On a bright Saturday morning in early March, the annual Texas schmoozefest known as South by Southwest was off to a groggy start. It was noonish, and on the streets of the state capital, the assembled tech-and-music cognitive elite were starting to stir. Billionaires stalked the streets, talking into wireless headsets. Startup founders scootered along the sidewalks, headed to events on networking, mentoring, and blockchain synergies of all description. People reached out; looped each other in; circled back; touched base.
Meanwhile, on a stage inside the downtown Moody Theater, an exchange was happening that had never occurred before in the history of the world: A woman with a plausible shot at the U.S. presidency was explaining how her policy ideas differ from those of another woman with a plausible shot at the U.S. presidency.
It was a quiet moment, and probably few in the audience realized the import of what was taking place. Amy Klobuchar, a Democratic senator from Minnesota, was sitting in a chair being interviewed by journalist Kara Swisher. Just the day before, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of Klobuchar’s leading female competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination, had proposed breaking up tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon—a prospect that had people in Silicon Valley “vomiting into their Allbirds,” as Swisher put it. Swisher wanted Klobuchar’s response. When it came, it was measured: Having called for “reasonableness” to prevail in the debate among Democratic candidates, Klobuchar sought to appear sympathetic to Warren, while taking pains to sound more cautious and bipartisan. Klobuchar said she would investigate the companies, and explained that she had co-sponsored a bill with a Republican colleague to address rampant privacy abuses within the tech world. She finished with an appeal to better fund the government agencies that enforce antitrust law. “This would get at some of the stuff Elizabeth is trying to get at,” she ventured, “in a different way.”
You’d be forgiven for not noticing the conversation, just one of countless policy exchanges among Democratic contenders in the already swiftly moving campaign field. Yet it was evidence of a profound shift in the political landscape. Until now, U.S. presidential campaigns have been as routinely and exclusively male as a restroom line at Hooters. Pretty much since the day the country was founded, most presidential cycles have included exactly this many serious female candidates: zero. There was the occasional protest-outlier candidacy—Victoria Woodhull in 1872, for example, or Shirley Chisholm a century later. There were women of real stature, like Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith, who simply were way too ahead of their time; minor party candidates like the tenacious Lenora Fulani; and an assortment of aspirants from fringe entities such as the Looking Back Party, which gave us the record-setting, five-time candidate Isabell Masters, who tended to select her own children as running mates. Then, beginning in 2000, every cycle had at least one woman candidate whom most voters would have heard of. These were Elizabeth Dole in 2000, Carol Moseley Braun in 2004, Hillary Clinton in 2008, Michele Bachmann in 2012, then Hillary Clinton again—and, briefly, Carly Fiorina—in 2016. The reason you may have forgotten half these candidates is because they did not have the remotest chance of winning the Oval Office, or even the party nomination. “That’s the whole point; they totally don’t even register. They were standing on the stage,” said Jennifer Lawless, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. “Nobody was thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, that might be the next president of the United States.’”
Now there are six—count them, six. Klobuchar, Warren, New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, and California’s Kamala Harris have a plausible shot, followed by Hawaii’s Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, whose qualifications and motivation remain unclear, and spiritual author Marianne Williamson, who, in her apparent quest to transmute news-cycle mentions into book sales, is channeling not so much her nineteenth-century spiritualist predecessor Woodhull as the great self-help goddess Oprah.
To be sure, the United States is not Iceland, where women were put in charge after male recklessness and corruption led to the 2008 banking crisis. Nor are we France, where quotas require that parties must run an equal number of women candidates as men. And our political system certainly does not resemble the parliamentary democracies of Scandinavia and Northern Europe, where women were able to take office in significant numbers soon after the feminist revolution of the 1970s, sliding onto tickets alongside men at a time when aspiring American female political leaders could barely get the parties to notice them. We are not even Rwanda, where, after the genocide, a quota system ensured that 30 percent of government positions were filled by women, who brought with them basic policy innovations like seat-belt regulation—and, oh yes, peace.
