Yesterday, CNN ran a story claiming that Bernie Sanders had once told Elizabeth Warren, in her own apartment, that a woman could not win the presidency. The account came from several anonymous sources; Sanders adamantly denied it in a statement to the outlet, calling it “ludicrous.” From the moment of the story’s publication, it served as a kind of online Rorschach test: Warren supporters who dislike Sanders took it as further evidence of his problem with women, and Sanders supporters saw it as a thinly sourced smear. To many, it seemed like a trick, a trap, or just a nightmare.
So everyone got something out of it — except that no one actually gained anything, as the very real subject that the controversy was purportedly about, sexism in politics, got swallowed up by back-and-forths, denials and confirmations, and infighting between the supporters of the two candidates who would actually do the most good for the most women.
It is not necessarily sexist to bring up the issue of sexism in presidential races, in a country in which the man who won the last contest openly discussed groping women on tape and has referred to them as “nasty” animals. Hillary Clinton herself has called attention to the bias she experienced as a female candidate in 2016. There are nuanced, thorny, emotionally complex conversations to be had about what it means to have a woman running again, and what it means that her competition from the left is a man.
But CNN’s story didn’t elicit this type of engagement. Instead, the topic was wielded as a cudgel, hijacked for maximum provocation. Never mind that Warren worked genially with Sanders for nearly two years after this conversation supposedly occurred, and there was clearly more to the encounter than the headline about it. After declining to comment for several hours, Warren eventually confirmed only that she and Sanders had a conversation in which she said she thought a woman nominee could win, and Sanders “disagreed.” “We have been friends and allies in this fight for a long time,” she also wrote.
Nothing has made me more frustrated in this election so far than reading the words, “a woman can’t win,” over and over again as this story traveled in the last 24 hours, blared across websites, in retweets, scrolling on the bottom of the TV at the gym. One of the most pernicious things about sexism is that in marking it we risk being hemmed in by our own jadedness. Simply repeating, without context or interrogation of the issue, that you’re afraid a woman can’t win makes it harder to imagine a future in which, freed from this all-encompassing conversation about her gender, she can. It’s dangerous to reduce misogyny to an incendiary buzzword in a headline, or a rhetorical firebomb to lob — there are real questions to be asked here and realities to face, and we’d benefit from hearing Warren discuss them on her own terms. Instead, we were merely herded back onto the hamster wheel of finger-pointing and scorekeeping, chirping and flailing. Meanwhile, the terrifying factions of people who don’t want women anywhere near the halls of power, who don’t want anything to change, are patting themselves on the back somewhere, thrilled that we’re doing their work for them.