Last July, Vogue ran a set of profiles of the women running for president, a package that was accompanied by a group photo. Shot by Annie Leibovitz, the image was clearly intended to be iconic. The politicians, dressed in suit jackets and sheath dresses, appeared to be breaking momentarily from their busy lives and perhaps a vote for some press. Four senators—Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Klobuchar—smiled, raising their hands for high-fives, while Rep. Tulsi Gabbard stood off to the side. (Spiritual guide and inspirational speaker Marianne Williamson’s invitation to history had noticeably been lost in the mail.) Though they were directly competing with one another, the five women “form an unlikely sisterhood,” Amy Chozick wrote, an author chosen no doubt for the significance of her coverage of Clinton’s 2016 run. Though the photo and profile were the product of sleek marketing, their intended message was clear: the election would be defined by women, plural.
The assumption going into the election was that Hillary Clinton’s run had been an anomaly, an event so singular that it could not even generate meaningful data on the effect of gender in a presidential race. Step away from Clinton, with her “baggage” and her “emails,” and voters could finally divorce the candidates from such trivial considerations as identity, or so the theory went. “Woman running for president is the new normal,” a Vox headline cheerfully proclaimed in March of 2019, after six women had declared bids. Within this framing, the Democratic primary could be not a thrilling experiment, but an ordinary affair. Now we would understand the real impact of a woman running for president. Which is to say, perhaps gender would have little impact at all.
By Super Tuesday, the bulk of those women had made their exits. Gillibrand bowed out in August, just a month after the Vogue article ran; Harris left in December, following reports of an ailing and dysfunctional campaign. On the eve of Minnesota’s primary vote, one that polls suggested she would lose, Klobuchar jumped ship with a full-throated endorsement for Biden. (Tulsi Gabbard inexplicably remains a candidate in technical fact, if not any practical form of reality.) And on Thursday morning, following a dismal Super Tuesday performance in which she failed to win a single primary, placing third even in her home state of Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren suspended her campaign, holding a quiet press conference on the lawn of her Cambridge home. Warren seemed tired. Her voice breaking, she reiterated her plan to keep pushing for affordable childcare, a policy her campaign has popularized. She declined to speak about the impact of gender on her loss, telling a reporter: “If you say, ‘yeah, there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘whiner.’ If you say, ‘No, there was no sexism,’ about a bazillion women think, ‘what planet do you live on?’”
Now, we’re left with a competition that in some ways was always inevitable: two men, both white, and each with a different case to make about why such details must be simultaneously irrelevant and advantageous—simply a footnote in the vast difference between their platforms. Joe Biden has long argued that his strength lies in his “electability.” It’s a soft, meaningless phrase, based on imprecise or nonexistent data, and intended as a scare tactic, underlining both the appeal of his moderate policies and supposed safety of his gender and race. (That the six women candidates were undefeated in all prior campaigns—including, theoretically, Marianne Williamson, whose presidential race was her first—is seen less as a reflection of their chances against Trump, and more evidence of the reality that the stench of failure tends to cling to women.) Nonetheless, it’s worked well! Bernie Sanders, who has made his own electability argument, has dug into a claim that any conversation beyond economic policy is futile. Democratic socialism, in the vision Sanders presents, is a rising tide that lifts all boats: fix the structural fissures at the center of American success and racism and misogyny will naturally dissipate, or perhaps neither were the most pressing concerns.
It’s a surprisingly unified front, forged by wildly different men. That the desire for a president who identifies as anything other than the mostly white, straight men who have almost without exception led the country, is a weak one, the product of an inferior, frivolous intellect. It’s one part pragmatism, one part tone check. Sanders, whose surrogates and base include a large cohort of women and people of color, has nonetheless helped transform the phrase “identity politics”–the very basic idea that people often vote in their own self-interest, and self-interest is informed by gender or racial identity–into something adjacent to a slur. “We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender, and not by their age,” he said in an interview last summer. Sanders repeated the concept again in January, following a surge in the polls and a public tiff with Warren over a supposed disagreement about whether a woman could successfully be elected president. “I think the American people have moved very significantly in trying to look at candidates based on what they stand for, not on their gender, not on their sexuality, not on their race,” Sanders told a reporter, an attempt at concession.
He meant this, of course as a positive attribute: Voters are smart enough to concern themselves with policy alone, which is, in Sanders’s interpretation, the correct choice. As if the reality of a candidate’s identity—especially their gender and their race—could possibly be separated from how they’re perceived, even by the most policy-savvy voter. It is an argument, of course, that uniquely benefits both Sanders and Biden, one akin, as the feminist scholar Brittney Cooper has written, to the merit-based logic often used to quash larger diversity attempts—a logic that finds fairness only in the blind evaluation of a job candidate’s supposed aptitude, rather than a holistic examination of the systems that helped create it.
It might seem that the American presidency is an odd place to argue for affirmative action, doubly so in an election where the goal is to unseat a dangerous fascist. Yet both men’s identities are central to their candidacy. Biden’s continued presence in the race is, in some ways, a form of very long-term affirmative action, one that’s propelled him through a political career full of constant electoral losses where he is continually nice enough, and tall enough, and competent enough, despite his inability to string together a sentence and his continual sidelining of reproductive rights. And Sanders’s political purity, after all, is a direct result of his whiteness and maleness, the product of structural advantages that have allowed his own rise from outside the party to catalyze its far left. To ignore this fact is to fail to see fully, in Sanders’s words, what he “stands for.”
