Elizabeth Warren with Bernie Sanders

Saying a woman can’t defeat Trump is about sexism. But it’s also about fear

Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has accused her rival Bernie Sanders of saying a woman couldn’t win at the 2020 election. Such beliefs are frustrating – but they reveal legitimate anxiety as well as misogyny, writes contributing women’s editor Moya Crockett. 

It was always going to happen. Eventually, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – long-time friends who both want to take on Donald Trump in the upcoming presidential election – were going to come into conflict, despite their shared desire to avoid personal attacks. When two political candidates vie to occupy the same space in a leadership race – in this case, the defiantly progressive side of the Democratic aisle – disputes are always going to arise.

But the first significant rift between the Warren and Sanders campaigns has come as a surprise to many. The day before the seventh Democratic debate, Warren said that Sanders once told her he did not believe a woman could defeat Trump in 2020.

In a statement, Warren shared her memories of a private meeting she had with Sanders in 2018, confirming the contents of a controversial report by CNN. “Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate [in 2020],” Warren said. “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.”

Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren has explicitly positioned herself as the most feminist candidate in the 2020 Democratic primary

Sanders has disputed the contents of CNN’s report, accusing Warren’s staff – and, by extension, Warren herself – of “lying about what happened” in 2018.

“What I did say that night was that Donald Trump is a sexist, a racist and a liar who would weaponise whatever he could,” Sanders said, adding that “of course” he thinks a woman could win in the November election. 

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The rest of the world, then, is left with a case of political she-said he-said. In such situations, it’s impossible – at least for those of us who weren’t in the room – to know for sure who’s telling the truth.

But whether or not Sanders really made those remarks isn’t the most important issue here. Much more significant is how his alleged comments reflect a wider problem with how female presidential candidates are viewed in the US.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren says she and Bernie Sanders, pictured together in 2017, are "friends and allies" and will continue to be so

Let’s accept, for a moment, Warren’s claim that Sanders said he doesn’t believe a female candidate could defeat Trump. That doesn’t mean the 78-year-old senator from Vermont is an inveterate sexist. It’s true that he hasn’t always given the impression of prioritising women’s issues, and his staffers and supporters – some of whom have infamously been described as “Bernie bros” – have been accused of making misogynistic comments and ignoring sexism and sexual harassment within the 2016 Sanders campaign.

The senator himself, though, has long advocated and voted for policies to eliminate the gender pay gap, support domestic violence survivors and protect women’s reproductive rights. By August 2019, women made up more than half of Sanders’ supporters – and his current campaign has been endorsed by staunch feminists ranging from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Ariana Grande. Misogynist, he clearly is not.  

But doubting whether a woman can win a US presidential election – particularly this November’s election – isn’t necessarily an attitude that stems from sexism alone. And if Warren’s claims are true, Sanders is far from the only person to suspect the American public isn’t ready for a female leader.

Because while most Americans say they personally would vote for a woman presidential candidate, they also worry that other voters aren’t prepared to do the same thing. A survey carried out by LeanIn.org in September showed that more than 50% of registered US voters claimed to feel “very ready” or “extremely ready” for a female president – but only 16% believed that most Americans shared their feelings.

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Similarly, nearly 75% of Democrats and independent voters said they’d be comfortable with a female president in a poll conducted by Ipsos last summer. Yet only 33% thought their neighbours felt the same. The evidence suggests that if people stop worrying about what others think about female politicians, and just vote for the candidate they like best, women can win. (Incidentally, four women have now made it through to the latest stage of the Labour Party leadership race in the UK – but Keir Starmer, the lone man, is the clear frontrunner.)

As political science professor Mary McGrath wrote recently for the Los Angeles Times: “The biggest obstacle to putting women in office may not be that voters are afraid of female candidates, but that people have convinced themselves others are afraid.” 

Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: the congresswoman endorsed the senator for president back in 2019.

McGrath’s reference to fear is significant, because dread is set to be a defining emotion for progressives ahead of the November election. Data released by the American Psychological Association in November 2019 revealed that the election was already a “significant source of stress” in the lives of over half of US adults, while another poll revealed that Democrats were significantly more likely than Republicans to feel anxious and frustrated about the election

Democrats who described themselves as liberal rather than moderate – ie, those who might naturally be more drawn to Warren and Sanders, rather than centrists like Joe Biden or Amy Klobuchar – were the most likely of all to describe themselves as politically anxious.

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Given the catalogue of horrors that Trump has unleashed since his inauguration in 2017 – from the separating of migrant children from their families to his nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and his dangerous feud with Iran – it’s reasonable for people to feel terrified at the prospect of him winning four more years in office.

And when this fear is taken into account, we shouldn’t be surprised if many liberal-minded voters are nervous about ‘gambling’ the election on a woman candidate.

Elizabeth Warren
Elizabeth Warren has dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination.

We shouldn’t be shocked by that thinking, but we should question it. Because the truth is that relatively few people think challengers to the status quo can win – until suddenly, they do. Trump, in his own perverse way, is proof of that. But so is Barack Obama, the first black president (a black president with a Muslim middle name during a period of pronounced Islamophobia, no less). So was the election of the first female politicians in the UK. In 1920, a local councillor from Glasgow called Mary Barbour observed that “the advent of a woman candidate was seen by some men and women as outrageous” – yet several women were still elected to positions of political power in the late 1910s and 1920s.

Some people might say that a female candidate can’t defeat Trump because they’re sexist. Others might say it because they’re scared. We should be contemptuous of one group, empathetic towards the other, and smart enough to tell the difference. But that doesn’t mean we should believe them. 

Images: Getty Images 


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