Even so, five candidates with name recognition, in 2020, is a lot more than two, in 2016. And four real contenders add up to 400 percent more than one. “Numerically, it’s kind of stunning,” Lawless pointed out. This summer, when the Democratic primary debates are expected to begin, the American public will be treated to another historic visual: a critical mass of women, none of whom is named Clinton, standing together on a presidential debate stage and reacting to one another’s ideas. It’s startling to realize just how quickly this has occurred. During the 2016 campaign, there was scant discussion of which women candidates were available besides Hillary Clinton—as if she were the only woman in the political world. Now, the post-Hillary truth emerges: The Democratic Party had a bench.
And because they are not Hillary, this group will present a purer test of how voters and members of the chattering classes react to women. “Although they all have baggage and have all made missteps, they don’t have the Hillary Clinton baggage,” Lawless observed. The 2020 election will not be a referendum on Clinton and everything she and her husband represented. Instead, it will be “an actual choice” between women whose backgrounds, careers, and accomplishments have nothing to do with their husbands. The slate is at once blanker and bigger: “These women completely made it on their own.”
In another sense, when you review their monolithic credentials, the 2020 lineup of women contenders is underwhelming. The four serious candidates are all lawyers. All are Democrats. All are U.S. senators, which means that as politicians they have thrived in a system that demands compromise and discipline and party loyalty, rather than, say, executive leadership and bold decision-making. Historically, governors do better than senators in presidential contests, so the dearth of female governors—of the women who have run for governor, many have won, but they don’t tend to run in the first place—may hobble women’s chances of winning the presidency. The scarcity of women governors also suggests that state political establishments are not recruiting them.
And among the female senators who are running, real policy differences are strikingly absent. No one is suggesting they should take money from corporate PACs. No one is disputing whether government should ease the tuition and debt burden for college students, provide better childcare and paid leave for parents, or move toward universal health care. The chief disagreement is how to get their worthy social-democratic goals accomplished. The distance between Warren, who is furthest on the left, and Klobuchar, who is furthest to the middle, recalls the stinging Dorothy Parker line about Katharine Hepburn’s emotional range as an actress: It runs the gamut from A to B.
But the lineup does offer a new set of insights into the role and experience of women in politics. For more than a century, one argument for bringing women into public life has been the belief that they are more virtuous and high-minded than men. One might call this the Iceland-Rwanda theory: the idea that women offer not only something unique, but something better, to the conduct of public life. (In Rwanda, women took over in part because they constituted 70 percent of genocide survivors—a stark truth that in some ways supports the argument about their moral fiber, in that men were more likely to be involved in the horrific fighting.) Yet after declaring their candidacies, all the U.S. female front-runners have suffered scratches to their veneer, calling that idea into question. That is by no means a bad thing. As long as women are expected to be better than their male counterparts, it may be harder for them to win.
Still, regardless of their ultimate shot at the Oval Office, the sheer presence of so many female contenders will offer some data about the impact of women in politics and what value their gender adds. If it’s distinctive to be a woman candidate, does that distinction work against women, or—sometimes—in their favor? To win, must a woman be exceptional? Can she be as feckless as, say, a George W. Bush, as flawed as a Bill Clinton, as colossally unprepared as a Donald Trump, as gaffe-prone as a Joe Biden, as cranky and unkempt as a Bernie Sanders? If not, why not? Are women still more constrained in their behavior? Could a woman ever get away with a Beto O’Rourke–style pre-campaign walkabout, driving around the countryside and blogging, musing, waiting for the spirit to move her in the direction of running, while a spouse handles childcare? Would she experience a wave of adulation and a shower of dollars upon deciding yes? Does any of us really expect an affirmative answer to that question?
Do women work with other people better than men? Are they less, or more, tough? Does scandal affect them more than it does men—or less? When Hillary Clinton was running, the American political scene was rife with conjectures about women politicians, based on a data set of one. Clinton absorbed the early blows—and now that the dust has cleared, maybe we can discern some new truths. At the least, a few long-debated questions about women’s leadership proclivities and political talent may finally yield better answers. What follows is a preliminary, and by no means definitive, sampling of the research.
