This week’s Democratic debates were historic: They mark the first time ever that more than one woman candidate was onstage at a US presidential debate.
On Wednesday, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) stood alongside Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) in the first night of the debates. On Thursday, Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and author Marianne Williamson were among the Democratic contenders duking it out onstage.
Throughout America’s nearly 243-year history, there have only been five women candidates who’ve participated in a presidential debate, writes advocate Barbara Lee for NBC News. In this cycle alone, there will be six women doing so.
It’s a significant milestone for a whole slew of reasons. For one, the presence of more diverse voices ensures that there are a range of perspectives expressed on issues central to the Democratic Party, including health care, immigration, and wages. For another, the presence of more women candidates this cycle on both the debate stage and the campaign trail normalizes the idea of women as presidential candidates, helping shift the definition of “electability.”
Images from this week’s debates compared to debates held by both the Democratic and Republican parties in 2015 captured the visually striking contrast of this increase in representation.
While the Democratic field is still predominantly male (19 of the 25 candidates, to be exact), the debates this week offered an opportunity to see what the conversation looks like as gender parity in politics continues to grow.
A history of women candidates at the presidential debates, briefly explained
Until this cycle, only a handful of women candidates have participated in presidential debates held by either party: Democrats Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun, and Hillary Clinton, and Republicans Carly Fiorina and Michele Bachmann.
None of them ever faced each other on a debate stage.
Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to the House, was the first woman to secure a spot in a presidential debate while running for the Democratic nomination in 1972. According to Lee, Chisolm explicitly petitioned the Federal Communications Commission for a slot at the debate after getting left out of three prior debates.
Her candidacy, which featured the platform “Unbought and Unbossed,” was dedicated to pushing the party further on issues like combating pay discrimination and opposing the Vietnam War. During her presidential run, Chisolm called for growing representation in all ranks of government.
“Our government, if [it] indeed is a democratic form of government, must be representative of the different segments of the American society,” she said, according to a PBS report. “I feel that the cabinet and the department head of this country must have women, must have blacks, must have Indians, must have younger people, and not be completely and totally controlled constantly by white males.”
Another woman candidate didn’t appear on the presidential debate stage until three decades later. Moseley Braun, the first African American woman elected to the Senate, ran for president in 2004 in an effort to raise awareness about inequities tied to gender and race.
She had faced allegations of ethical impropriety while she was in the Senate, and a New York Times report characterized her run as an opportunity to remake her reputation. But as she was weighing her presidential run, Moseley Braun argued that it was an unremarkable choice given her political background.
“The thought occurred, if I were not a woman — if I were a guy — with my credentials and my experience and what I bring to the table, there would be no reason why I wouldn’t think about running for president,” she said.
In the past decade, there have been more women who’ve pursued the presidency and participated in debates on the Republican side of the aisle as well. Former Rep. Michele Bachmann became the first Republican woman to participate in a presidential debate during the 2012 election cycle, when she ran as a staunch proponent of the Tea Party.
And Carly Fiorina, a former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, was among a large slate of candidates who competed in the Republican primary in 2016, fielding sexist taunts from then-candidate Donald Trump in the process. Fiorina had also previously run for Senate and was the only woman pursuing the Republican nomination that cycle.
Former Secretary of State and Sen. Hillary Clinton — the only woman a major party has ever nominated for the presidency — was, of course, also one of the most recent candidates to take the debate stage. In 2016, she ran on policies including Medicaid expansion, establishing a national paid family leave program, and defending abortion rights. And she dealt with sexist comments from competitors when she ran in 2008 and again in 2016 when she went up against Trump.
When she secured the Democratic nomination, Clinton emphasized that her candidacy was part of a larger movement toward equity. “Tonight’s victory is not about one person — it belongs to generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible,” she said.
Why the growing slate of women candidates matters
The number of women at the debates is significant, and could further normalize the idea of a woman nominee and president. As Lee writes in her analysis, studies have shown that when multiple women are interviewed for a particular job, a woman receives greater consideration for the role, partly because she’s seen as a real contender and not a token.
With more women running for the presidency, gender can no longer be used as the sole differentiating factor among candidates.
“I think that any time we have more women running, and greater diversity among those women, it just challenges those monolithic conceptions of what it means to be a woman candidate,” Kelly Dittmar, an assistant political science professor and Center for American Women and Politics scholar, told CBS News.
Unlike 2016, when Clinton was notably the only woman in the race, this cycle’s Democratic primary and the diverse slate of women candidates competing in it makes it much tougher for voters to simply say they can’t find a woman whose policies appeal to them.
The women candidates this cycle also span the Democratic ideological spectrum, so fewer generalizations can be made about their policy positions and strategies. Warren specializes in regulation of the financial sector, and Harris brings an expansive background as a California prosecutor, for example.
“In order to distinguish between them, voters would have to evaluate them on their policies beyond their gender,” says Mirya Holman, a political science professor at Tulane University who studies the intersection of gender and elections.
This week, the debates will give voters the opportunity to do just that.