For a year on the presidential campaign trail, Elizabeth Warren has tried very hard to not have the kind of conversation about sexism that can be messy for candidates, but this week, in a fight with her ideologically closest Democratic competitor, those efforts exploded in her face. It was a reminder that among the many challenges facing female candidates in presidential politics is the fact that there remains absolutely no good way to describe the many challenges facing female candidates in presidential politics.
Warren’s campaign, till now, has been both disciplined and creative in its approach to the fact that the candidate is a woman, which matters both because the United States has never elected a woman president and because, four years ago, the first woman ever nominated by a major party — one who talked a lot about the historic nature of her candidacy — lost to Donald Trump.
It’s not that Warren hasn’t talked about gender; it’s that until now, she has presented the feminist ambitions of her campaign in a way that hasn’t been about her or her experiences of bias, instead giving a series of big speeches that have subtly reframed the history of American organizing and policy change by foregrounding women. She has talked about the young textile workers who organized in Lowell, Massachusetts; the black washerwomen who went on strike in Atlanta in 1881; and the young women who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911 and how their fate changed the path of Frances Perkins. Just last week, she gave a New Year’s address at Boston’s Old First in which she spoke of one of its most famous congregants, the poet Phillis Wheatley: “It was a terrifying thought, to some powerful white people,” Warren, “that this young woman, this young enslaved woman, would create something so potent that she challenged the existing order.”
It has been a clever approach, a way to talk about the challenges to male power posed by a left-leaning woman candidate promising big structural change, without actually having to get into the muck of describing what it’s like to be that candidate or what it’s like to run against her. That’s over now; we’re in the muck.
On Monday, CNN’s MJ Lee reported that according to several sources, during a private 2018 meeting between Warren and Bernie Sanders in which the two longtime progressive compatriots discussed the upcoming 2020 race, Sanders had told Warren that he didn’t believe a woman could win the presidency. Lee’s original story included a denial from Sanders, who told Lee, “It is ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn’t win,” and, “What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist, and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could. Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course! After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes in 2016.”
Warren’s campaign declined to comment for most of Monday afternoon, while Sanders supporters mounted a furious defense. Campaign manager Faiz Shakir called the story “a lie,” and campaign spokesperson Briahna Joy Gray retweeted videos of a younger Sanders telling third-graders in 1987, “I hope the girls will think they have the right to be involved in politics as much as the boys do; it’s beginning to change but it’s not changing fast enough” and saying on C-SPAN in 1988, “In my view, a woman could be elected president of the United States.”
Around 8 p.m., Warren released a statement emphasizing the goals and ideas she shares with Sanders and that their meeting was about how they might work to achieve those goals. “Among the topics that came up,” at the dinner they had in 2018, she said, “was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.” Warren’s statement indicated that she would not be discussing the meeting any further and again emphasized that she and Bernie were running for president for the same reason: “to talk about what’s broken in this country and how to fix it.”
It was unclear whether Warren’s statement would tamp down or further inflame either her supporters or livid Sanders backers in advance of Tuesday’s debate, but what she was stepping into was one of the riskiest moments of her campaign so far.
Engaging in a he-said-she-said back-and-forth doesn’t often redound positively to the woman, especially since the defense from Sanders’s team is that she is outright lying. That’s a charge that’s particularly perilous for Warren, for reasons not coincidentally related to some of the particular hurdles faced by female candidates. Charges of dishonesty or inauthenticity can stick effectively to women and have already been made to stick harder to her than to any of the other candidates in the race, even those with spottier track records.
But the charges of lying being thrown around by both sides seem not only potentially self-destructive and counterproductive but well beside the point. Because what Sanders himself said, in his denial, that “what I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist, and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could,” is not at odds with what Elizabeth Warren may well have heard.
Women, especially those running for office, hear predictions about the kinds of bias that could be effectively wielded against them all the time, not just from sexists or blowhards but from friends and allies and progressives and feminists. As a journalist who covers women in politics, I have heard that a woman can’t win the presidency from feminists, colleagues, family members, from people who believed with all their hearts, back in 1972 and in 1987 and in 1988 and in 2008 and in 2016, that of course a woman could win the presidency but who, they tell me sadly, no longer believe that that is true. This belief — the lack of belief in the possibility of a woman president — is at the heart of the “electability” narrative that has been Elizabeth Warren’s biggest roadblock so far in a primary season during which she is broadly popular and provokes a lot of enthusiasm but in which people are really scared to fully throw themselves behind a female candidate again. They’re scared because, as Bernie Sanders himself says he discussed with her, if she’s the candidate, she will be running in the general against a hateful misogynist and that presents a real-life, genuine set of challenges for a female candidate.
