A minor miracle has happened overnight, and most of us haven’t noticed. So stop for a moment and look: As I write this article, everyone officially running for the Democratic nomination is a woman.
Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) was the first to formally announce her run, in late December. Not long afterward, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) came out with a suspiciously presidential-looking book and book tour; sure enough, reports from “sources close to her” said Harris would be announcing her own candidacy on or near Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) hired a new set of aides and leased a large building in Troy, New York, which is expected to serve as her campaign headquarters; the staffing decisions, in particular, were reported by the New York Times as “a sign that [Gillibrand] is all but certain to join the race against President Trump and that her entry may be imminent.” Finally, Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) announced her own candidacy last Friday on CNN.
I find myself in a situation I never expected: excited — no, not just excited; elated — to see these women run and, just as important, to see how they will run against each other.
Sure, men are going to join the Democratic primary eventually. Cory Booker is expected to announce any moment, and we can surely expect Joe Biden and/or Bernie Sanders to come roaring into the ring. Nor, for that matter, have we finished hearing from the potential female candidates. There’s still no word from Amy Klobuchar, a beloved Midwestern senator with such a severe case of Minnesota Nice that she ends her threats to foes with “will serve coffee.”
Still, if only for one historic moment, the male candidates look to be outnumbered. This is a 180-degree turn from the old order, in which there was usually one woman in the race, and her name was usually Hillary Clinton.
Hillary Clinton’s loss seems to have shocked many women into an awareness of just how deeply we want and need to see women in power.
There have been female candidates before Clinton — most notably, Shirley Chisholm, whose 1972 run provided a still-relevant model for progressive leadership by women of color — but they typically lacked the resources or intra-party support to launch a credible campaign. Clinton had the connections and the funding (boy, did she ever), but she was always the only female candidate in her races; she had to run not just as a woman, but as the woman. She could either tap-dance around and downplay her gender (in 2008) or play it up as a reason to vote for her (in 2016), but in either case, Clinton had to run not just as the representative for a particular platform, but as the sole representative for half the world’s population. Women objected when she failed to represent their particular variety of womanhood, and men objected that she was there at all.
It was an impossible role to take on, and Clinton fell — something that feels as inevitable, in retrospect, as her victory did in 2016. Yet her loss seems to have shocked many women into an awareness of just how deeply we want and need to see women in power. That craving for female leadership propelled an unprecedented number of women into Congress during the midterms, and it has provided us with our current, once-unthinkable situation: multiple credible, viable female candidates for the presidency, running against each other, with each woman empowered by the presence of the others to run as an individual, and not just “the female one.”
This is an unexpected and powerful gift. We are no longer voting for or against “a woman.” We are choosing which woman to vote for. We are no longer asking if a woman can be president. We are asking which woman should.
We do have to ask, because this is an exceptionally rich and vibrant field of candidates. If I have an early favorite, it’s Gillibrand; her focus on ending sexual violence and creating gender equity best matches my own political priorities. I’m also signed up to volunteer for Elizabeth Warren, who has been calling out the 1 percent and advocating progressive measures to restore our social safety net since long before it was fashionable. Feminists I respect have made compelling cases for Harris — citing her effectiveness as a communicator and debater or the need to see black women’s leadership reflected at the highest levels of the Democratic Party— or for Klobuchar, mocked as “the senator of small things” for her work on bread-and-butter issues that matter to suburban moms (getting lead out of children’s toys is a “small” issue only if you don’t have children) but who manages, by courting that oft-dismissed sector of female voters, to get reelected on massive margins. Hell, there is even an objectively bad candidate in the running — Tulsi Gabbard, whose hatred of “homosexual extremists” is matched only by her love of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad — giving women the chance to prove that, no, we don’t just vote for anyone who happens to be female.
There are so many great women in the running that I am actually stumped as to whom I’ll vote for. They will have to run against each other for me to find out. This is exactly how primaries, and feminism, should work. When women run against each other, we get to talk not just about “women’s issues,” but about which women’s issues we want our leaders to focus on; we get to talk not just about “female leadership,” but about how we want women to lead.
We can also have smarter discussions about the candidates’ flaws. During Clinton’s campaigns, many of her supporters were pushed into a no-win situation — either admit the female candidate is “flawed” and abandon her for a man or stick by her and be caricatured as a simpleton who cares only about electing women. That simply doesn’t apply here. It is perfectly reasonable to want Warren held accountable for the ignorance of Native American cultures and concerns she showed through her DNA test. Or to want Kamala Harris to make amends for the violence against transgender women and sex workers she enabled through her enthusiastic backing of SESTA or her handling of trans prisoner rights as California’s attorney general. It is also easy to say that, even so, either of these women would make a better POTUS than Tulsi Gabbard or, for that matter, Joe Biden. There is no longer the sense that by declining to support any particular woman, we give up the chance to vote for a woman altogether.
A female-dominated race will not be kinder or gentler than a male-dominated one; women can be fierce competitors too. Nor will a race dominated by white women necessarily be free of bigotry. Kamala Harris, in particular, is vulnerable to media bias or racist attacks from her opponents, because if being “the only woman” is hard, being the only black woman is much, much worse. The 2020 Democratic primary could still get ugly — and, in fact, it almost certainly will.
But it will also be something we haven’t seen before. It will be the arrival of a long-delayed future, the outcome feminists were pushing for every time we made a fuss about the importance of female candidates and got shushed in favor of something “more important”: a world where multiple women are running for president. Female power is not risky or rare or strange. Female power is normal, and in a world with an abundance of gifted, feminist, female politicians, a feminist woman will be president at least some of the time. The next time some guy at a party tells you he’d “vote for a woman, just not that woman,” you can reply, “Okay, not her — so you’ll vote for her? Or her, or her, or her?” There was a time when the question was hypothetical. That time is over.