On Wednesday night, long after it’d become clear that Elizabeth Warren had no viable path to the Democratic presidential nomination, my 5-year-old daughter asked me about the race. My husband had taken her with him to vote the day before, and she went along because our polling site always has cookies.
When she asked about the primary, I responded that it was down to Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. She wanted to know if Joe and Bernie were both boys. “Yes,” I said.
“How come no one voted for a girl?” she replied.
“How come no one voted for a girl?”
The question stung. I froze for a second, wondering how to explain the complexities of electoral politics to a 5-year-old who constantly hears girls can aspire to and achieve any dream.
She doesn’t know about Warren’s pinky promises with other little girls her age, or that it’ll be four more years before America gets another shot at electing its first female president. In that moment, I gave her the short answer: People did vote for a girl — in fact more than one — but she didn’t win enough votes.
The question of why Warren didn’t, now that she’s exited the presidential race, is what’s most painful to answer. Experts will say she didn’t expand her base beyond white, college-educated voters. Warren’s extensive set of plans for just about everything eclipsed her compelling biography. She built strong relationships with leading black activists and advocates, and won their endorsements, but failed to convert that outreach into support from black voters. These logical explanations almost make it possible to believe that sexism didn’t doom her run.
But women who’ve been through versions of what Warren just endured know that’s a lie. They’ve sat through meetings where a less qualified man took credit for their idea. It’s no surprise when a man shouts over or interrupts them. They know what it’s like to walk an unforgiving tightrope while men make mistakes and receive the benefit of the doubt. And today they, and men who believe the system is still stacked against women, are lamenting Warren’s departure from the race.
Warren “deserved better.” The country, they argue, “has a problem seeing anyone who isn’t a white man in the driver’s seat.” The “trauma” of the Trump era has caused voters to “cling to the familiar, stunting our capacity to dream, limiting faith.”
People may cheer gender equality in public, but in private they still seem to harbor deep misgivings about whether women can lead. Last year, female founded companies got just 2.7 percent of venture capital funding. The number of women elected to Congress may have shattered records in 2018, but there’s still roughly three men for every woman serving in the Senate and House of Representatives.
That Warren couldn’t best two men who often either bumbled or bellowed through their debate appearances is no shock. Warren was prepared and composed as a candidate. Her thorough proposals for issues like , , and an became a cheerful punchline. Her campaign sold t-shirts and tote bags with the slogan, “Warren has a plan for that.”
When she’d achieved frontrunner status last year, those plans looked like an effective tactic for wooing voters worried about nominating a progressive woman. Skeptics, however, thought Warren and her plans were condescending. That charge, of course, is hard to disentangle from the way competent women are uniquely punished for their confidence.
.@ewarren gives form to brainy, compassionate, determined, indefatigable leadership. Her extraordinary belief in the capacity of our nation to serve its poorest resident and to demand the most of its people will continue to move our nation forward. Thank you, our friend! pic.twitter.com/Lh4EuV4QGG
— Stacey Abrams (@staceyabrams) March 5, 2020
Most people say they’d vote for a “well-qualified” female presidential candidate, but the prevailing narrative this primary season has been about electability. After the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses, cable and media coverage portrayed the race as a contest between the men: Biden, Sanders, Michael Bloomberg, and for a flash, Pete Buttigieg. And whether they’d admit it, voters ultimately appeared to make the calculation that a woman couldn’t defeat Donald Trump.
Perhaps they didn’t want a replay of 2016, wherein Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” and stalked her on the debate stage. Those moves were designed to make Clinton’s gender a liability. Trump, who taunts Warren with his racist “Pocahontas” slur, had already established a similar dynamic well before Warren had a chance of winning the Democratic nomination.
“Gender in this race, you know, that is the trap question for every woman.”
Warren’s supporters answered the hand-wringing over electability with a convincing counter-argument: A woman will win if you vote for her. It seems simple but the mental gymnastics of electability perplexed voters and the media. Warren herself understood the pitfalls of acknowledging sexism as a factor.
“Gender in this race, you know, that is the trap question for every woman,” Warren said at a press conference following her decision to leave the race. “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?'”
The exhaustion and heartbreak that countless women feel today, particularly as Bernie Sanders supporters criticize Warren’s decision to stay in the race through Super Tuesday or demand she endorse him immediately, might be tempered by only Warren herself.
In a call to her staff, she ticked off the campaign’s accomplishments. Then she appealed to their hearts.
“Choose to fight only righteous fights, because then when things get tough — and they will — you will know that there is only one option ahead of you. Nevertheless, you must persist,” she said.
“Our work continues, the fight goes on, and big dreams never die.”
The next time my daughter asks about whether a woman can be president, I’ll know exactly what to say.