Senator Warren and American misogyny: reflections from a disgruntled, healing #persister
I woke up late on the morning of March 5th, 2020, having worked late the night before. The first thing I saw was a message of concern and care from a Bernie-supporting friend. I didn’t want to look at news headlines, but I did — yes indeed, Senator Warren had dropped out of the 2020 Democratic primary. It wasn’t in any way surprising; after falling poll numbers, disappointing results in early states, and ultimately disconcerting delegate counts on Super Tuesday, her campaign had publicly announced that she would be taking time to assess her campaign.
From that Tuesday night until the following Thursday, I felt uncertainty and sadness, but also somehow numbed. Dying embers of a hope that she could somehow pull through and clinch the nomination through a convention strategy stood in stark contrast to those more negative feelings, and I frankly didn’t know what to feel.
Part of me was mystified; how was the nation not seeing the brilliance, the warmth, the perfect blend of head and heart that I was seeing? How could they not see that that’s what we need in a leader, as I do? Another part of me was livid, because I was convinced that I really did know exactly why — misogyny. Plain. And. Simple. More evolved parts of me knew that it was more complex than that, yet still were granting that misogyny was undeniably a key ingredient in the mix.
There were “electability” concerns. Dear readers, I’ll save most of my griping for that force in our politics for another day. I will state, in short, my belief that “electability” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you don’t vote for a candidate because you don’t think they’re electable, you’re part of many people doing the same, and electable they won’t be. I read over and over that so many voters like her and would be happy to vote for her, but were concerned about her chances against Donald Trump. That concern is understandable; Liberal and Progressive people across this country were literally traumatized by the results of the 2016. And Warren was literally asked about concerns that she’d be “Hillary’ed”. “But she’s not Hillary,” I would say to myself. She was her own “thing” — she had her own lane of highly pragmatic, highly adaptable progressivism.
That leads me to the “can do no right” effect. Exhibit A: healthcare. She was pressured to release the details of her healthcare plan, undeniably driven by a concern that it was “too progressive” (read: too expensive, not feasible). When she released her plan, with an adjustment to phase in after three years of a “public option” (note, still with the same goal of a single-payer system in a reasonably small number of years), large segments of the political Left called her a “traitor” — “the enemy, a Centrist at best” is a direct quote I heard from a Sanders supporter. This was the udgment, rather than an acknowledgement of the pragmatism of giving the American people three years to see for themselves the favorability of government-sponsored healthcare.
When she would be polite and cordial in certain debates, not jumping in at every possible opportunity to speak, she was not getting in there and showing her strength enough. When she would raise her voice and not mind interrupting fallacious arguments from her primary opponents, she was too aggressive. Every woman knows this “can do no right” effect — we’re forever slutty or a prude, too thin or fat, too quiet or a bitch. Chillingly, Warren herself discussed accusations that she doesn’t “eat enough”. Does any reasonable person doubt that if she were twenty-five pounds heavier, there would be people calling her fat? [Side-note pro-tip: unless it’s your job or social role, just don’t comment on other people’s bodies. It’s problematic and unnecessary.]
Katha Pollitt cogently speaks to this “can do no right” effect, and we women’s intimate familiarity with it, in “Mad About Elizabeth Warren” (The New Yorker, 13 March 2020):
She was too smart, too rigorous, and always right,” as my friend Katherine put it. ‘I have a plan for that’ became a kind of joke at her expense,’ another friend, Leslie, added. ‘She was so knowledgeable and so prepared that her life as a brilliant student stood out.’…Even in our famously anti-intellectual country, it is possible for a wonk to win the White House. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were intellectual superstars, and got elected anyway — indeed, Obama’s brain power was one of his major selling points. But, apparently, for a woman, being “brilliant”, “knowledgeable”, and “prepared’ are suspicious qualities, suggestive of élitism and snootiness. On the other hand, if Warren had been obtuse, ignorant, and unready, that wouldn’t have worked, either. Being obviously unqualified to lead the free world only works for men.”
The Nevada debate also made it clear that fiery, no-holds-barred Warren was the true Warren, the best Warren. Donations poured in and people across the nation were buzzing about her again. Many were saying that she could dish out the fearless heat that Donald Trump’s contender would need to dish out to have a fighting chance against him. Yet by that point, it was too late to save her campaign. The complexities around campaign infrastructure and the resources that it takes to mobilize incoming dollars were what they were. That turn of events reveals what many women learn: sometimes the best way to fight to fight the “can do no right effect” is to be unapologetically, fearlessly yourself — but sometimes by the time you learn that, it can be too late to turn your life into what you want it to be.
Senator Warren lost voters before she even began because of another sexist double-standard we are held to; women are to show caring and nurturing for others, but not to assert and otherwise act on their own emotional needs. I hold to that Senator Warren released the results of her DNA test because she was tired of the Leader of the Free World calling her late parents liars (recall: “Pocahontas” — hurtful and low).
