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Why was the recent Democratic debate so successful? An all-female moderating panel

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Finally, politicians were asked questions on abortion rights, gender equality and paid parental leave. And it’s all thanks to a women-only group of moderators.  

Last night, for the first time in history, the majority of people on stage at the fifth Democratic debate were women.

The debate, held in Atlanta, was moderated by Rachel Maddow and Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC, Ashley Parker of The Washington Post and NBC’s Kristen Welker. Answering their questions was a diverse lineup of Democratic presidential hopefuls that included Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Tulsi Gabbard and Amy Klobuchar.

And because there were women spearheading the questioning and setting the tone for the debate, the bulk of the questions were about the issues that impact women the most. For the first time in this election cycle, candidates were grilled about everything from gender equality to child care, abortion rights and whether or not female politicians are held to a higher standard. And it was glorious to watch. 

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This, after previous debates treated women’s issues like something of a dirty word. At past debates, candidate Joe Biden side-stepped talking about abortion, having an entire conversation about the subject without mentioning the word once. Last night, the issue was firmly on the table.

An all-female moderating panel made last night's debates so successful.

Warren spoke about how taking away abortion rights would impact low-income women the most. “I believe that abortion rights are human rights. I believe that they are also economic rights,” she said. “Understand this. When someone makes abortion illegal in America, rich women will still get abortions. It’s just going to fall hard on poor women.”

Also on the table? Questions about paid parental leave. Harris outlined her plan for a government-funded six months of maternity leave, something that she believed would not leave working mothers at a disadvantage if they chose to return to the office. “Many women are having to make a very difficult choice about whether they’re going to leave a profession for which they have a passion to care for their family, or whether they’re going to give up a pay cheque, which is part of what that family relies on,” she said. “So six months paid family leave is meant to adjust to the reality of women’s lives today.”

Andrew Yang also stumped for paid parental leave as a key government platform. “There are only two countries in the world that don’t have paid family leave for new moms. The United States of America and Papua New Guinea,” he said. “That is the entire list and we need to get off that list as as soon as possible.”

Kamala Harris and Andrew Yang addressed paid parental leave at the Democratic debate.

For Harris, though, the big talking point was the inequality faced by black women in the US. This is a subject close to Harris’ heart. She has written about it on several occasions, and if elected as president Harris plans to ensure that black women receive better maternal care and that the racial and gender wage gap is closed. 

“When black women are three to four times more likely to die in connection with childbirth in America, when the sons of black women will die because of gun violence more than any other cause of death, when black women make 61 cents on the dollar as compared to all women who tragically make 80 cents on the dollar, the question has to be where you been and what are you going to do? And do you understand what the people want?” Harris said, in a moving speech.

It’s not difficult to see how much of a difference having an all-female moderating panel made to this round of Democratic debates. Led by Maddow, questioning was wide-ranging and searing, ensuring that this election’s biggest talking points for women were given equal weight.

Without the all-female moderating panel, we might not have gotten a moment in which one of the Democratic candidates explicitly said what we’ve all been thinking: that there’s a gendered double standard in American politics. That’s what happened when Klobuchar, speaking about Democratic candidate Pette Butigieg’s lack of experience, said that none of the female candidates could have achieved what he has with his comparatively minor experience. 

Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg at the fifth Democratic debate.

“Pete is qualified to be up on this stage, and I am honored to be standing next to him,” Klobuchar said. “But what I said is true. Women are held to a higher standard. Otherwise we could play a game called name your favourite woman president, which we can’t do because it has all been men.”

The time is now, Klobuchar added, for that statistic to change. “If you think a woman can’t beat Donald Trump,” she said. “Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.”

Images: Getty

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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