In 1997, at the funeral of the University of Houston law professor Eugene Smith, Elizabeth Warren revealed in her eulogy that Smith, who had been a part of the hiring committee that brought her onto the law school’s faculty in the late ’70s, had consistently sexually harassed her, one time going so far as to shut the door to his office and lunge for her. She didn’t report him at the time, though she has said recently that she “considered punching him in the face.” Warren recognized that, as she put it, if Smith “wanted to sink me, he could;” others also advised her to keep quiet.
It’s clear from her account that Warren was keenly aware of the sexism she faced, not only from Smith, but from colleagues who, to use her words, treated her like a “second-class citizen,” and that she made a choice to put her head down and do the work, work that would eventually lead her to where she is today—a senator and a leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Warren’s time as a teacher, professor, and in public office has been full of moments like this, a continuum of insults that spans the casually sexist to the horrifying. Part of her appeal has been her ability to recount these moments frankly and then tie them in to her vision of, as she puts it, “big structural change.” These are experiences that many women nod their heads to when they hear her speak of them—from being let go from her first teaching job after she became pregnant, to being told she’s too angry (as if anger is a bad thing), to hearing from people before she launched her campaign for the Senate that “Massachusetts will not elect a woman to an office this big.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about all of these moments, of course, because of the exhausting and hellish news cycle we’re stuck in stemming from a purported conversation Warren had with Bernie Sanders at the end of 2018, in which Sanders allegedly told Warren that a woman could not win the presidency. Sanders has forcefully denied making those comments, telling CNN, “It is ludicrous to believe that at the same meeting where Elizabeth Warren told me she was going to run for president, I would tell her that a woman couldn’t win.” He added, “What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponize whatever he could. Do I believe a woman can win in 2020? Of course! After all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes in 2016.”
After initially declining to comment, Warren released a statement on Monday evening in which she wrote, “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed,” adding, “I have no further interest in discussing this private meeting any further because Bernie and I have far more in common than our differences on punditry.” It’s unclear if the Warren campaign leaked this story to the press (The Intercept’s Ryan Grim reported that Warren told him it was not intentional), but what is clear is that CNN, which first reported the story and which coincidentally was hosting Tuesday’s Democratic debate, as well as other news outlets, have been eager to frame this as an all-out fight between Warren and Sanders, a predictable development that benefits no one but their moderate rivals and the corporate wing of the Democratic party.
Throwing more fuel on the raging fire, on Wednesday night, CNN released the audio of a tense exchange Warren and Sanders had after Tuesday’s debate ended, while both were still on stage. “I think you called me a liar on national TV,” Warren said. Sanders responded, “You know, let’s not do it right now. If you want to have that discussion, we’ll have that discussion.” He then told Warren, before breaking off the conversation, “You called me a liar.”
It’s impossible to know what was said at the meeting, which was a private one; both clearly believe their version of events. What I find more interesting, and telling, is who is assumed from the start to be lying, and whose credibility is damaged most by being tagged as a liar. Rather than assume that both are sharing a version of the truth, many people, including a large contingent of Sanders’s most online and rabid supporters, instead are more inclined to believe that Warren is lying, and have seized on this belief to paint her as not to be trusted and devious, a liar. Warren’s Instagram and Twitter accounts have been flooded with snake emojis posted by disgruntled Bernie supporters, as well as what I would assume are a healthy number of bots and shitposters, an almost too perfect symbol given its role in the story of the first time a woman supposedly betrayed a man through deceit and deception.
Questions have largely been framed to subtly discount Warren’s version of events. How could Warren, for instance, continue to support a man and call him her friend if he in fact said a woman couldn’t win? Well, women smile through gritted teeth all the time; Warren has had to do so consistently through her career. I’m a fan of Sanders and his vision; I voted for him in 2016’s primary. But Sanders has at times stumbled awkwardly when it comes to talking about sexism and gender; it’s not difficult to believe that Sanders would say something unintentionally sexist, but sexist all the same. What could have become a productive conversation about the all-too-common sexism women experience on the left has instead, predictably if depressingly, become a debate about whether Warren is lying. And more to the point, whether she’s a liar.
There’s a wide gulf between viewing a woman telling a lie as an isolated incident versus as a defining character trait—which is to say, being seen as a liar. It’s not the first time Warren has been painted as a liar by both the right and certain segments of the left. It’s an old and enduring truth that being labeled a “liar” sticks far more often, and more destructively, to women, (Consider Joe Biden, who has lied and exaggerated repeatedly throughout his career and on the campaign trail, yet somehow is still widely considered “authentic” and trustworthy. And do I have to even mention the current occupant of the White House?)
And while Warren, like any politician running for president, is not to be automatically trusted—her claim of Native American ancestry being an obvious example of a documented falsehood, one which many people, including myself, criticized her for—there is a reflexive impulse on the part of many who simply don’t like her to dismiss her account of events in an effort to bolster their existing narrative. Take her story of pregnancy discrimination, which she recounted in her 2014 memoir and which she has discussed while on the campaign trail. It was picked over by everyone from Jacobin writer Meagan Day to conservative media outlets like the Washington Free Beacon, whose eagerness to discount her story completely glossed over the insidious ways that women who are pregnant were and continue to be subtly pushed out of their jobs. As Rebecca Traister wrote at the Cut, “Charges of dishonesty or inauthenticity can stick effectively to women and have already been made to stick harder to her than to any of the other candidates in the race, even those with spottier track records.”
At Tuesday night’s debate, Sanders expressed a desire to move on, saying, “I don’t want to waste a whole lot of time on this, because this is what Donald Trump and maybe some of the media want.” (Trump is indeed gleefully rubbing his small hands together over all of this.) Warren, for her part, nimbly reframed the question at the heart of the conversation, pointing out that “the only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women.”
Of course a woman can win, she was saying, with benign frankness. That’s true; what’s equally as true is that she (and any other theoretical woman running for president) will likely be turned into a liar, a scoundrel, their records and lives scrutinized for any discrepancy that fits the story that’s always waiting in the wings.