First, let’s revisit a truism that has figured prominently in the debate over gender equality: the idea that women are less ambitious than men are. This is the underlying premise of, for example, Sheryl Sandberg’s influential book Lean In. Is it correct? To date, a fairly robust set of social science research has suggested that women demonstrate less ambition, in politics and in the workplace. Academic inquiries have shown that they are less likely to apply for promotions and more likely to consider themselves not fully qualified even if they meet, say, 90 percent of résumé requirements for a higher position. Men, by contrast, will apply for “reach” jobs even if they meet only some of the criteria. And in politics, studies show that women are much more likely than men to worry about being unqualified for political office. Men and women are both more likely to run when it’s suggested to them by another person; the difference is that men receive that suggestion more often than women. In other words: Women are less likely to look in the mirror and see a potential president.
Prevailing social mores and political attitudes, of course, have conspired to uphold this women-intimidating status quo—particularly in politics. For more than a century, one reason we didn’t see female presidential candidates was because women couldn’t, you know, vote. And even after the ratification of the 19th Amendment, many states worked hard to suppress the votes—and political participation—of African American and immigrant women, imposing poll taxes and literacy tests. Beyond those explicit barriers, there were forbidding internal ones: It took a long time for many women to disentangle their own views from those of their husbands and begin voting in line with their own convictions—not to mention their own gender interests.
It took even longer for women to begin running. For much of the twentieth century, women tended to take office only when their husbands died, and they were expected to function as placeholders while the party looked for a suitable male successor. Democratic Senator Hattie Caraway of Arkansas was unusual in that she replaced her late husband and then refused to step aside. She won successive elections on her own merit in the 1930s and stayed on in Washington, where she was known for knitting in the Senate chamber. Caraway spoke on the floor only 15 times in her career, earning the nickname “Silent Hattie” for her reticence. “I haven’t the heart to take a minute away from the men,” she said of her behavior. “The poor dears love it so.”
Even after women began running in their own right, it was hard for them to get party backing or raise money. Barbara Mikulski, when she was running for the U.S. Senate in 1986, had to fight to get the party establishment to believe in her candidacy. That’s no longer the case. For better or worse, Hillary Clinton was a fund-raising juggernaut; and in this cycle, Kamala Harris is having enormous success raising money from small donors, equal to or greater than that of Bernie Sanders in 2016.
By sheer force of numbers, though, the current slate of women unambiguously challenges a good deal of the conventional wisdom about their being less ambitious. Indeed, the strong initial turnout of early-filing 2020 female candidates suggests another factor may have been stymieing executive ambition among prominent female political leaders: the presence of Hillary Clinton. “All of these women who are running have had this ambition for some period of time; everything was artificially constrained, because there was this sense that Clinton had to go first,” said Kathleen Dolan, chair of the political science department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “Now the floodgates of women’s upper bounds of ambition are open, and what you see is six women throw their hat in the ring.” Of the remaining people still uncertain, none was female. The women jumped in early and jumped in hard. They probably understood that unlike some of their male colleagues, they could not afford to dither and flirt. “We talk a lot about whether women are ambitious enough,” Dolan added. “What we’re seeing—they’re as ambitious as the men. Nancy Pelosi was rubbing her hands together every day to get that gavel back. These women, it didn’t occur to them just last month to run for president. There’s this interesting time we’re in now; women’s ambition at this level is going to be visible, and bigger.
“In some ways, 2008, 2016, Clinton still looked like the unicorn,” Dolan continued. “Who else but her? People would scratch their heads and say, ‘Gee, would there be anybody else but her?’ But of course there were—a bunch of them. Until she was moved off the stage, we didn’t see that.” Regardless of who wins the party nomination, “the process is going to be really important for normalizing to voters the presence of that many women on the stage.”
