Politics

2020 presidential campaign brings field of women

The first 2020 Democratic presidential primary is more than a year away, but candidates are already making history with the number of women in the running. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s entrance into the race this week marked the first time that more than one woman competed for the party’s nomination — and still more are expected to join the fray.

What may be more remarkable — and welcome — is the variety within the field of women. The fact of their sex is not a consideration in their decision to run. “There’s not a ‘women’s lane,’” says Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications for Emily’s List, which recruits and supports typically Democratic female candidates. The upshot? “Having multiple women means that hopefully they will not only be judged by their gender, so we can talk about the candidates,” says Reynolds.

The 2020 Democratic field could have as many as five women, including Gillibrand. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the first to join the race with the announcement of an exploratory committee on New Year’s Eve, and has traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire. Tulsi Gabbard, a 37-year old lawmaker from Hawaii and one of the first two female combat veterans ever to serve in Congress, has also announced a bid.

California Sen. Kamala Harris, the first South Asian-American and second African-American woman elected to the upper chamber, is preparing a run and is currently on a book tour. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is also seriously considering a campaign for the presidency.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton made history as the first woman presidential candidate nominated by a major political party, and she secured nearly 3 million more votes than Donald Trump in the general election, but she still lost her bid for the White House. If that election raised concerns about whether a woman can win the presidency (though there were certainly other significant factors in Clinton’s loss), the 2018 midterms–which sent a record number of women to Congress–appears to have helped to put them to rest.

“Let’s be crystal clear: today, women are the heart and soul of the Democratic base and the fuel that is driving victories up and down the ballot,” Ilyse Hogue, President of NARAL Pro-Choice America, recently wrote

Kelly Dittmar, an associate professor at Rutgers University and a scholar at the university’s Center for American Women and Politics, said that having multiple women candidates of different ages, race, and ideological positions would “push back against the sort of homogeneous ideal type” of a woman running for higher office.

“I think that any time we have more women running, and greater diversity among those women, it just challenges those monolithic conceptions of what it means to be a woman candidate,” Dittmar said.

But being a woman does not mean that these candidates will be restricted to campaigning on “women’s issues,” which are often narrowly defined by topics like paid family leave and sexual assault.

“They’re not all running on being a woman. They are running on their records and their visions,” says Rebecca Katz, a New York-based Democratic strategist who advised Cynthia Nixon’s gubernatorial campaign in 2018.

“I think it’s important that we not relegate women to just one set of issues as though they aren’t living full lives,” Senator Harris told Bustle.

Harris promotes her experience as a prosecutor, which could become a key pitch of her presidential campaign. Warren has built a national brand on economic issues, particularly consumer protection and Wall Street accountability. Gillibrand has made combating sexual misconduct, particularly in the military, a hallmark of her political career since entering the Senate.

Dittmar said that the number of women in the race would not necessarily mean introduction of new topics to the national conversation, but would provide new perspectives.

“It’s more about the lens by which they’re going to be viewing, talking about, and in fact creating their own policy agenda,” she said.

Those varying lenses have already been on display. During the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, she asked, “Can you think of any laws that give the government the power to make decisions about the male body?”

Klobuchar also received national attention for her questioning of Kavanaugh. She discussed her own history as a child of an alcoholic father, and asked if Kavanaugh had ever blacked out while drinking. Kavanaugh retorted, “No, have you?” While male politicians often use their personal histories to make a point, Klobuchar presented a vulnerability in her questioning which is often missing in politics.

When talking about economic disadvantages, Warren has invoked the story about how her aunt helped her watch her two kids while she worked. Otherwise she would have had to give up her career. “Without child care, I was a goner. And I know how lucky I was because so many working moms don’t have an Aunt Bea who can fly in and help out,” Warren said at a keynote address to the National Women’s Law Center in October.

But just because more women are running for president doesn’t mean the stereotypes and other standards have disappeared. Indeed, the “likeability” factor that has long been a pesky measure disproportionately applied to women candidates, mustered its way to the national conversation early on.

Warren, to whom critics have drawn misguided comparisons to Clinton, took the issue head on. “I hear women candidates are most likable in the quiet car!” she tweeted from her seat on the Acela.

Gillibrand has also drawn comparisons to Clinton, as another blonde senator from New York. Clinton was often criticized as shrill and unlikeable, and female presidential candidates are already drawing unwelcome comparisons. Dittmar said that comparing current women candidates to past ones — and to each other — showed how women are still considered outliers in the political field.

“We never assume that Mitt Romney was John McCain,” Dittmar said, referring to the 2012 and 2008 Republican candidates for president. “We assume and allow greater individuality and separation among male candidates than among women candidates.”

During a book tour stop at The View, Harris was asked about the “likeability” factor.

“Despite a woman’s role in the world, there are still certain myths of what a woman can and cannot do,” she said.

Sill, at least one candidate plans to lean into a gender archetype during her campaign: Gillibrand is aiming to carve out a niche in the crowded field by embracing the gender issue. “I’m going to run for president of the United States because as a young mom, I’m going to fight for other people’s kids as hard as I would fight for my own,” she said on the Colbert show. 

© CBS Interactive Inc.


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