Last night, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand entered the 2020 presidential race, joining the growing ranks of Democratic hopefuls vying to take on Donald Trump and reclaim the White House. Ready or not, election season is once again upon us and notably three candidates who are firmly in the race so far are women, with more likely to follow in the coming days and weeks.
Even before there was a single contender in the field, I was routinely being asked my opinion on the race and the landscape. Often before I could even answer, the questioner followed — sometimes snidely, sometimes timidly — with “do you really think a woman can win?”
So let’s just take that bull by the horns right away.
Yes a woman can become president. But whether one will have a fair shot at trying is up to us.
Over a third of the countries in the world have had a woman head of state. For the first time in history, a major American party will have multiple women running for the highest office in the land. Next year’s election, which most agree is the most important election of our lifetime, will mark 100 years since the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote. The 2018 midterm elections were a resounding rebuke of our current president, and an affirmation of our shared values of equality and inclusion. Women not only powered the elections at the state and national level, but the new majority in the House is historically diverse — geographically, ethnically, and ideologically — and dominated by women who are setting a new tone and a new agenda.
Let’s be crystal clear: today, women are the heart and soul of the Democratic base and the fuel that is driving victories up and down the ballot.
Still, the apprehension is palpable.
It’s hard not to understand. Whether or not you were a big Hillary supporter (I was), 2016 hurt. We witnessed insidious misogyny erode the debate and undermine confidence in one of the most accomplished women in modern politics. It was both shocking and all too familiar for many women. Add to that Donald Trump’s adeptness at wielding overt sexism — not to mention racism, bigotry, and xenophobia — as a weapon against progress. Most recently, the Kavanaugh hearings and confirmation were a hard slap in the face to so many women who bared their souls in order to see justice on the highest court in the land, and we were reminded of how deeply gender biases are ingrained in both men and women. All of that takes a toll and it’s natural to want to minimize risk to avoid more pain. And no doubt that beating Donald Trump is first, second, and third priority, so many are willing to suppress desire for a woman president if they are led to think that is necessary to beat Trump.
But not giving the women in the 2020 field a fair shot because of these fears would be a grievous error. It’s no longer 2016. We’ve had unprecedented levels of engagement by women in the last two years. In 2018, we tripled the number of women Democrats in Governors mansions around the country. Trump’s unbridled sexism and inept leadership has caused the GOP to hemorrhage women voters. His favorability is in the toilet with women. And women know better than anyone what’s at stake for their families if we don’t do a sharp u-turn on everything from healthcare to economic security to reproductive freedom and Roe v. Wade. Trump’s presidency is no longer hypothetical. The impacts are real and growing. He promised to punish women, and with a complicit GOP, he is doing just that.
Of course, the GOP doesn’t have an exclusive patent on misogyny. If they did, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. This McSweeney’s article titled “I Don’t Hate Women Candidates — I Just Hated Hillary Clinton And Coincidentally I’m Starting To Hate Elizabeth Warren” has gone viral on social media. While it is meant to be satire, for far too many of us it hits way too close to home. We can and we must do better as a party. Otherwise we just stand in our glass houses and throw stones.
In stark contrast to the other side, we can and should be proud of our embarrassment of riches of Democratic candidates, led by women who bring proven leadership, substantive ideas, and life experience that mirrors much of the Democratic base. The sheer number of women in the field — historic in and of itself — will make it harder to conflate gender with any one individual, and just as men have been judged since the beginning of time on their individual merits, so too will Americans be forced to grapple with publicly acknowledging that women are not a monolith — we have different leadership styles, unique ideas, diverse core values, and varying approaches.
Speaking of men, there are some great ones in the mix. At NARAL, we’re happy to throw our weight behind all champions of reproductive freedom and our Men for Choice have been among our staunchest allies, fighting with us hand in glove for gender equity and abortion access as a human right. And there’s no question that having women in the race will indelibly elevate and expand the conversation. A temptation to revert to the false juxtaposition of “social versus economic issues” will be checked by the presence of women and candidates of color on the big stage, a visual reminder that separating “identity” from “jobs and economy” is a privilege enjoyed only by those whose ethnic and gender identity has always held power. All of that is evolution, iteration, and progress. All of that makes for a stronger party and a stronger social contract with the American people and the best candidate we can have.
The quest for us is not to assure that a woman will emerge victorious in 2020, only that we do not participate in stopping them by giving into our fear at the expense of our aspiration.
All candidates should rise and fall based on the weight of their ideas and their vision for leading this nation. Not their gender.
Let’s commit not to fight the last war.
Let’s commit to call out sexism in the media and among friends and family and let’s have zero tolerance for sexist attacks from other 2020 candidates. Let’s commit to checking our own biases too.
Let’s commit to remembering that a woman candidate has already won 3 million more votes than the current occupant of the Oval Office and lost the Electoral College vote by fewer people than can fit into my home team Cowboys Stadium.
Let’s commit to believe that change is possible, that firsts will happen, and that the time to take risks is when it’s all on the line.
If we can do that, we’ll all be victorious, no matter who becomes the nominee. The Democratic party will be stronger and we can accomplish the goal we all desire — beating Donald Trump.