Of course, this is an unusual and self-selected group, not necessarily representative of ordinary women who might or might not take the risk to run. John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University, thinks these four senators are by definition “a bunch of politically ambitious women.” That is to say, they’ve already met the first-order fire-in-the-belly measures of presidential ambition. As such, they don’t necessarily contradict studies showing most women remain reluctant to get started in political life. Sides points out that for all the analyses suggesting a large new class of first-time female candidates helped the Democrats handily win a sizeable House majority in the 2018 midterms, the actual percentage of women lawmakers in Congress increased from just 21 percent to 24 percent: “If you look at the change in the percentage of members of Congress who are women, it went up as a consequence of 2016, but not by a lot—a few percentage points. There’s still far to go.”
Even so, he thinks it’s significant that none of the women running is earthshakingly exceptional. It’s a step forward simply “to have this signal, that a presidential campaign is not just something for a once-in-a-generation political figure like Clinton, but something that can be sought after by just a senator, and not even senators with a decades-long political career.” As a spur to inspire new female candidates to run for office, he added, the sight of these ambitious women redefines the realm of the possible, for the next tier of women who may run in 2024, and 2028, and so on. “Having some exemplars is helpful.”
The flip side of the shifting correlation between gender and worldly ambition is the stereotype that women are in many respects morally superior to men—a factor indeed long held to be behind their alleged diffidence about conquering the world. Women’s suffrage—the famed “first wave” of American feminism—grew out of the abolition movement of the early nineteenth century. It was steeped, like the female-dominant temperance movement, in a conviction of the inherent moral virtue of women. The first great wave of women-led reform took for granted that women inhabited a noble, hygienically refined realm far above the base and corruption-prone system of male politics.
Of course, the core logic of the separate sphere—that women’s superior virtue arose from their confinement within the private domestic space of hearth and home—sat awkwardly alongside the public demands of campaigning and reform agitation. The hand that rocked the cradle was supposed to rule the world from a discreet and retiring distance. So in the 1840s and ’50s, for example, when women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony began speaking out against slavery, ardent upholders of patriarchal order contended that women didn’t have the right to speak at all.
It’s hard, these days, to remember how radical it was simply to suggest that women should have a voice in public life. But once the general case for the broader inclusion of women was made, it spread throughout every reach of the American social order. Soon a new national women’s movement was arguing for women’s right to wages and personal property; the right to divorce their husbands if they were miserable in marriage; the right to equal standing with men—and, crucially, the right to vote. The 1848 Seneca Falls convention—the country’s first gathering to address women’s issues in any comprehensive way—laid out all these startling views.
But hand-in-hand with suffrage agitation came the idea that women, already idealized by the Victorians—Virginia Woolf, quoting a Victorian poet, called transcendent female virtue the “angel in the house,” and it haunted her—would improve public life by dint of their moral quarantine within the separate domestic sphere. It was but a short step from this broadly held presumption to the still-potent social myth that women, as a caregiving class, possess mystic reserves of virtue and decency.
The idea stuck. Even today, Americans tend to view women politicians as less corrupt. “There is absolutely a perception that women are more honest and virtuous when they are in office, or are candidates,” said Debbie Walsh, president of the Center for American Women and Politics. In part, this is because they are: Women’s misbehavior in office pales in comparison to some of the more egregious transgressions of men. “We haven’t had the woman governor who disappeared for days, ‘hiking the Appalachian trail.’ We haven’t had the woman who is taking photos of her genitalia and texting it to young boys.” At the same time, Walsh said, this idea can present a problem; precisely because women are expected to behave better, there’s some research showing they get treated more harshly when they tilt against stereotype.
In the 2020 presidential field, the contender most apt to adopt the familiar rhetoric of special female probity is Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who puts a modern, working-mom spin on the image of old-fashioned maternal rectitude. In her early campaign pitches, Gillibrand has made much of her role as a mother. By dint of having birthed and raised her own kids, she claims, she will work harder on behalf of everyone’s offspring. During a recent interview, she pointed out that in her second congressional race, she was campaigning with a toddler and an infant. This babe-in-arms image, she argued, thwarted her opponent’s efforts to sully her. “You cannot win a campaign [against a mother with young children] on negative campaign ads,” she said, “because nobody believes you.”
