Months into the presidential race, with the pool of Democratic candidates whittling down to 12 from 28, one of the leading contenders at long last directly answered that question during the debate in Iowa on Tuesday night.
“It’s time for us to attack it head-on,” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said, referencing a recent dispute with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, in which she claims that he once told her he didn’t believe a woman could be president.
“Look at the men on this stage: Collectively, they have lost 10 elections,” she continued. “The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women, Amy [Senator Klobuchar of Minnesota, who is also running for president] and me.”
Then she went on to address another important, more specific question that has often plagued women in the past few months: Can a woman defeat President Trump?
“The only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me.”
Everything she said was true, rendering the idea that women aren’t electable to a “myth,” as Maggie Astor, a New York Times political reporter, has noted. In fact, despite the gender biases women face, they tend to win elections at the same rates as men. And in 2018, non-incumbent women won in House, Senate and state elections at a higher rate than non-incumbent men.
But what Warren did on Tuesday night — pivoting from her signature “I’ve got a plan” messaging to answer a question that a man would have never been asked — was a big political risk.
“In our focus groups, participants consistently react negatively to anything from women that can even be perceived as whining or complaining,” said Amanda Hunter, research and communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which supports women in politics.
Talking about sexism on the campaign trail can also be seen as leveraging gender for political gain. Or, as Donald Trump said in the 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton, it can seem like wielding the “woman card.”
“That claim of ‘are they trying to get sympathy on the basis of gender?’ has certainly been weighed against women,” said Kelly Dittmar, researcher at the Center for American Women and Politics and author of “Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns.”
So female candidates have historically tried not to discuss the big taboo. They have been told to stay quiet about the troubles they face and shed signs of their femininity in an attempt to prove that they are “man enough” to hold the highest office in the land, Dittmar said.
We saw that in the Hillary Clinton campaign 1.0 back in 2008, when she repeatedly pointed out that she wasn’t running “as a woman” but as “the best qualified and experienced person.”
“Throughout the campaign, many of the qualifications and experiences she emphasized were those typically expected of executive men,” Dittmar wrote in her book. “She portrayed herself as a fighter, donning boxing gloves and being credited with having testicular fortitude.”
Eight years on, in 2016, Clinton’s messaging changed, Dittmar noted over the phone. “She was more willing to talk about gender as an electoral asset.”
That strategy, which may have helped Clinton win the popular vote, has since influenced the campaign strategies of women running for office in 2018 and 2020, Dittmar added. “I would credit her in switching the paradigm a little bit to say that ‘my perspective as a woman is different and that difference brings with it substantive implications.’”
In this new cultural environment where we’re reckoning with power and inequality, this kind of conversation is more palatable to more people in the electorate, she said.
After Warren’s comments on Tuesday night, the hashtags #NeverWarren and #WarrenIsASnake started trending in the U.S., with many users accusing her of lying about her conversations with Sanders. This is not only a gendered reaction in itself to the first real tit-for-tat in the campaign between the two leading liberal candidates, but it also introduces a label that is more difficult for women to shake off than men.
Research has shown that “if women are painted, in some way, as scandalous or unqualified or, in this case, liars,” Dittmar said, “the fall from the pedestal is longer and harder.”
But, for the most part, Warren was widely seen as successfully landing that answer, threading the needle of defending herself without being defensive and of highlighting gender biases without explicitly talking about the challenges she faces.
“Warren was able to keep a light tone, showed confidence and was clearly prepared with facts,” Hunter said. “Those are all tactics for winning over voters.”
We can only wait and see how it plays out in the caucuses next month, if at all.