The Rush to Write Off Elizabeth Warren Is Making the Hillary Generation Furious
Progressive women feel they are being erased from the Democratic presidential primary
Should Elizabeth Warren drop out? On one level, it’s a natural question to ask after the one-time Democratic front-runner finished in a disappointing third place in the Iowa caucuses and fourth in her neighboring state of New Hampshire. In presidential politics, few candidates — male or female — ever survive the harsh consequences of underperforming.
On another level, the sentiment is utterly oblivious to the fury and hurt bubbling up among the millions of women who have supported Warren’s campaign. Three years after Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump, the political class seems dangerously out of touch with women’s broiling resentment over the sense that being smart and competent won’t ever be enough.
I have spent many hours over the past three years interviewing, as part of a book project, a group of women who met as freshmen at the University of Michigan in the mid-1960s. Like many of their baby boomer peers, these women watched as men with equivalent levels of education — in some cases their own spouses — out-achieved and out-earned them. They straddled career and family obligations, exhausting themselves on the infamous “second shift” while husbands and male colleagues fired up the grill on summer weekends and then gave themselves the rest of the year off domestic duties.
For many of these women, electing Hillary Clinton was supposed to be a form of validation — a final, irrefutable sign that as complicated and frustrating and sometimes disillusioning as their adult lives had been, the general trajectory was toward progress.
But with Clinton’s defeat to a man most of them regarded as her intellectual and professional inferior, these women and their peers faced a pair of startling revelations. They might not live to see a woman elected president of their country. And the progress they had taken for granted might be reversible — or, worse, an illusion.
It’s enough to make a woman livid. Indeed, as the Democratic presidential primaries hurtle toward Super Tuesday with the once-formidable candidacy of Kamala Harris already ended and Elizabeth Warren all but forgotten by most of the press corps, thousands — perhaps even millions — of progressive women are surprising themselves with the depth of their pain and rage. They will not be erased. They are being erased.
Electing Hillary Clinton was supposed to be a form of validation — a sign that as frustrating and disillusioning as their adult lives had been, the general trajectory was toward progress.
It is an accumulation of outrages. Hillary Clinton reappears after the election to write a memoir and give speeches, and the Crooked Media bros want to know why she won’t just go away. Christine Blasey Ford endures death threats to testify against Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, and is greeted by skepticism, mockery, and Kavanaugh’s own incandescent rage over having his nomination besmirched. Kamala Harris is dismissed as too angry after she takes on that nice old former vice president. Kirsten Gillibrand is branded a traitor for taking down Al Franken. Elizabeth Warren’s political obituary is written after all of two primary contests. And on it goes.
The profound well of anger is by no means limited to white baby boomer women. Younger counterparts talk about “2016 PTSD” or report that they’ve been “rage donating,” as the act of making angry political contributions has been dubbed in the age of Trump. But it is perhaps most intense among boomers, in part because many of them are now looking back at their lives through the lens of the last presidential election.
One of the most naturally optimistic of the baby boomer women I’ve been following is a woman named Linda, who recently retired after a long career as a pediatrician. When we spoke a few months after the 2016 election, she was disconsolate. “All the advances we thought happened and were secured, they were just gone,” she said.
To Linda’s mind, the outcome represented nothing less than the erasure of her entire generation, the women who came of age during the first blush of feminism and who had anticipated a Clinton victory as the validation of their own choices and sacrifices. She thought of her own struggle through medical school at a time when there were no locker rooms for female doctors, of the oncology career she gave up for her ex-husband, of the decades spent raising four children on her own.
The year before Linda and her classmates graduated from college, only about 30% of women her age expected to be working at age 35 — roughly the same percentage whose mothers worked. Five years later, the percentage of women in their late teens and early twenties who expected to be working at age 35 had nearly doubled. Their expectations about what their futures would bring had escalated faster than at any point in history, leading to what the economic historian Claudia Goldin has described as a social revolution.
For a while, reality played along. Women graduated from college and professional schools at increasing rates, and flooded the workforce.
But reality did not, in the end, deliver. By the mid-1990s, all the charts and graphs that had looked so promising in previous decades had begun to flatten, and in some cases even retreat. Today, fewer than 20% of partners at the top 200 law firms are women, even though law schools have been graduating roughly equal numbers of men and women for several decades. Fewer than 10% of Fortune 500 chief executives are women, even though more than 40% of business school graduates since the 1990s have been women.
The past three years have been a roller coaster ride for Linda’s generation. Though painfully wise to the ways that harassment and discrimination had stalled their own career prospects and weighed on their psyches, they were not prepared for the avalanche of testimony about routine assault and misogyny shared after revelations about the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and Les Moonves. The scale of it — the persistence of it — was shattering.
At the same time, the 2018 midterm victories for progressives were the result of women turning their grief and anger into activism, swamping campaign offices and maxing out donation limits with whatever they could spare. They ran for office in record numbers, too, winning a record number of seats in Congress. Women powered the resistance in suburban communities across the country, and turned an organization like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America into a force that has gun rights activists back on their heels for the first time in decades. By the summer of 2019, there appeared to be an embarrassment of riches, with not just one, but five women running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Now it’s very possible that none of them will end up facing Donald Trump in November. If that happens, this presidential cycle will have shown that even rage comes with a double standard attached. It can put a pampered former reality television star in the White House. But it can’t vault an eminently qualified woman like Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris to the top of a ticket.
Democratic operatives counting on millions of highly energized women to power their nominee across the finish line 2018-style would be advised to take notice of this. The stage of grief that typically follows anger is… depression.