Gillibrand also has positioned herself as the most overtly feminist activist among the female candidates of 2020. Many women politicians resist talking about hardships experienced by their sex—fearing, rightly, that it could make them look less effective to their constituents. But Gillibrand has embraced an updated brand of separate-sphere-ish politics talk, melding older Victorian theories of female moral enlightenment with the second-wave feminist conviction that the personal must be political. In her 2014 memoir, Off the Sidelines, she discussed the challenges of being a working mother in the stuffy and tradition-bound U.S. Senate, where rules banning children from the Senate floor meant that, in order to vote after picking up her kids from school at 6 p.m., she had to stand in the doorway of the chamber and lean her head in. To her credit, she bared her own #MeToo-related mortification before there was anything like strength in numbers. In her memoir, Gillibrand breached Senate old-boy alliances by revealing that a colleague—later identified as the late senator from Hawaii, Daniel Inouye—put his hands on her waist and told her not to lose too much weight, because he liked his women chubby.
Gillibrand has been a workhorse on issues having to do with sexual assault on campuses and in the military. Her presence, like that of other women on the Armed Services Committee, has made a difference in how military women fare. Gillibrand also was among the first high-profile Democrats to call for her colleague Senator Al Franken of Minnesota to resign in the face of sexual harassment accusations. The claims about Franken—that he fondled a sleeping woman during a flight back from a USO tour; that he groped women during photo-ops—presented a tough dilemma for women in the Senate; he was seen, and liked, as an effective senator and a strong ally to the forces of left reform. In calling for him to step down, Gillibrand took heat from both colleagues and voters, though her role in the fracas was sometimes exaggerated. She took another risky stand in the wake of the #MeToo revelations to argue that Bill Clinton should have resigned over the Monica Lewinsky scandal (a position distinctly at odds with that of the prior holder of her Senate seat). In 2012, Gillibrand also launched a political action committee, Off the Sidelines, to bring more women into elective office.
Still, Gillibrand’s profile as the lead feminist crusader in the 2020 field comes with risks of its own. She was hoisted on her own petard in March, when Politico published a story alleging sexual harassment in her own Senate office. A former staffer resigned after claiming that Gillibrand’s male driver and aide repeatedly directed unwelcome advances and crude remarks at her, charging that the senator failed to deal with the situation or take it seriously. A staffer at Gillibrand’s office said the complaint had received a “full and thorough investigation,” but after the office was presented with additional evidence, the aide was fired. What’s more, in a now-crowded female presidential field—and amid a culturewide reassessment of sexual harassment and assault in the #MeToo era— Gillibrand’s pitch appears to be falling flat in the polls. She lags the (admittedly still inchoate) primary field, the first or second choice of merely 1 percent of Democratic caucus-goers. In some ways, she’s hurt by the fact that the entire party has caught up with her—on issues pertaining to sexual harassment, in particular. She is no longer in the vanguard.
Given Gillibrand’s own broadly establishment profile within Democratic policy circles—one of her first big fund-raisers was hosted by the executive vice president of the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, making her pitch for Medicare-for-all ring more than a little hollow—it’s also easy to descry some of the same contradictory feminist class politics that dogged Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016 as a limiting factor for Gillibrand going forward. Both female New York senators—the current and the former—readily transpose the empowerment rhetoric of the feminist movement into the quest for greater representation in the corporate boardroom. Nothing wrong with that; as long as we have boardrooms, we definitely want women in them.
But the rise of corporate-friendly feminism has tended to leave a feminism for the less fortunate under-specified, or a bit of a policy afterthought—which might well help account for Clinton’s still-shocking failure to win a majority of the white female vote in 2016 against an ur-chauvinist general-election opponent like Donald Trump.
