Elizabeth Warren spoke for millions of women on Thursday when asked what role gender played in her presidential campaign.
“You know, that is the trap question for women,” she replied, speaking to cameras outside her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as she bowed out of 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?’”
It was a succinct analysis of this unsettled moment for women in America. And it came on a day when many female voters felt a profound sense of sadness, in part because it will be another four years before a woman has a shot at the White House.
The reality sinking in Thursday was that – after a record number of women declared their candidacies – the Democratic Party’s standard bearer will now be one of two white men in their 70s. The eventual Democratic nominee will take on Donald Trump, a President with a history of crude banter and demeaning statements about women who has been accused of a range of criminal sexual behavior, including multiple assaults, and rape. He has denied all of them.
The irony of that outcome of male dominance in 2020 carried a sharp sting in this dawning age of female empowerment – when the #MeToo Movement has reshaped office politics and put Harvey Weinstein behind bars; when women voters sent record-breaking numbers of female lawmakers to Congress, leading to Democrats taking back the House; when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi can embody girl power by towering over a table of White House suits pointing an accusatory finger at the President.
California Sen. Kamala Harris clearly felt it, telling reporters on Capitol Hill that this election cycle has “presented very legitimate questions about the challenges of women running for president of the United States.”
“Look at what’s happened – there are no women currently in this race,” the one-time 2020 contender said, omitting Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who is still running, but has barely registered in the polls and almost certainly won’t win the nomination. “We can have a longer discussion about it, but the reality is that there’s still a lot of work to be done to make it very clear that women are exceptionally qualified and capable of being the commander-in-chief of the United States of America.”
The fresh debate over the role sexism played in Warren’s exit raged on social media, just as it did when Harris left the race in December, when New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand got out last summer and when Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar departed on Monday.
“This is so heartbreaking, and it feels so damn personal,” writer Jill Filipovic, the author of “The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness” said on Twitter. “How many times, in how many contexts, have we seen a smart, competent, dynamic woman who is so head & shoulders above everyone else in the room get ignored or pushed out? How many times have we wondered - was I that woman?”
On the trail, Warren cut a particularly steely and unflappable profile as she sought to inspire legions of little girls and young women to seek the highest office in the land.
The Massachusetts senator changed the trajectory of the race with her fierce and unsparing evisceration of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the debate stage, flattening his candidacy and paving the way for Joe Biden’s resurgence. Her embrace of facts, organization and plans – at once feminine and groundbreaking – catapulted her to the top of the polls in the summer and early fall of 2019.
And the early hallmark of her presidential campaign was her insistence on dropping to one knee each time she met a little girl to make a pact.
“I’m running for president because that’s what girls do,” she would say before making a “pinky promise” with her young follower to remember.
But beneath that veneer of optimism about what the next generation should expect, all of the women who ran for president this cycle saw the darker and more complicated side of sexism in America. As a reporter, one rarely encountered men or women who said they wouldn’t vote for a woman or believed that a woman couldn’t handle the job.
Instead what we heard, too many times to count, from both women and men – including those at Warren events – was the concern that they didn’t think “other people” or “the country” or “Trump supporters” would vote for a woman.
It was a worry that pervaded Warren’s candidacy, eroding confidence in her chances against Trump at a time when each candidate’s odds against the President was the thing that mattered most to the majority of Democratic voters.
After leaving the race, Klobuchar told The New York Times she has “often stepped back and wondered, well, is it – were they looking for a man to run against Donald Trump? Maybe in another election. I don’t know.” Klobuchar said she’s sure a woman will be elected president in her lifetime – “it’s not even a close call,” she added.
The debate over all the forces stacked against female candidates came into sharp focus in January, when CNN reported a December 2018 meeting between Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Warren. She laid out the reasons why she believed she would be a strong candidate. According to the accounts of four people – two people Warren spoke with directly after the encounter, and two people familiar with the meeting – Sanders responded that he did not believe a woman could win.
After that report was published, Warren confirmed the meeting and Sanders denied it.
What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could,” he said.
Warren made unforced errors – namely the bumpy rollout of her plan to enact “Medicare for All” – that hurt her candidacy. But just like Harris and Klobuchar, the undertow of gender was the force she couldn’t control.
She and the other female candidates labored to change that perception.
“If you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day,” Klobuchar said at the November debate. And at the January one, Warren added up the losing records of the men on stage and compared them to the winning records of the women there.
Ultimately, it wasn’t enough.
No matter how many times Biden showed the weakness of his candidacy or his inability to excite crowds in Iowa and New Hampshire, some voters reasoned that he’d still be a tougher candidate against Trump because of his maleness.
And as much as voters praised the female candidates for their readiness to take on Trump, some would almost protectively confess that they didn’t want to watch Warren or Harris or Klobuchar go through what Hillary Clinton did.
They would remember the way Trump loomed threateningly behind Clinton on the debate stage; how he accused Clinton of playing the “woman card”; or how he trotted out the women who accused Clinton’s husband of infidelity to intimidate her during an event hours before one of the Democratic debates.
Trump’s tactics in 2016 were so grating to Democratic voters that they got their own descriptor. During an April 2019 CNN town hall in New Hampshire, Harvard University student Ellie Taylor asked Warren how she’d avoid “getting Hillary-d” – which Taylor defined as getting “held to a higher standard than your opponent for potentially arbitrary or maybe even sexist reasons.”
Warren answered the question by recalling that she started her “pinky promise” tradition when she was running for the US Senate, at a time when well-meaning colleagues and wise men had told her a woman couldn’t win that race. (She won.)
She’d endure all the gendered observations about what she was wearing, her demeanor, her hair, her voice and “whether or not I smile enough.” Warren said she started doing the pinky promises because she wanted to “make something count every single day” as she tried to win the race. No matter how badly the day went, she would go home and count up the tally of pinky promises.
“You stay after it every day, one might say you persist,” she said.