Is A Woman President Impossible? What I’ve Learned From The 2020 Race

What was a probable undercurrent became an almost definitive reality on Thursday (March 5) when former front-runner Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) suspended her campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination: Our next president will be a man. It wasn’t a surprising revelation after Warren’s disappointing performance in the primary elections. But it still stung for many people, especially women, many of whom are generally tired of being told that we can do anything we set our minds to, but are shown, time and time again, that “anything” still doesn’t mean “everything.”

It’s a bittersweet pill to swallow, especially for a generation of girls and women who went to college at higher rates than their mothers and, eventually, even their male counterparts, and who see both culturally and politically that their wins are still valued less than those of their male counterparts. I didn’t know what the future would hold when I was little, or that in 2020, we would still be racking up firsts in ways that are as galling as they are inspiring. But I do remember precociously telling my parents once or twice not that I wanted to be president one day, but that I would be.

I abandoned those plans sometime between my fifth and 10th birthdays, but not because I thought it wasn’t possible that a woman could do it. And all these years later, I know more than ever that women certainly are capable of it. In the bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020, we saw six women make the case they would be the best-case scenario. Five of them had even won past elections on the road toward their candidacies, often more consistently than their male counterparts. Their policies were similar to their male colleagues, but their success was not. None of their appeals resonated with voters enough to hold the line.

Of any candidate, Elizabeth “I Have A Plan” Warren was possibly the best example of what it means to do the work — though even she, with all her plans and policies, was not a perfect candidate. No one is. But she was one of the few who seemed most willing to admit when her ideas fell short and seemed interested in fighting to make things right. Is that due in part to the fact that men apologize less often than women do? Perhaps.

It is partially reductive to blame sexism as the sole demise of her, or any other woman candidate’s campaign. But it’s also not entirely off the mark: In Super Tuesday exit polls conducted by the Washington Post, however, most Democratic voters indicated they wanted to support a candidate who could beat Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton won 3 million more votes than Trump in 2016, only to lose to him due to the electoral college, and report after report quoted voters who weren’t ready to take that risk with another woman candidate again.

Warren herself pointed to the divide in a press conference she gave after suspending her campaign. “If you say, ‘Yeah, there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘Whiner!’,” she said to reporters. “And if you say, ‘No, there was no sexism,’ about a bajillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?’”

It would not only be impossible, but willfully obscures the facts to judge the female candidates as if they were not who they are, which is to say, women. As Samhita Mukhopadhyay wrote for Teen Vogue, identity informs every element of our lives, and it affects how other people see us, too. Even people who are fighting to dismantle sexism can be influenced, and maybe even a little spooked, by the sexist and racist standards in the world around us. A new report by the United Nations, published the same week that Warren dropped out, found that 90 percent of respondents globally held some sort of bias against women — that includes the 39 percent of respondents from the U.S. who said that men make better leaders.

But it is also simplistic, and patronizing, to suggest that people of any one identity group will inherently support someone who “looks like them.” Because we cannot forget: A plurality of white women voters sided with then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016. And not every woman has other women’s best interests at heart — and if your feminism is exclusionary to some people, does it actually serve anyone at all?

And this wasn’t the only hurdle that the 2020 election has laid bare, given that what started out as the most diverse Democratic primary pool we’ve ever seen became whiter, straighter, and more male as the months dragged on. That isn’t to say that white, straight, male candidates can’t vouch for the constituents whom they do not mirror; both Biden and Bernie Sanders have their own track records on those points. But frequently, topics like reproductive rights and income inequality seemed like afterthoughts during the debates, rather than the critical issues they are.  Warren had plans for them. So did Harris.

All of this serves as a reminder that so many things factor into the easily-debunked strawman called “electability.” Because make no mistake: When they run, women win elections at the same rate that men do. If anything is standing in the way about whether women are electable, it’s the fight to get them to run at all. And it’s also crucial to hold good candidates accountable, and to make clear that they should not rely on representation alone to earn support: Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) is still in the race, yet women voters are not coalescing around her.

My lived experience was never going to be fully reflected on the 2020 debate stage, and I made peace with that a while ago. (If you are also a queer Latina who was raised in Los Angeles by divorced parents and you want to run for president in 2024 or beyond, please, step up to the plate.) But for the most part, the optics of all but literally seeing myself in that spotlight miss a larger point about what a president can and should do. What I have learned to look for, instead of a mirror, is someone who will center the needs of people like me, and the people even more marginalized than I am. It’s a rubric that I think holds every candidate accountable equally, and I’m too stubborn to give it up now — the straight, white men shouldn’t get a pass simply because they’re the only options we’ve got.

That doesn’t mean that I’ve given up hope that we’ll one day see a woman in the White House. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think it was disappointing to have to wait at least four more years to try and make it happen (and even that isn’t a guarantee). And while we will likely see a woman vice presidential candidate in the ensuing months, I hope that she is chosen not as condolences for the alternative. I want her chosen outright.

I want a woman president because not wanting one is antithetical to the possibilities I know women are capable of. I want her to be elected fairly — and not assume the role in the way Hollywood first back-doored its way to President Selina Meyer, because her predecessor resigned in Veep, or in the hazy ambiguity of whether Ben or Leslie was actually president in the Parks and Rec flash-forward. I want her elected not solely because she is a woman, or because the country finally felt properly shamed for the sexism it has exhibited from the jump. I want her elected because she is the right person for the job.

And I cannot shake how bittersweet it is to know that we will have to wait that much longer to find out who she will be.

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