Another petard-hoisting problem has dogged Amy Klobuchar’s candidacy early out of the gate. Around the time of the Gillibrand expose, The New York Times published a story revealing what has long been known inside the Beltway: For all her carefully cultivated image as an avatar of “Midwestern nice,” Klobuchar can be an abusive and short-tempered boss. At the beginning of Klobuchar’s SXSW session, Kara Swisher remarked that backstage, before the event, she’d asked Klobuchar whether she wanted to start with the comb or end with the comb. This was a coy reference to a now-notorious episode recounted in the Times report: A Klobuchar staffer lost the plastic package of salad utensils in advance of a flight, and, to teach him a lesson, Klobuchar fished in her pocketbook for a comb, ate her salad with it, and then made the staffer clean it. Klobuchar gamely agreed to start with the comb, and defended herself by saying what she had been saying all along—that she expects a lot from her staff, on behalf of the people of Minnesota. And it’s true: While Klobuchar’s office has one of the highest turnovers of any in the Senate, she can also claim to be one of the most effective senators, according to the Center for Effective Lawmaking at Vanderbilt University.
The mean-boss anecdote got a lot of traction. But some observers think Klobuchar smartly handled the fallout from the report by telegraphing that she’s tough. “She didn’t apologize, which is what women do,” noted Kathleen Dolan. “Klobuchar was like, I’m demanding, I expect the best for the people of Minnesota.” It’s true, certainly, that tales of tantrum-prone male bosses are legion on Capitol Hill. But the feminist politics of nice are no less thorny than the feminist politics of class—and in Klobuchar’s case, they are quite clearly related. Klobuchar occupies a much higher perch, and makes a great deal more money, than the lower-level and much-less-paid aides who are doing her bidding and dodging the occasional thrown binder.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Warren—a wonkish hard-ass on policy—has recently been recasting her image in line with more traditional rhetoric of feminist reform. “It’s time for women to go to Washington and fix our broken government, and that includes a woman at the top,” she told a crowd in September. Warren was speaking not long after the explosive Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in which Christine Blasey Ford charged Kavanaugh with sexual assault when they were both D.C.-area high school students in the 1980s. One key moment of gender retrenchment during that spectacle had the Republican members of the Judiciary Committee—all men—bring in a female prosecutor to ask questions of Ford, abandoning what is a senator’s core oversight duty.
Warren underlined the outlandish character of that moment, which would have been laughable if it weren’t so depressing and surreal. “This week, I watched eleven men who were too chicken to ask a woman a single question,” she said. “I watched as Brett Kavanaugh acted like he was entitled to that position and angry at anyone who would question him. I watched powerful men helping a powerful man make it to an even more powerful position. I watched that, and I thought: Time’s up. Time’s up.”
The politics of identity, of course, are just as vexed as the politics of class. Warren’s own reputation for honesty took a (largely self-inflicted) hit around reports that she claimed Native American heritage while working as a law professor at Harvard, and even cited her ethnicity as “American Indian” on a Texas bar registration card. Trump has tirelessly mocked this claim, bestowing Warren with the Twitter nickname “Pocahontas”—who, not incidentally, being female, was a subordinate rather than a chief. “Trump has been basically running against her from the time he started running against Hillary Clinton,” Dolan said—suggesting that he regards a Warren candidacy as a threat. But it also means that Warren, more than the other women, has allowed Trump to define her, and must struggle, as Clinton did, to break free of his caricature, and reintroduce herself to the American public. Instead, she played into his hands by getting (and publicizing) a genetic test that showed her to have laughably little Native American DNA. The gesture was not only clumsy, it opened her up to charges of cultural appropriation. In early February, Warren publicly apologized for claiming Native American identity. She said she was sorry for “furthering confusion on tribal sovereignty and tribal citizenship,” and has maintained that she did not benefit professionally from it.
