When I phone banked for Senator Elizabeth Warren in the week leading up to Super Tuesday, I heard conflicting criticisms from two separate callers that, for me, uncovered the conditions of being a woman in politics. The first individual I talked to told me that they thought Warren was “too angry” in seeking accountability from Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the Nevada Debate stage. The caller told me that they did not think it was attractive, nor did they think it demonstrated the qualities to take on President Donald Trump. The second caller, days later, told me that they were not supporting Warren because they wished she had challenged another candidate more. She figured that if Warren was not willing to challenge this candidate, she would be ineffective against Trump.
Being a woman in politics means working from a toolbox with limited accessories. It means blindly scrambling in the dark, not fully knowing where the line of “too little”or “too much” begins and ends. I saw that through these two callers—Warren’s ability to speak up was limited by what temperaments are considered “acceptable” for women. At the same time, Warren was held to a higher standard of responsibility in challenging a candidate with whom voters disagreed. She faced a paradox: to appease one was to disappoint the other.
Candidate preference aside, everyone should be upset about the unjust conditions the women in the 2020 Democratic primary faced. Discussions about Warren’s qualifications to be president glossed over her extensive list of well thought out policies, her impressive record of political accomplishments, her well-rounded line-up of endorsements and her undeniable merit. Questions of electability lingered with gender as its primary aggravator. Make no mistake: when an individual questions whether a woman can be elected president, they are—even with good intentions—reinforcing a hierarchy of power between genders. No individual can have a fair chance at any job if they face socially-imposed questions on whether they can even hold the position.
Criticisms about Senator Amy Klobuchar were different, but similarly off-target. At the Nevada debate, Klobuchar was criticized for forgetting the name of the president of Mexico and one of her opponents immediately questioned her qualifications. While Klobuchar’s blip on the president’s name warrants its own discussion on the United States’ relationship with Mexico, Klobuchar was forced to spend much of the debate proving her political qualifications. The necessity for this defense is remarkable given Klobuchar’s extensive experience; in her 14 years as a senator, Klobuchar sponsored or co-sponsored 111 bills that became law. Nonetheless, this impressive experience failed to reach public consciousness. For both Warren and Klobuchar, careers of incredible advocacy were overlooked by questions of electability, implicit gender biases and media erasure. Regardless of whether one supports the policies and candidacy of these women, their objective qualifications cannot be denied.
As a young woman entering the workforce, I like to believe that hard work and good ideas are seen and valued. While the metrics of “being seen” and “being valued” are always up for debate, I still believe that the women of the 2020 primary race deserved more than they received. To make matters worse, the attention was often shifted to those less deserving of the spotlight. At the end of Super Tuesday, Mike Bloomberg had won a number of delegates relatively comparable to the remaining female senators on the ballot. He won these delegates despite having countless allegations of sexual misconduct against him and initiating a system of racial profiling while serving as mayor of New York City. Despite this, he was at times considered a competitive contender. Politics is never fair and money admittedly plays a large role. However, any person who has contributed to deeper social inequity should not be given a platform to compete in a party that calls itself the party of progress. Bloomberg’s delegate count relative to Warren and Klobuchar displays men’s ability to evade genuine accountability.
The issue of the 2020 primary election goes beyond preference of a candidate. It speaks to the difficult and seldom fair terrain of being a woman in American politics. According to Richard Fox and Jennifer Lawless in an article published by the “American Journal of Political Science,” women are held to higher standards of ethics and integrity than their male colleagues. In the 2020 race, this translated to higher expectations of morality than that of the male candidates and a greater visibility of female candidates’ faults. The research from Fox and Lawless’ article also suggests that women have less access to the political pipeline, or careers that often lead to public office. However, even women situated in the political pipeline still face challenges in career mobility. In the 2020 democratic primary race, male candidates received more delegates and stayed in the race longer than some of the women with more extensive political careers.
In the aftermath of Super Tuesday and Warren’s decision to end her presidential campaign, my first instinct when consoling Warren supporters has been to tell them that we have so much to be proud of and that the Democratic primary will still give us a candidate who can and will beat Trump. Yet I couldn’t take my own advice. In speaking to others, I realized that we are not only mourning the loss of a candidate we believe in; we are mourning the state of American politics which limits a woman’s ability to succeed. These limitations are exacerbated for women of intersecting oppressed identities. Nearly 100 years since the passage of the 19th Amendment, America has had only one female nominee for president. In our history of the executive branch, a woman has never been elected for the position.
As a result, I have settled on another response that does this reality justice. Instead of the excuses that coat the pervasive systemic issues behind this repetitive disappointment, I have settled on another response. I say, “you’re allowed to be angry.”
The future of women in politics is undoubtedly one of milestones and accomplishments. In the past year alone, more women have run for president than ever before. In the 2018 midterm election, a record-breaking number of women ran for and were elected to political office. The glass ceiling is being challenged—maybe not to the extent that we desire, but it is cracking nonetheless.
We cannot progress by glossing over the systemic barriers that prevent women from embracing positions of power in this country. Women are too often expected to brush off disappointment or frustration in the name of pragmatism, etiquette or the greater good. We must go against the grain; to feel this frustration is to understand its injustice. We cannot afford dismissal any longer.
When we swallow nagging feelings of injustice, we allow the cycle of oppression to continue. Amid a social and political system that repeatedly undermines and silences women, our voices are a form of a protest and can amplify one another. The road forward necessitates embracing the feelings within us. Retrospective appreciation about the value of each women’s candidacy is not enough. Take your space to sit with your feelings of frustration. Allow yourself the luxury of being outwardly upset. And then, like all the women before us, project that frustration into effective and earnest reform.