In my view, the political efficacy of the DNA test is debatable (contrasting the view that it was “objectively a misstep” from Vox’s Emily Stewart). On the one hand, it actually did make some voters question her and family’s veracity, given the small percentage of Indigenuous heritage the results showed. Yet if she were to go head-to-head with Donald Trump without ever having released those results, would the matter not have been a constant point of attack?
I would be remiss not to acknowledge the hurt from that turn of events that Indigenuous peoples have described. Senator Warren recognized that dynamic, apologized for her actions, and — in true Warren-style — released a comprehensive plan to heal and empower Indigenuous communities. The current occupant of the White House invalidated the humanity of millions of people in marginalized communities in this country far before he was even elected. It wasn’t enough to stop him from winning the office.
A third effect of misogyny that Warren experienced through her campaign was not being believed. A gigantic rift between the Warren and Sanders camps grew when it came out that calls scripts for Sanders volunteers guided them to describe Warren as “the candidate of the elites” (I look at myself and many, many Warren supporters I know and just laugh at the ridiculousness of that claim, but I digress). Next, Warren revealed that Senator Sanders had privately said to her that “a woman can’t win” — which he strongly denied. The rift between the long-time friends got to the point that she refused his handshake; all she wanted from him in that moment was an answer to why, she felt, he had called her a liar on national television.
All of this led some in the Sanders camp to tweet snake emojis at her and reply with those emojis on Instagram. Imagine being told that you are a snake hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day. A chilling point from Pollitt: “after all, women and snakes go way back.” Is it shocking to see that a woman wouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt in this culture? Would we really collectively believe that a woman could lead the world?
Our notions of the highest levels of leadership, and gender roles more broadly, are just too hard-wired into us. At deep subconscious levels, notable competence in women is seen as threatening rather than to be commended, rewarded, and utilized. It’s at odds with our very conceptions of the world, society, and the human race. Yes, it is indeed complicated. Because it is less about individual actions than about the water that we all swim in. And it’s heartening to see more and more of us begin to see it.
Awareness is the first step. It was maddening and disheartening for me personally to see a writer in The Atlantic reference her doing slightly worse among women in some states as a supportive point for the argument that it wasn’t misogyny that brought her down. Good sir, have you not heard of “internalized misogyny”? Every woman knows that it can be stronger than misogyny from men.
It lives in our bones and sinew — from when our mothers told us to change because we look too “racey”, to when we watched other women bring us down to build themselves up, to when we were successfully gaslit as to why less-qualified men had surpassed us. When we are told certain things about ourselves for long enough, it is hard not to begin to beieve it. Good sir, it is less about any individual group of us and more about the water that we all swim in. Can you begin to see it too?
It was perhaps an insult to injury to see Michael Bloomberg get a higher percentage of the vote than Senator Warren in some states — after she so transparently revealed who he is in the November debate: sexist, power-hungry, and dishonest. This is a man who jumped in the race almost a year after she did, didn’t participate in early states, and was able to have many talking about him as a worthy contender for the nomination — because of his money, certainly, but misogyny undoubtedly played a part here. Does anyone think that all of that would have worked for a Michaela Bloomberg? Perhaps that’s an untestable counterfactual, but just to throw that out there.
Nevertheless, groups across the nation gathered to support the Senator and her vision. They haven’t disbanded following her exiting the race — only re-named themselves and re-branded. The effect will be hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people across this country fighting for an America guided by pragmatic, thoughtful progressivism.
The people in my local Warren organizing group have become dear friends and allies. With them, for the better part of a year, I knocked on doors, sent texts, made calls, talked to loved ones about the Senator’s vision, and more. We’re still in this fight, for a governance that puts all people first — not big corporations, not special interests, not the almighty dollar, but all of us.
Rachel Maddow interviewed Senator Warren the day after she dropped out, and discussed how so many women — some who weren’t strong supporters of her, some not very political — were “bereft” after the Senator’s exit from the primary. She asked the Senator if she believed that we’d ever have a woman in the White House, or if it would be elderly white men leading us forever. Yes, the Senator said, we just need to keep believing and fighting for it — after all, we were never going to have a Catholic president until it happened, and we never going to have a Black president until it happened, she affirmed. Tears streamed down my face watching this, seeing this grace and strength in the face of what had just happened with her campaign.
I want to thank the Senator for continuing to give us hope in the face of darkness — to have hope over fear, courage over cynicism, to continue dreaming big and fighting hard. I want to thank her for pinkey-promising thousands of little girls and setting an example for fearless female leadership. They will carry on her vision long after she’s left the national stage. Her race is over, misogyny is still all around and a part of us, but the fight continues. It’s bigger than her, it’s bigger than all of us. It is the belief in what is right itself. If that’s not worth a relentless fight, I don’t know what is.