That lots of people feel this way doesn’t mean it’s true that a woman can’t win; I don’t believe for a second that it’s true.
But it also doesn’t mean that worrying that it might be true is inherently sexist. And it doesn’t mean that hearing it or some version of this conviction all the time — including from your allies and future competitors — as you gear up to run for president isn’t absolutely maddening, so maddening that you might vent about it to friends and colleagues who then, as tensions build between campaigns, might make the extremely foolish choice to repeat a game-of-telephone reductive version of it to the press, running the risk of spectacular backfire.
I know that expressions of concern about women’s prospects in electoral politics frustrate Elizabeth Warren because she has described her frustration about them to me in the past, during a 2018 conversation we had before she entered the presidential race, just a few months before the conversation she had with Bernie Sanders. We were talking then about the kinds of things she’d been told back in 2011, when she was considering a run for the Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat against popular Republican incumbent Scott Brown, who had beaten a woman, Martha Coakley, in 2010. Warren remembered the phone calls telling her, “You can run, but you better understand: Massachusetts will not elect a woman to an office this big.” Those calls, she told me, “were friendly calls. That was … the saddest part, the most infuriating part about these calls; they came from people who wanted to be kind but wanted to make sure that I understood the hard reality of America.”
What has been exposed here are some of the complicated, painful, difficult dynamics that have kept women from the presidency for the country’s entire history. Among those dynamics is the chilling fact that talking in any kind of honest way about marginalization becomes a trap for the marginalized. To acknowledge the realities of running as a woman — the double standards, the higher bars, the demands for likability and relatability in a nation that mostly only relates to and likes dudes; the need to be authoritative but not hectoring; to be smart but not a know-it-all; to be cool but not fake; to be warm but not a mommy; to be maternal but not too soft; to have the contours of your life, from your breasts to your skin-care routines to your maternity leaves, treated as foreign and weird and maybe counterfeit by a political media that’s never had to take this stuff seriously before; to be honest but not actually tell the truth about any of this stuff because you’ll sound like a whiner — is a trap. You will be understood as trying to leverage the bleak unfairness of it all to your benefit: as if you are the one to enter the arena with the advantage of getting to cry “Sexism!” and not with the multiple disadvantages of … sexism.
And so you can’t really sit down and talk about it, certainly not in a media landscape that trades in sound bites and takes and lethal tweets; you can’t actually meaningfully reveal the things that drive you nuts or that stop you short or shock you into stunned silence, because how can this still be so ridiculously dumb and obviously unjust? To live this, and to not be able to talk about it, and to be regularly warned about it by even well-meaning people who aren’t experiencing it themselves? It must be galling.
Especially galling for a human being like Elizabeth Warren, for whom forward motion is a constant, for whom predictions of doom, or even setback, are anathema. Back in 2018, when she recalled those friends who warned her that a woman couldn’t win Massachusetts, she stared at me and said, “At the end of the day, you just can’t let that [stop you]. You could’ve said to me, ‘You’re going to get all your skin burnt off,’ and my answer would have been, ‘That’s going to be part of the prize.’ Every person who said to me, ‘Massachusetts won’t elect a woman,’ or, worse, ‘When you lose, it will set back the cause of women,’ made me lean harder into the decision to run.”
Of course now, people are talking about it. And it’s bad for Warren, and it’s probably bad for Sanders. What Bridget Read has pointed out — which is that this conflagration has the terrifying capacity to blow up both of these campaigns — is true. And what’s bad for both Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders is good for their centrist competitor: Joseph Biden.
While Bernie and Warren scuffle over who said what and how during a friendly pre-primary conversation about progressive ideals and goals, Biden is out here saying everything they’re struggling with in far more clueless and obtuse ways. “I think there’s a lot of sexism in the way they went after Hillary,” Biden said just a couple of weeks ago, in public. “I think it was unfair. An awful lot of it. Well, that’s not gonna happen with me.”
Joe Biden’s solution to systemic sexism in electoral politics is literally … Joe Biden! Which, if you think about it, is a metaphor for how we’re all trained to think about the solution to systemic sexism in electoral politics. Because really: If we worry so much about whether we can elect a woman that it guides our choices, what we get is self-fulfilling prophecy, a future that looks like our past. In ceding to our worst fears about our lack of capacity for growth, we ensure that we will never grow, never change.
Ceding to those fears would be wrong. Not just morally but strategically. Because a lot of the people who we’ve worried can’t win in American politics — Barack Hussein Obama, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, the historic numbers of first-time female candidates in 2018 — have won.
But what no one is going to win is a Twitter war.