The Democratic Presidential Primary Is a Story of Female Erasure

Two years ago, pundits praised the electoral power of women. Now Elizabeth Warren’s campaign is all but finished.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren poses for a photo with a young girl ahead of her Super Tuesday night event on March 3, 2020 in Detroit.
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

NNow that the dust has settled from Super Tuesday, Elizabeth Warren sits in a distant third. The only other female candidate, Tulsi Gabbard, has absolutely no chance of winning the nomination. The frontrunners, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, are both white men. This primary started with more viable female candidates than any before in history. It was supposed to be the contest that tapped women’s post-Trump rage and activism, the so-called pink wave that elected unprecedented numbers of women and gave Democrats the House. Four years after Hillary Clinton’s defeat, that energy would have another strong shot at finally putting a woman in the White House.

Instead, the contest has shown that while women’s energy, rage, and grassroots activism are essential to Democrat’s success, the party faithful are even more hesitant to back a woman for president than they were in 2016.

Throughout the 2018 midterms, female Democrats did the bulk of the organizing against Trump. They flipped the House blue and ultimately elected 118 women to Congress, an all-time high. Sociologist Theda Skocpol, who traveled across the country to Trump-supporting counties to study post-Trump resistance organizing, calls the post-Trump women’s movement “an inflection point,” wherein “college-educated women have ramped up their political participation en masse.” Female voters were following different patterns than they had in years past — and when that energy was harnessed, as it was in 2018, it had a tremendous impact.

Pundits extolled the power of the pink wave, and, at least in the beginning, it sure seemed like the momentum would carry over into the presidential primary. But soon the women were winnowed out: Kirsten Gillibrand tanked by enraged Al Franken defenders, Kamala Harris subject to death by a thousand cop memes, Amy Klobuchar edged out to make room for Biden. Now we’ve only got Warren still standing, though she too is constantly urged to drop out, including by her rival who has a history of staying in races long after he’s lost.

Indeed, the women candidates who survived the longest during this primary were the ones who found a way to distance themselves from gender. Of the last two female candidates polling above 5%, Klobuchar was an unthreatening moderate who explicitly signaled friendliness to anti-choice politics, and Warren’s early popularity likely derived from the fact that, like Sanders, she prioritized class over identity for much of her career. Yet Warren couldn’t play down her gender forever, and when she confirmed reports that Sanders believed a woman couldn’t win in 2020, it imperiled her chances and led to a swarm of snake emojis. Sexism still remains a strong predictor for opposition to her candidacy.

In 2020, the narrative has been more one of female erasure than feminist resurgence.

The 2020 contest provides another data point that when female presidential candidates campaign on gender, it backfires: Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign centered on imagery derived from the feminist movement — glass ceilings, suffragette white, “Gender Cards” — and at best, she was dismissed by younger feminists as an out-of-touch second-waver, while at worst, she was accused of telling women to “vote with their vaginas.” In 2020, Gillibrand campaigned on women’s rights and #MeToo more than any other female candidate — and was also the first to drop out.

And yet the Democratic presidential primary has always come down to women. In 2016, 58% percent of the people who voted in the Democratic primaries were female, a number that was consistent with previous trends. Women of color, specifically, are the bedrock of any Democratic candidate’s support. Women have also taken the lead on grassroots organizing. They were 80% of the protesters at Women’s Marches, 54% of the protesters at the People’s Climate March, and 70% of the protesters at the March for Our Lives. Women have made up to 86% of phone calls to Congress, and in general, women are just more likely than men to vote.

In 2020, the narrative has been more one of female erasure than feminist resurgence. On Monday, The Atlantic published a lengthy analysis arguing that “college-educated white voters” are likely to cast the deciding votes in the Democratic primary. Unmentioned in that piece is the fact that the majority of those voters are not white people, they’re white women, and that the exodus of college-educated white women from the GOP has been one of the major demographic stories of the past decade. White men from every background, along with non-college-educated white women, are staunchly conservative and likely to remain so. College-educated white women backed Hillary Clinton by a tiny 51% majority in 2016 — but by 2018, 59% voted for Democratic candidates.

Meanwhile, Sanders performs worse with college-educated white women than any Democratic candidate, and his campaign has made no concerted effort to win them; if anything, his supporters’ fervent denunciation of “wine moms” and “Resistance liberals” seems intended to keep them out of his coalition. Biden is so fundamentally unsuited for a post-#MeToo campaign that — even as it becomes apparent his success is almost totally dependent on black voters, most of them black women — he can’t stop making stupid statements about Anita Hill.

Just as female votes are taken for granted, female leadership is counted out. Warren, the last female candidate standing, is still holding the line of the pink wave — she was the first candidate to roll out a plan for universal childcare, the first to roll out a plan for protecting Roe v. Wade, and has spent the past weeks hammering Mike Bloomberg on his sexual harassment allegations, and repeatedly giving past female organizers and changemakers their due. She has the endorsement of EMILY’s List and the distinction of campaigning as “the female candidate,” though that distinction has been the millstone around the neck of many female candidates before her. But her fall has been hard and fast. Even in her home state of Massachusetts, she finished third.

The erasure of the pink-wave vote happens in part because women’s work is taken for granted — a long-standing dynamic where women do the hard, tedious work of organizing and men serve as the public faces of those movements — and in part because they operate outside the established framework of moderates vs. progressives. Skocpol, summarizing her research on women’s resistance groups to HuffPost in 2018, said that “We don’t find Bernie people [in these groups]… I haven’t found even a whiff of Our Revolution. I think that’s mainly a big-city, liberal-area phenomenon.” Yet, when those same women reached out to the mainstream of the Democratic party, they told Skocpol they were blown off by officials more concerned with apps and capturing youth votes than with tapping the engaged voters they already had.

The Democratic primary has divided in a way that almost exactly mirrors this dynamic — a progressive white man on one side, a moderate white man on the other, and female candidates with a range of ideologies squeezed out due to the fact that neither wing of the party sees women as credible movement leaders.

The pink wave had power. But now we’re seeing, once again, that women are politically useful so long as they’re not running for president.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Seen at Elle, In These Times & all across the Internet.

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