“So can a woman beat Donald Trump?” Elizabeth Warren asked about an hour into the seventh Democratic presidential debate on Tuesday evening. It’s an uncomfortable — and, frankly, depressing — question. And it’s one that’s on a lot of Americans’ minds.
But what happened next was uplifting: The two women onstage, Warren and her fellow senator, Amy Klobuchar, made a case that women can and do win in politics all the time. Their proof? Themselves, and plenty of other women like them.
Warren, in probably her biggest moment of the evening, noted that the men on the stage have collectively lost 10 elections. “The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are women: Amy and me,” she said, to audience cheers. She emphasized that as recently as 2012, she won a race against an incumbent Republican, former Sen. Scott Brown, and cast herself as a unity candidate in the Democratic field.
“The real danger we face as Democrats is picking a candidate who can’t pull our party together or someone who takes for granted big parts of the Democratic constituency,” Warren said. “We need a candidate who will excite all parts of the Democratic Party, bring everyone in, and give every Democrat a place to believe in. That’s my plan, and that is why I’m going to win.”
Klobuchar then took the opportunity to build on Warren’s message and point out that the possibility for women to win in American politics extends beyond the two of them, even if a woman hasn’t yet broken through the highest, hardest glass ceiling that is the Oval Office. You don’t have to be the tallest, skinniest, or loudest person in the room, “but you have to be competent,” she said. She pointed to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, both of who defeated their male opponents in 2018.
And then Klobuchar brought it back to herself: “When you look at what I have done, I have won every race, every place, every time.”
The remarks came about as part of a broader conversation stemming from Warren’s contention that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) told her in a 2018 meeting that he did not believe a woman could win the upcoming presidential election, which CNN first reported earlier this week. Sanders has denied the claims, and Warren continues to say it did happen.
But beyond the Sanders versus Warren disagreement, the fact that two women politicians held themselves up as examples of success is, well, pretty neat. There’s no denying that when it comes to rising to the top in politics, corporate America, or plenty of other arenas, women are held to a different standard.
Women are, in fact, winning
Women are winning more now than they ever have, and the more they run, the more they’ll win — and, obviously, lose. But just because Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 (though she beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes) doesn’t mean the door is closed forever. Men have been losing the presidency since the nation’s birth, and we’re not asking whether it’s time for them to reconsider running.
As Vox’s Li Zhou has written, there are plenty of reasons to believe women are electable: Women drove the wave that allowed Democrats to retake Congress in 2018, and the women who tossed their hats into the ring for the 2020 presidential election have strong electoral showings. When women run, they generally win at the same rates as men.
That doesn’t mean sexism isn’t real. As Klobuchar pointed out at the November debate, if women weren’t held to a higher standard, we would have had a woman president before. And for women in politics and, honestly, a lot of women, the electability question is a personal one, as writer Rebecca Traister outlined this week in The Cut with respect to the Warren-Sanders debacle:
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.
However 2020 turns out, and whoever the nominee is, having women onstage matters. And seeing them make their case and advocate for themselves — something plenty of women struggle to do — matters, too. Warren famously tells little girls on the campaign trail that she’s running for president because that’s what girls do.
No matter who emerges as the nominee, women running for the presidency is no longer a novelty.