Ever since the 1980s, March has been internationally recognized as Women’s History Month. This year, we celebrate the occasion by acknowledging the 100-year anniversary of Congress ratifying women’s suffrage, reflect on the innumerable contributions that women have made to society, continue the fights against workplace discrimination and sexual abuse…and, watch as the last remaining women dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination for president. As we say goodbye to Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar and Representative Tulsi Gabbard, it is confirmed: America will not see its first woman president in the next four years.
While this presidential cycle was once praised for having the highest number of female candidates in American history, it is worth acknowledging the demographics of the remaining three who hope to secure the presidency this November— white males between the ages of 73 and 78.
Is this simply coincidental, or are voter’s opinions shaped by factors other than the message they see being communicated to them on TV, such as gender? Is there some “traditional image” of the American presidency that we are unable to overcome? And, the question on everyone’s mind: when will we have our first woman president?
Not this year, apparently. Starting off the month, we said goodbye to Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar’s campaign on March 2. Klobuchar campaigned as a moderate Midwestern pragmatist, an effective leader, and a “Democrat who gets it done.” She relied heavily on her Senate record of cooperating with Republicans to pass over 100 bills in the US Senate as the lead Democrat. While Klobuchar surprised many with a strong third-place finish in New Hampshire, she failed to gain the traction she needed to win the race and chose to redirect her efforts and endorse Joe Biden for the nominee.
Soon after Klobuchar, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren announced the end of her campaign in front of her Cambridge home on March 5. Warren campaigned on the slogan “Dream Big, Fight Hard” and will be remembered for greeting tens of thousands of girls with a selfie, a pinky promise, and the message ‘I’m running for president because that’s what girls do.’ Warren inspired millions, especially young girls, with her energy, enthusiasm, and promises to tackle the corruption present in big businesses. Although Warren had a large following, her support began to weaken in response to revised healthcare plans and she did not finish strongly enough in early primary elections to have a shot at the nomination. To date, Warren has refrained from endorsing either Senator Bernie Sanders or Vice President Joe Biden, stating “I need some space around this…I want to take a little time to think.”
A few weeks later, the last remaining woman joined the others and ended her campaign. Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard announced on March 19 that her efforts would be more effectively directed towards representing her state in Congress during the coronavirus pandemic than they would be in the race for president. Building off her military experience in the Middle East, Gabbard’s campaign centered around foreign policy. She often criticized aspects of her own party and disagreed with many of its members. Nonetheless, after failing to attain a significant following, Gabbard endorsed Joe Biden in his efforts to secure the presidency.
Much can be examined about the campaigns of these and other women, primarily the question as to whether and how their gender was a contributing factor to their ultimate downfall. There is a high chance that this was indeed the case, as sexism has been prevalent throughout this election long before this month. What is omnipresent in today’s society is a stigma that links femininity to the inability to handle conflict in times of hardship. While women are often described with words such as gentle, this subtly implies that a woman is incapable of dealing with serious issues. Additionally, this contributes to a double-standard in which more is expected of women than of men. A report by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, released after the 2016 election, takes a closer look at the role of gender in campaigns. The study concluded that “voters may be less likely to expect honesty and ethical behavior from men than from women…as a result, it is entirely possible that women candidates might be held to higher standards than men when it comes to honesty and ethics.”
Skeptics of modern-day sexism can find numerous examples in the current race. Immediately after announcing her intention to run for the Democratic nomination, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand was asked by a reporter if she was perhaps too “nice” to take on Donald Trump. After Elizabeth Warren announced her campaign, the media was quick to jump on—not her policies— but her “likability” as a woman.
In the context of a woman running for president, “nice” is not a compliment. Since women are expected to be “nice,” any instances of them snapping at an opponent or getting heated in an argument are blown out of proportion, while they are considered normal for men. When Vice President Joe Biden accused Senator Elizabeth Warren of holding an “angry, unyielding viewpoint,” Warren responded by telling her supporters “over and over, we are told that women are not allowed to be angry.”
Anyone who witnessed the December 19 presidential debate might remember the striking difference in responses between the female candidates and their male counterparts. In the holiday spirit of charity and generosity, PBS and POLITICO ended the night by asking each person on stage to either give a gift to a fellow candidate or to ask for their forgiveness. The two women on stage were the only ones to ask for forgiveness. Although all of the candidates were a bit caught off guard by this curveball of a question, all five men managed to choose the option of giving a gift, conveniently doubling their “gift” as a self-promotion of a book they had written or a policy they had proposed. Conversely, Warren and Klobuchar asked for forgiveness – not for some blatantly regretful mistake from their past, but rather for their overall demeanor. “I know that sometimes I get really worked up,” Elizabeth Warren stated, “and sometimes I get a little hot. I don’t really mean to.” Klobuchar’s response was similar: “I’d ask for forgiveness, any time any of you get mad at me…I know I can be blunt.”
In an event with stakes as high as the title of President of the United States, it is natural to get heated. All the candidates are passionate people who believe that they are the best choice for the nominee. They are all fighting for voters. They all have disagreements, all get into disputes with one another, and all might have lashed out at one point and regretted it later. This behavior is only deemed “unacceptable” for women, who are expected to apologize after the fact.
Additionally, there is a stigma that a woman is less qualified than a man to hold office (based solely on gender) that is inherently false and can be proven with data. In fact, using their records as evidence, one could make the argument that the women running were more qualified than their male competitors. While being grilled on electability during the January debate, Elizabeth Warren brought up the point that while all the men on stage had lost ten elections altogether, Klobuchar and herself were the only ones who could say that they had never lost a race. This is very likely a testament to their work and policy, disproving the argument that the women candidates were less successful or less qualified than the men were.
But is it exclusively the media that over analyzes the actions of female candidates? How do everyday voters feel?
It turns out that there is a real disconnect between voters’ enthusiasm for a hypothetical female president and their actual willingness to elect one.
There is still some underlying anxiety about voting for a woman for president. Even though the vast majority of Americans claim they are ready for this day to come, breaking down the numbers further can give us insight into whether they really are. An in-depth study by Lean In on the 2020 election was able to take a closer look at what this information can tell us. In reference to having a woman president, the survey of over 2,000 registered American voters found that 70% defined themselves as “slightly/moderately ready,” 15% as “not ready at all,” and 15% as “very/extremely ready.” Additionally, 58% believed that being a woman would make it harder to win the election, backing up their claim with arguments that women will need to work harder to overcome sexism ingrained in our society or that a woman can’t beat President Trump. Some cited the fact that Hillary Clinton failed to win the 2016 election or simply that we’ve never had a woman president before.
So – was sexism present in this race, culminating in the last of the female candidates dropping out this month? Elizabeth Warren summed it up perfectly in her suspension announcement. “Gender in this race? You know – that is the trap question for everyone. 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 very fact that we are having this conversation proves that there still exists a conflict between women and electability. It’s true: we have yet to elect our first woman president, and so we do not know what she will look like. As a result, it may be harder to envision a female candidate as holding office as we have no one to compare her to.
Or, we could simply envision her as president like we would with any male candidate. We could look past the issue of electability based on gender and start focusing on the real issues – policy, vision, message. Once we start looking at a candidate as simply a candidate, regardless of gender, the electability question will fade away. Ultimately, there is only one way to see a female in the White House – elect her in 2024.
Bio: Molly May is a high school junior on Long Island, New York. Over the past year, Molly has discovered a passion for politics through the process of the upcoming presidential election. Social activism and women’s rights have inspired her to pursue political science in college. In her free time, Molly enjoys spending time with friends and family, dancing, exploring New York City, and trying to make the world a better place.