Warren presents perhaps the most striking contrast to the man who felt entitled to dawdle and soul-search before entering the race, while supplying the bare minimum nutritional content in his policy portfolio: Beto O’Rourke. Warren has churned out policy proposal after policy proposal, even as O’Rourke has sailed along by simply describing himself as born to run. As such, the two of them illustrate one of the dreariest truths of gender-related social science literature. As a McKinsey report suggests, men tend to be promoted based on potential, and therefore promoted at younger ages, after achieving less; whereas women tend to be promoted based on performance, and only after they have performed and performed and performed. As a result, women who assume top jobs and political offices have historically done so a good deal later in life than men. As Georgetown University political scientist Michele Swers observed, campaigns are typically about change versus experience. Women like Clinton and Warren seem to feel they have to make the case for experience, while younger women, like Kamala Harris, seem to feel freer to present themselves as standing for change. Harris, who excites many Democratic voters, is a relative newcomer to national-stage politics, and suggests that perhaps women may be moving into the “potential” camp.
Meanwhile, the assumption of women’s greater virtue may have a pronounced strategic upside in certain instances. When it comes to expected female behavior in the conventional domains of niceness, or treating staffers well, women may suffer more when they are bucking stereotype—when they show they can be as tough, exacting, or abusive as men. But in arenas concerning something other than temperament, women may be granted the benefit of the doubt—that is to say, women may benefit from angel-in-the-houseism when the misbehavior, alleged or real, has nothing to do with our expectations of womanly behavior.
Among the more potentially damaging bad-boss stories is that of Harris, who, when she was district attorney in San Francisco, oversaw a crime lab that failed to disclose potential tampering with evidence. As a result, around 1,000 drug-related cases had to be dismissed, and evidence emerged that people in the office knew about the problem and failed to report it. This is a far more consequential story than a candidate’s reputation as mean, and yet it received much less attention, probably because it did not play into some storyline about whether women are, or aren’t, likable. “That’s serious stuff,” Dolan said. “I thought to myself: I want to know more.” But so far, the revelations about Harris haven’t gained much traction.
Indeed, Dolan was struck by the way recent reporting on the evidence scandal focused on Harris’s willingness to accept responsibility. A March 6 article in The Washington Post quoted Harris as saying there were no excuses to be made: “The buck stops with me.” It raised questions about her leadership, but treated the incident as a complex issue. It didn’t say, for example, “off with her head,” Dolan pointed out. “It wasn’t judgmental of her in a negative way. It’s interesting the immediate reaction wasn’t, ‘Oh my god she’s corrupt, incompetent, could never be president.’” Dolan was reminded of a small body of literature suggesting that women are less likely to be stained by scandal. She was reluctant to draw conclusions based on such preliminary material, but the Harris case may support the theory.
Any emphasis on female virtue segues readily into the idea that women are natural consensus-builders, driven to make peace in many realms where men wreak havoc and destruction. Soon, however, adherents of this essentialist view will be confronted with a contrasting—and bracing—image: women taking to the debate stage to poke holes not only in one another’s policies, but also in the idea that women are by nature more congenial and collaborative. “I think what’s going to be very interesting for people is to see the women take each other on, because they’re all ‘friends,’” Dolan said. “We’ve read endlessly for years how close the women in the Senate are; they get together, the baby showers, the dinners. I think that’s all true. I don’t think that’s disingenuous. But at the same time, they are connected, respected colleagues who are running against each other.”
As a result—and this is important—we are going to be able to watch as women seek to define themselves against one another, to differentiate themselves. We’ll witness Klobuchar and Harris compare their experience fighting crime—“My crime bill is better than yours, tougher,” as Dolan put it. In the 2016 election, Dolan pointed out, the nation saw Hillary Clinton holding her own as Trump stalked her on stage. What we haven’t observed is “women interacting with other women.” That, she said, is the final frontier: the scene “when Klobuchar says something snappy and tries to put Gillibrand in her” place. “This frame of exposure—seeing really smart, really accomplished, really qualified women saying ‘Elizabeth, do you really think you’re going to dismantle the banking system? I’m Gillibrand, I represent New York, you’re coming at my constituencies.’” The upshot will be to encourage the healthy idea that women can be as bold, eloquent, original, irritated, aggressive, vacuous, and vague as men. This is progress. It cements the truth that women are individuals, not monolithic vessels of imputed gender-defined virtue.
