2020 female presidential candidates MJ Lee
Some women voters still haunted by Hillary's 2016 loss
02:42 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Nancy L. Cohen is an award-winning author, historian and national expert on the intersection of gender and American politics. She is the author of three books, including “Breakthrough,” “Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America” and “The Reconstruction of American Liberalism.” Follow her on Twitter: @nancylcohen. The view expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

This month, a record number of women will be on stage when the Democrats meet for their first presidential debates. That two of them – Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris – are polling in the top five of the 23-person field only adds to the excitement of this historic moment.

Nancy L. Cohen

Yet the women who matter most will be on the other side of the stage. Any Democratic path to victory in 2020 likely runs through the female voters of America. Women could make up 60% of the Democratic vote in 2020, according to CNN senior political analyst Ronald Brownstein. And they are likely to be key swing voters in the general election – just as they were in the 2018 midterm election, when suburban and white college-educated women voted to elect larger numbers of Democrats to Congress.

So, what do women want to hear?

Women will be listening closely to how the candidates speak on the bread-and-butter issues – like the economy and health care – but through the prism of how they uniquely affect women. They’ll be looking for assurances that the would-be presidents understand the nuances of their lives.

On the matter of economics and jobs, women will be paying close attention to discussion of equal pay laws, which have been on the books for decades, and yet have been largely ineffective in closing the gap between men’s and women’s wages. Women still, on average, make only about 80% of what men earn. And the gender pay gap is dramatically worse for some groups: It stands at 61% for black women and 53% for Latinas.

Women across the political spectrum care deeply about the nation’s pay and leadership disparities – but it’s worth noting that there is a sharp gender divide on the issue. Nearly half of all men say the gender pay gap is “made up to serve a political purpose,” according to a TIME Magazine survey. Among women, 71% say it is “very unfair” that women are paid less than men – and they want action. They’ll be looking for candidates to articulate robust plans to close the gaps that hold women back. This includes introducing policies like paid parental leave and affordable child care.

Moreover, the national statistics are clear: Women are over-represented among low-wage workers and the poor. Five million more women than men live below the poverty line – and women make up six in ten low-wage workers in almost every state in America. Proposals to boost family income, such as Sens. Harris and Cory Booker have offered, or that reduce the cost of living, like Warren’s housing plan, will resonate strongly with women – even though they aren’t billed as “women’s issues.”

But it’s not just the economy that matters to women, particularly in this moment.

History shows that when legal abortion appears at risk during a presidential election, women are energized to turn out for candidates who defend reproductive rights.

With Republicans having introduced 378 bills restricting or banning abortion in a bid to overturn or gut Roe v. Wade since January of this year, reproductive freedom and the preservation of Roe will be a major driver of the women’s vote in 2020.

Candidates who shy away from unequivocal support for reproductive freedom will be at a disadvantage with the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. According to a Huff Post/YouGov poll, 63% of women who voted for Hillary Clinton say abortion will be very important to their 2020 vote. Meanwhile, 24% of Generation Z and Millennial women rank abortion as the most important factor in their 2020 presidential vote.

Of course, women’s concerns go beyond equal pay and reproductive freedom. In particular, they’ll be watching closely for candidates’ statements on issues that impact families and children. For example, compared to men, women are more worried about school shootings and believe laws regulating gun sales should be stricter.

Women are looking for policies that will help them in their everyday lives. Yet beyond that, they want a candidate who speaks to their values. Women are disgusted with the tone of our politics, particularly with the post-2016 surge in sexism. Three-quarters of Democratic and black women are dissatisfied with how women are treated. In 2018 exit polls, roughly eight in 10 voters rated sexual harassment a serious problem.

Let’s trust that the debate moderators won’t limit their “women’s issues” questions to the female candidates. The women of America need to hear what the ambitious men who want to be president have to say about their lives.

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    Sens. Harris, Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, with their innovative proposals on reproductive freedom, universal child care, maternal mortality and more, have raised the bar for the rest of the field. Do the male candidates speak fluently and substantively to what matters most to women? Do their records in office and plans for the nation’s future indicate they’ll make women’s freedom, equality and opportunity a priority?

    We’re all ears.