Of course, there are aspects of this argument that resonate. Rehabbing the country’s social safety net is a crucial task, one that will distinctly benefit women and people of color; not all woman candidates best serve the interests of women. And how embarrassing to watch this first crop of women candidates and their supporters serve this stereotype by behaving as if a feminist agenda was nothing more than a box in which to check, woman or not. “We could stop sexism,” Klobuchar implored viewers, as an argument for their votes. (It goes without saying that the election of a woman president would not stop sexism any more than Obama’s election stopped racism or the election of George W. Bush stopped people from dogging on the criminally stupid.)
Still, the logic seemed to translate to her fans: “I love her moderation!” an Iowa Klobuchar supporter told the New Yorker, explaining her vote. “And she’s a woman!” This theme that played out a few days later when a group of white women voters flipped their votes from Warren to Klobuchar, despite the two sharing little in common beyond vaginas and Senate seats. Even the New York Times underscored their bizarre group endorsement of the pair—progressive woman, moderate woman: take your pick of woman, it seemed to say— with the closing line, “May the best woman win.”
Yet barring an event bordering on constitutional crisis, our next president will not be a woman and I find myself confused. Confused about why this outcome, this singular point of identity, matters so much to me, and why I am so ashamed of this desire. And confused about feeling the need to defend the idea that to have a woman win a presidential election is a symbol that might matter, even if just a little bit.
Truthfully, I wanted a woman to be president with a level of hunger that continues to disgust me in its intensity. The “right” choice, I understand, has always to put aside the impractical realm of emotion and concern myself with pragmatic arguments—voting blocs, and systemic unraveling. (It’s so obvious that it’s barely worth mentioning that rational is often a domain limited to men.) How to rectify the fact, then, that it was my heart and not my head that swelled when Warren crouched to give her pinky promises to grade-school girls; that I liked Klobuchar’s obvious rage (if not her policies or even her personality) at Pete Buttigieg for fast-forwarding through the bulk of her career after a single, seemingly unremarkable term as mayor. And in the wake of a second election where such an outcome began to feel, if not likely, then at least not impossible, I find myself experiencing an emotion I can recognize only as grief, swelling as the possibility of a woman winning has dwindled. I wanted not just any woman, but a woman who felt like an inevitable step in history; I wanted the country to find a woman uniquely inspiring, not just “qualified” and “prepared,” to vote for her out of excitement, rather than necessity; I wanted to feel a movement naturally coalescing in the wind-break of her flight. (Let’s be clear: I wanted fucking Warren.)
This desire is one I’m deeply ashamed of: this feral, putrid beast that longs for a woman to hold our country’s highest office. A friend recently described to me the anger she felt at the women who expressed their discontent with the 2016 election by protesting in the first Women’s March. It was as if the presidency, she told me, could be treated like a Pokemon trading cards–just sub-in the black man for a white woman. What hubris, she thought, to insist that a woman, any woman, come next. Her frustrations were warranted. Still, I found myself angry at the insistence that such desires are necessarily perverse. Still, I recognized myself: Just another white bitch in a pink pussy hat, demanding a woman behind the Resolute desk.
In part, a president is a vacuum of policy points: a staff, a group of people, a strategic agenda. But there’s a reason that we elect a person, an individual and not a party, to office, and that’s because the president is also the stuff of blood and teeth—a symbol, perhaps the most important symbol, of who is able to grasp at power and under what conditions. It is, of course, a privilege to desire a symbol, let alone advocate for one; symbols alone, after all, will not fix roads, guarantee medical insurance, stave off climate change, pass bills to relieve the urgent burden of student debt. But symbols are powerful catalysts of cultural change, for better and for worse. (It’s not difficult to connect the dots between Obama’s inauguration and the rise of Trump and the emboldening of the country’s white supremacists.) How does a generation raised under a woman president think about power differently? How does a generation raised under a woman president think about women differently? The American oligarchy has often used white women, like Ivanka Trump, to enforce the status quo, but how might things change under a president, like Warren, with a plainly feminist agenda—whose identity spoke, not openly, but through a fleet of plans designed to tackle childcare and reproductive rights written by someone who sees these are core, rather than secondary beliefs, likely because she’s experienced the world as a woman? What conversations might such an event provoke?
Like anyone who runs for president, Warren’s election was always unlikely. Already the conversation has shifted to the next phase: When and if she will endorse Sanders; whether she should have exited sooner; how many of her voters will ultimately leap to Biden, and whether such leaps, if they manifest, render her campaign—really, the project of any progressive white-woman candidate—void.
What we have learned from watching six women run for president is quite similar to what we learned watching just one: That sexism is insidious and unidentifiable; that the desire to name it, to see it, to understand it, is dubious. The next president will be a man, as the 44 prior presidents have been. I’m still grappling with the fact that we aren’t talking about why.