The specter of a crowded, fractious field of women candidates stands in contrast to the serenely managerial mien of Hillary Clinton, who confessed in her 2017 memoir about the previous year’s election that she was often bewildered by the “anger” of the masses and was prone by temperament and training to assuage public outrage with calm wonkery. This time out, there are some ways in which assured female outspokenness can be an advantage—maybe even more so against a bully like Donald Trump. Jennifer Lawless has conducted studies asking campaign managers to what extent it mattered that the candidate was female. Often, the managers reported, it did not. They tended to run the same campaign when their candidate, or their opponent, was female or male. The time when gender matters most, they said, is during debates, when male candidates must take care not to look like they are bullying the women or invading their space, the way Rick Lazio did to Hillary Clinton in the 2000 New York Senate race. In other words, there may well be an upside here for an eventual Democratic female nominee. When women stand up to a bully like Trump, they can come across as measured and tough.
And these women have another advantage Clinton did not. Back in 2016, Hillary Clinton was hamstrung in her ability to attack Trump for his crude and misogynistic remarks on the infamous Access Hollywood tape, because her husband had glaring problems of his own, which she, back in the day, had defended. None of these women need pull any punches on that front—a freedom that could well be an asset if the Trump organization’s payoff to porn star Stormy Daniels (to name just one of many women accusing him of sexual harassment or misconduct) to keep silent about her alleged affair with the president continues to play out in the next campaign. If Trump elects to fight back—as he is notoriously likely to—with a series of fulminating and belittling tirades, this might afford his female challengers in the 2020 field the opportunity to seem strong and presidential. The visual impact of a woman weathering male bluster was captured vividly by Klobuchar’s restraint during the Kavanaugh hearings; there was a prolonged, riveting moment when she asked Kavanaugh the relevant question of whether he’d ever blacked out from drinking too much, and—in a stunning display of disrespect—he turned and asked if she had. Her calm, when he came back at her not once but twice, was remarkable, and in pointed contrast to Kavanaugh’s haymaker punches before the Judiciary panel. “I have no drinking problem,” she averred in a steady tone.
It might still be easy to argue, in the larger scheme of things, that the lineup of female Democratic contenders isn’t all that. You could maintain that the four serious candidates have come up in an institution, the Senate, that values norms and conformity; that they are little different from the men who are busily devising strategies to thread that thinnest eye of the needle. Like untold numbers of male presidential aspirants before them, they’re frenetically cooking up plans for Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Super Tuesday, first appealing to a narrow band of primary voters and then finding a way to broaden their pitch in a carefully massaged and focus-grouped set of themes and messages over the course of a general election.
It’s also true that these days, what matters most is not gender but party—the Trump showing among white women in 2016 again serving as an instructive case in point. For the most part, Republicans won’t vote for a Democrat, male or female, at least not these days; and Democrats won’t vote for a Republican. In such conditions, candidates will win or lose based on their ability to excite voters and boost turnout and avoid lapsing into reveries about lost bipartisan and centrist Golden Ages.
This centripetal dynamic makes it all the more important for parties to be “intentional,” as the D.C. buzzword now has it, about recruiting women. In the final voting tallies, a candidate’s gender may not be a distinction that matters as much as we would expect. It’s also crucial—and encouraging—to remember that, though the stakes are high, and the consequences immense, we can look forward to the contest itself, even more than we usually might. Come the primary debates, there will be that absorbing augur of political dispensations ahead: a robust plurality of women leaders on the stage, representing a nuanced range of policy agendas and providing a vision of a female-led polity never before seen in American life.
Let’s also remember, from the not-yet-jaded vantage of 19 months out, that campaigns can be exciting. As Dolan said: “It’s going to be too much fun.”