Why Should We Want a Woman President?

Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP/Shutterstock

With Elizabeth Warren out of the Democratic primary, matters return to status quo. The party’s next nominee for president will be a man. Online, post-Warren grief converged on those men, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders; on their whiteness and their elderly qualities. Although they possess vastly different ideologies, their traits, not their beliefs, are what provoke consternation among many. To an extent, the frustration is credible. The U.S. has never elected a woman president. It came closest in 2016, when Hillary Clinton earned the popular vote, then lost the Electoral College to a crude misogynist.

For all the old talk of Clinton’s competence, the same record she touted as proof of her worthiness showed her to be a timid politician. Warren didn’t suffer from the same flaw, which makes her loss, four years after Clinton’s, harder to stomach. Clinton perceived a wave of rising nationalism and decided to appease it. She conjured a bright and mythic America that had always known greatness. Warren made the less popular decision. America was not great for most people, she suggested; it left millions behind to enrich a few people at the top. The story Warren told is not the story that other Democrats wanted to hear. There is no way to tell the truth about America and what ails it without identifying the Democratic Party as a reason for its illness.

Warren lost, in part, because she could not resolve the contradictions of her case. As an establishment critic who wanted to unify the party rather than purify it, as a foe of capitalist excess who still believed in capitalism, she remained at odds with herself. Even so, Warren’s platform advanced the material interests of women far more than Clinton’s did in 2016. Warren thus leaves the primary with a valuable distinction. She is the most feminist woman to run for president.

But in the wake of her exit, the fact of her identity may outweigh the substance of her ideas. The race should have a woman in it, some supporters say, as though Warren herself had only a symbolic value. Give the women in your life some space, some professional feminists crooned, as though anger in women is too fragile to survive the elements. Overnight, Warren’s real importance was simplified. She didn’t lose because Democratic voters were unready for a woman who was also a social democrat. She lost because they hated women, period. The truth is more complicated, and so is the fight for liberation.

It is obviously true that sexism dampened Warren’s appeal, even among women. Sexism can have a seductive appeal, even to those it harms. It promises safety, tells women they can fend off danger by telling men they make some good points. But sexism doesn’t explain everything about the failure of Warren’s campaign. By rejecting Warren, voters also rejected her beliefs — a problem for the left, including supporters of Bernie Sanders, and a problem for women, who would have benefited from her plans to forgive most student debt and to offer generous paid leave. If Warren’s gender is the most distinguishing characteristic of her campaign, then the men she leaves in the race are interchangeable. They are equally inferior to her; in this logic, their ideas don’t matter as much as their masculinity.

For Warren supporters who hold this view, Biden is as good as Sanders, and maybe better. Toni Van Pelt of the National Organization for Women told the Associated Press on Friday that she’d urged Warren against a Sanders endorsement. “We think that our constituents, our members, will not necessarily think of Sanders as the best choice. We wouldn’t have the Violence Against Women Act if it wasn’t for Biden’s leadership,” she said. “Sanders doesn’t have a record. He’s really, as far as we know, done next to nothing for women and for our issues.” On Twitter, Van Pelt has company, and in the aggregate, the voters who backed Warren currently prefer Biden to Sanders too.

But while Biden helped write VAWA, he can’t otherwise claim to be much of a feminist. On abortion rights, a key issue for NOW, Sanders has the superior record. When he launched his latest campaign for president, Biden still supported the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of public funds for abortion. Sanders did not. (Biden has since changed his position.) In a 2006 clip published by CNN, Biden said he did not “view abortion as a choice and a right. I think it’s always a tragedy, and I think that it should be rare and safe, and I think we should be focusing on how to limit the number of abortions. There ought to be able to have a common ground and consensus as to do that.”

Multiple women have accused Biden of touching them — or in the case of Lucy Flores, of kissing them — without permission. Biden’s handling of the Anita Hill hearings still smarts, not least because of his belated remorse. Hill herself has said that his show of regret, decades after Clarence Thomas was confirmed, has been inadequate. On policy matters, Biden’s platform is a shadow of Warren’s and pales even further into insignificance when compared to Sanders’s policies. Biden’s health-care plan would leave 10 million people without insurance. His foreign policy positions differ little from those of former president Barack Obama, which leaves women living in other countries vulnerable to the use of American force. Immigrant women, too, may wonder whether President Biden would carry on Obama’s grim record on deportation.

The real feminist outrage isn’t that Warren dropped out but that Biden is still in the race. That Pete Buttigieg, with his wine cave fundraisers and his flexible beliefs, earned more delegates before he dropped out of the primary. A feminist choice for president still exists. If Warren’s supporters and surrogates choose Biden over Sanders, they did not want a feminist in power. They just wanted a woman.

What does it mean, after all, to want a woman president? Do we want her because she’d make history? Or do we want something weightier than representation? We can’t assume that a woman is more likely to bring the rest of us with her, that the fact of her gender will lift other boats. In the U.S. and outside it, in nations with longer records of putting women in power, history argues against such optimism. Margaret Thatcher made history. So did Sarah Palin, and not that long ago. A feminist politician is not necessarily a woman politician. To assume otherwise is to suggest that putting a woman in the White House is the summit of our ambition, and not merely a means to an end. Ideology matters. It makes the choices ahead of us clear.

What Does It Mean to Want a Woman President?