“Gender in this race?” Senator Elizabeth Warren said outside her home on Thursday. “You know that is the trap question for every woman. If you say, ‘Yeah! There was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘Whiner!’ And if you say, ‘No, there was no sexism, about a bazillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?’”
She added: “I promise you this. I will have a lot more to say on that subject later on.”
Warren had just exited the race for US president, leaving the Democratic field with only one female candidate: Tulsi Gabbard, the congresswoman from Hawaii who, with only one delegate toward the nomination, is in effect out of contention.
There have been female leaders all over the world, including two British prime ministers, the current German chancellor and the current prime minister of New Zealand. But America’s glass ceiling, far from being cracked or smashed, appears to have been reinforced with double glazing.
It is a distressing turn for the Democratic party, which nominated Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, harnessed women’s political energy to regain the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm elections, and began the 2020 election with the most diverse field of presidential candidates in history.
The New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, California senator Kamala Harris and author Marianne Williamson all came and went before the Super Tuesday primaries. Warren’s poor showing that night, including a third-place finish in her home state of Massachusetts, sealed her fate.
Now Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, two septuagenarian white men, will slug it out for the right to take on Donald Trump – another septuagenarian white man.
Bonnie Morris, a history lecturer at University of California, Berkeley, and author of books including The Feminist Revolution, said she was “flabbergasted” to wake up on Thursday and discover that Warren, for whom she voted in the California primary two days earlier, was out of the race.
“I believe we still have a problem in the United States with female authority,” Morris said. “I think in the same way that some people resented the obvious competence of Hillary Clinton because they ascribed to her a schoolteacher or maternal tone, people have applied these kind of terms to Elizabeth Warren. They do not ascribe them to men.
“A lot of people are really threatened by super-smart women. If a woman is trying to make her point by speaking slowly and forcefully, there’s always going to be a cohort of men who regard that as being scolded by a mother figure.”
Morris agreed with Warren’s description of sexism. “I believe women are stuck,” she said. “They’ll always be subject to comments about their appearance, fashion, tone of voice, style of hair. They’re always asked if they align themselves with women’s issues. If they don’t, they’re not seen as ‘sisterly’. And if they use a word like ‘sisterly’, they’re seen as an extreme feminist.”
Warren was also subject to “ideological purity tests” that her fellow progressive Sanders was not, Morris argues. “Bernie is able to appeal to a lot of people as the cranky, radical Jewish grandfather,” said the academic, who is herself Jewish. “The cranky Puritanical grandmother is not seen as attractive to young people.”
“It’s devastating and it’s going to be frightening for a lot of women to see how, yet again, it was impossible for a woman to emerge in leadership.”
America is currently marking the centenary of the 19th amendment to the constitution, which gave women the right to vote, although African American women were denied equal access. Representation has come in fits and starts. Geraldine Ferraro was the Democratic nominee for vice-president in 1984 but the presidential candidate Walter Mondale lost to President Ronald Reagan in a landslide.
As recently as 2007, a Washington Post fashion article began: “There was cleavage on display Wednesday afternoon on C-SPAN2. It belonged to Sen. Hillary Clinton.” When Clinton first ran for president in 2008, losing a bruising primary to Barack Obama, she told disappointed supporters: “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it’s got about 18 million cracks in it.”
Eight years later, Clinton made history as the first female nominee of a major party and won the popular vote, only to be thwarted by Trump, who had boasted about grabbing women’s genitals, in the electoral college. She said: “I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but someday someone will and hopefully sooner than we might think right now.”
The huge women’s march a day after Trump’s inauguration suggested an uprising. Politically galvanised suburban women, dubbed “resistance moms”, were crucial to Democrats’ sweeping success in the 2018 midterms and elected a record number of female candidates. When several women ran for president it seemed the momentum for an antidote to Trump’s misogyny was unstoppable.
But the dreaded word “likability” quickly emerged in public discourse. Gillibrand, the candidate who most explicitly focused on gender equality – Trump’s “kryptonite is definitely a mother of young children who stands up for herself”, she told the Guardian – was the first to flame out.
Warren was often the best debater, skewering Bloomberg as “a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians”, yet it was not enough. Many find fault in media coverage. Shaunna Thomas, a co-founder of UltraViolet Action, a progressive women’s group, tweeted on Thursday: “Voters want Trump out. That’s clear. What’s also clear is that there is a glass ceiling held firmly in place for women by a media who relentlessly shape voters’ perceptions of who is electable through a deeply sexist lens.”
Comparisons between Warren and Sanders are particularly instructive given their alignment on numerous issues. They were once running neck-and-neck amid fears they would split the progressive vote. In early debates, they joined forces to defend policies such as Medicare for All, which would extend a government-run health insurance programme to all Americans. But in the end, the 78-year-old Vermont senator surged to early primary victories as Warren, 70, fell away.
Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress thinktank in Washington and a longtime Clinton ally, argues there were double standards at work.
“We have two candidates that embrace Medicare for All and only one candidate who was hounded for details about how her plan would be paid for. The other is a male candidate who’s run before and has never been hounded by the press around that set of issues.
“I can’t even come up with an explanation. He’s a frontrunner for the race. There’s only two people left and yet he’s never been asked detail. He was just asked the last week on 60 Minutes and didn’t have a good answer. I find the coverage relatively dumbfounding.”
But just as in 2018, women continue to have a crucial say as primary voters, Tanden noted. “What happened throughout this race so far is in South Carolina and Super Tuesday, in Texas and Virginia and Massachusetts and Minnesota, you saw a real surge of suburban voters, a majority of whom are women. They are powering the primaries. It’s just at this point a majority of women didn’t vote for a woman. I mean, that is a sad fact.”
The endless debate over women and “electability” appears to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The sense of national emergency represented by the need to beat Trump, and the trauma of Clinton’s defeat in 2016, may have convinced some voters that nominating a woman or person of colour would be a “gamble”.
Tanden said: “I think Trump is a unique candidate and so he creates extra layers of fear among Democrats over who should go up against him and who’s the most electable. But if a Democrat beats him, then maybe America can reset and hopefully women will be a strong part of a new administration – and the next nominee will be a woman.”
— to www.theguardian.com