clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Democrats need to win women in 2020. The debate showed the candidates know that.

Abortion, maternal mortality, and other issues that disproportionately affect women were front and center at the debate.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) speaks as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) look on during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) speaks as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) look on during the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019, in Miami.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

“Democrats have been talking about the pay gap for decades,” moderator Savannah Guthrie asked at the first Democratic presidential debate Wednesday. “What would you do to ensure that women are paid fairly in this country?”

The question, and its answers, set a tone. Issues affecting women — as well as people of all genders who become pregnant — were front and center at the debate.

It wasn’t just pay equity. The candidates also had an extended exchange about abortion rights and brought up maternal health, child care, and violence against transgender women of color. Not every exchange was equally illuminating; candidates ultimately offered relatively unimpressive proposals for closing the pay gap, for instance. But they did bring up issues that aren’t always heard on a debate stage, as when former Housing Secretary Julián Castro put abortion rights in the larger context of reproductive justice.

The Democratic Party has long relied on female voters, especially women of color, for its victories. But on the campaign trail, presidential candidates haven’t necessarily focused on issues that disproportionately affect women. While abortion usually gets some airtime, child care, for example, is being taken more seriously this election cycle than at any time in the recent past.

To some degree, that’s thanks to the life experiences of candidates — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has said that the inspiration for her child care plan came from her struggle to find affordable care when her children were young. But the prevalence of such issues Wednesday night also may have been an acknowledgment on the part of the candidates, male and female, that they need women’s votes to win. And with several candidates in the race who have detailed proposals on reproductive health and other areas, voters who care about those issues no longer have to settle for someone who doesn’t make them a priority.

Abortion, pay equity, and more were key issues at the debate

Wednesday night featured a number of key moments focused on issues affecting women or other people who can become pregnant. Here are a few examples:

  • A discussion of pay equity. The question on the gender pay gap was posed to Castro and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and as Vox’s Alexia Fernández Campbell pointed out, neither did a stellar job. Castro talked about the Equal Rights Amendment, which, while important, wouldn’t fix the problem. Gabbard dodged the question. As Campbell notes, either could have promised to sign the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill backed by Democrats that would require businesses to report salaries, promotions, and dismissals to the government, broken down by gender and race.

Though it was a missed opportunity for the candidates, it was notable that a question about the pay gap — not always something candidates discuss on the trail — came up early in the debate. The candidates have time to do their homework on the issue for next time.

  • Sparring on abortion rights. The candidates argued about abortion Wednesday, but it wasn’t about whether it should be legal (or “safe, legal, and rare,” as Hillary Clinton said in 2008). Rather, they tried to one-up each other as defenders of abortion rights. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee came off looking somewhat dismissive of his female opponents when he argued that he was the only one onstage who had actually gotten things done on abortion access (he signed legislation requiring that insurance plans that cover maternity care also cover abortion). But Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota put him in his place by reminding him that some of his female opponents had fought hard for legislation to expand abortion access (even if it hasn’t yet passed). And Warren had a chance to tout part of her reproductive rights plan: codifying Roe v. Wade in federal law.
  • A nod to reproductive justice. When asked if his health care plan would cover abortion, Castro said it would. Then he added, “I don’t believe only in reproductive freedom, I believe in reproductive justice. And, you know, what that means is that just because a woman — or let’s also not forget someone in the trans community, a trans female — is poor doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have the right to exercise that right to choose.” As journalist Mary Emily O’Hara pointed out, the reference to “a trans female” was an odd one — trans women cannot become pregnant, though trans men can. Still, it was notable to see a candidate bring up the concept of reproductive justice, a term coined in 1994 that describes a focus not just on the legal right to abortion but also on affordable access to a full range of reproductive health care, as well as the ability to parent children safely. Though activists have organized around this framework for years, presidential candidates haven’t necessarily cited or engaged with that work, as Castro at least attempted to do.
  • A mention of violence against trans women of color. When New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker was asked why LGBTQ Americans and others who care about LGBTQ rights should vote for him, he said, “We do not talk enough about trans Americans, especially African American trans Americans and the high rates of murder.” He was talking about women like Chynal Lindsey, one of at least four trans women killed in Dallas in less than four years, according to BuzzFeed News. The American Medical Association has identified a rise in “fatal anti-transgender violence” in recent years, the Washington Post reported, with the biggest spike among black trans women. Historically, the killings of black trans women have been underreported in the media and often overlooked by policymakers, but Booker wasn’t the only presidential candidate to call out the problem this year. Earlier this month, Warren tweeted, “The murder of Black trans women is a crisis.”
  • Discussion of maternal health, pay equity, and child care as racial justice issues. “For decades,” Klobuchar was asked, “the Democratic Party has counted on African American voter turnout as step one to winning elections on a national level. Democrats are counting on the Latino community ... in the same way. What have you done for black and Latino voters that should enthuse them about going to the polls?”

“My life and career and work in the Senate has been about economic opportunity,” Klobuchar responded. “This means better child care for everyone.”

She added, “This is about a few things. It’s about an African American woman who goes to the hospital in New Orleans and says her hands are swollen, and the doctor ignores her and her baby dies. It’s about the fact that African American women make 61 cents for every dollar a white man makes.”

Klobuchar was making a point that had gone unsaid during the initial pay equity debate — that while we often hear that women make 80 cents to men’s dollar, the gap is actually much larger for black women. She also pointed to the fact that black women can face provider bias that affects the health of their children as well as their own health — black women in America are dying in childbirth at three to four times the rate of white women.

Her mention of child care was short, but it was noteworthy that it was the first economic issue she chose to mention — a reminder that for many Americans, especially women, having affordable, reliable child care is the foundation of career and economic security. That, too, is a racial justice issue — black and Latinx mothers are more likely than white mothers to say they would look for a more lucrative job if child care weren’t an issue.

The question Klobuchar got was notable too. As the moderator noted, black and Latinx voters, especially women, helped hand Democrats key victories in 2018 — and unlike white women, black and Latinx women voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Yet the Democratic Party has often pushed issues like maternal mortality, which disproportionately affect women of color, to the side. (To be fair, these issues have been all but ignored by the Republican Party, too.)

This year, though, candidates are making a bigger effort, with concrete policy proposals on maternal mortality, child care, abortion rights, and more. People of all genders affected by these issues (which have always been far more than “women’s issues”) no longer have to push their concerns aside when deciding whom to vote for. The candidates may not be perfect, by any measure, but they’re saying more than perhaps ever before about issues that shape the lives of women and all people who can get pregnant — and voters will have plenty to think about when they make their primary choices next year.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.