much else in common with Clinton) how she’d avoid getting “Hillaryed.” “What has happened is that this becomes the narrative if you turn on CNN or MSNBC every night,” says Lawless. “They’re asking, ‘Can a woman do this?’ and every time you hear that question, there’s a possibility that the answer is no.”
IN HER 2014 BOOK Off the Sidelines, Gillibrand declared that she feared the women’s movement was dead. She lights up when I remind her of this. “I did! I said it was dead.” We have met up for a late lunch at a farm-to-table restaurant in Manhattan made to look like a rural barn: A-frame roof, vintage sconces, plenty of reclaimed wood. Of all of the female candidates, Gillibrand has been the most outspoken about her identity as a woman and as a mom. She used of some of her little air time in the first debate to pitch her plan to help working parents of young children. She’s appeared with Gloria Steinem and practically moved into The Wing, the rose-hued, female-focused co–working space. As we mull whether to share a cheese plate, she asks if I am still breastfeeding (“Listeria is real!” she tells me) and drapes a heavy navy shawl over her shoulders (“I’m always cold”). Will White House thermostats be set several degrees warmer if (when?) a woman occupies the Oval Office?
It’s hard to say whether Gillibrand’s unabashed embrace of her gender and motherhood has had an impact on her struggle to break through in polls. Her candidacy, which once seemed so promising, now hovers under 1 percent at the time of publication—behind Gabbard and about tied with Williamson. There are those Democrats who still resent Gillibrand’s 2017 push for Senator Al Franken’s resignation after allegations of sexual harassment. (“I would not have applied that pressure at that time before we knew more,” Buttigieg told MSNBC.) Others offer only vague refrains that Gillibrand’s centrist policies, her promise to win in purple districts, and even her New York Senate seat, remind them too much of Hillary. (Comparisons to Tracy Flick dominated Twitter on her debate night in Miami.) Then there are some who say the 52-year-old senator “isn’t ready”—an argument that reminds so many women of the Catch-22 of aging. We are too young, too inexperienced, not ready, right up until the moment when we are past our prime (an argument that has been made about Warren). Male candidates, meanwhile, can be fresh-faced (Buttigieg, 37), energetic (Beto, 46), and then elder statesmen (Biden, 76, and Bernie Sanders, 77). In June, Biden answered a woman’s question related to his support for the 1994 crime bill with “You make a really good point, kiddo. . . .” At that moment, I was reminded of the vanishingly small window—blink and you miss it—when a woman is neither kiddo nor washed up, but just that perfect age to run for president.
Democrats are reluctant to give President Trump credit for much of anything, but they will happily point out that he has motivated a wave of women to march and tell their #MeToo stories and run for office. The 127 women now in the 116th Congress make up 23 percent of all members. This is progress for sure, but still sort of a bummer when you remember we’re more than half the U.S. population. Gillibrand and Klobuchar both praise House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s unique ability to rattle the president. Then there is Ocasio-Cortez, who has become such a force that backing her Green New Deal is practically a litmus test for candidates who want to appeal to the liberal base. Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t endorsed anyone in 2020, but she did hand Warren social-media gold when the two women sat down to critique the Game of Thrones finale, declaring themselves #TeamSansa. “I think the reason all of these women ran is because they weren’t going to accept a nation where Trump’s views of the world would prevail,” Gillibrand says.
Harris sees this play out at her campaign events. Attendees tell her that they’d never waited in line for a political event before, but are so appalled by the Trump administration that here they are, bundled up outside a high school gym in Keene, New Hampshire. Every candidate, every election year, uses the cliché that “this is the most important election of our lifetimes,” but maybe this one actually is? “The morning after that night in November 2016, people woke up realizing they could not take anything for granted,” Harris says. “People woke up assuming the right thing won’t happen unless they’re active.”
I’ve reached the California senator, a former prosecutor and state attorney general, by phone the morning after she’s participated in a CNN town hall. She has a quirk of saying she’ll study a controversial issue or that she wants to have a “conversation” or a “discussion” about say, reparations for black Americans or Warren’s free-college plan. Trump has nicknamed Harris “nasty,” but the rest of the political universe landed on less colorful adjectives: cautious, unknowable. (IS KAMALA HARRIS TOO CAUTIOUS? LET’S HAVE THAT CONVERSATION, read a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle.)
I ask Harris if she thought we were getting it all wrong: Was it just that a woman (and a woman of color, in particular) has such a razor-thin margin of error that she has to be careful, particularly compared to the off-the-cuff men in the race? All she would say was this: “I grew up in a profession when I was acutely aware that with a swipe of my pen, someone could be deprived of liberty. I take my words seriously. Maybe some people aren’t used to having power, so they don’t take it seriously.”
In this group, Harris is perhaps the most wary about being pigeonholed by gender. “If someone says, ‘Talk to us about women’s issues,’ I look at them and smile and say, ‘I am so glad you want to talk about the economy’ or ‘I am so glad you want to talk about national security.’ ” Harris puts a stinging little intonation on the word so.
As the only millennial woman in the race, Gabbard has her own perspective. On the phone from Hawaii, she tells me she finds it offensive that Democrats assumed she’d support Clinton over Sanders in the 2016 primary, “believing that I have no ability to see beyond my own gender and consider the issues.” For Gabbard, having multiple women in the 2020 race is less revolutionary than overdue—obvious, even. “I’ve heard from girls eight, nine, ten years old, and for them this is what an election should look like. It’s not a shocker.”
The Money Connection brought this article to its readers not because of money consequences but the fact that women are becoming more and more a part of this society and playing a larger role in politics. Their power in the political field is getting larger and because of this strength their financial equality should follow. Please continue to read Part II of this article and feel the power of women running for the Presidency, because whether they are nominated as president or not we should see a woman at the top of democratic tickets in 2020.