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2020 elections: Kirsten Gillibrand pulls out of the race – who will speak for gender equality now?

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Kirsten Gillibrand

The senator has had to withdraw her bid because she didn’t qualify for the next Democratic debate. What does this mean for the crucial platforms that she stood for? 

Abortion rights, paid parental leave, access to childcare and greater protection for sexual assault victims.

These were the campaign platforms held aloft by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand as part of her 2020 presidential bid. Gillibrand, whose senate seat is the one formerly held by Hillary Clinton, promised supporters that she was running on a platform of gender equality and women’s issues.

Now, that campaign is over. Gillibrand has announced that she is pulling out of the 2020 presidential race because she didn’t receive the support necessary to qualify for the third Democratic debate in September. 

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“I am so proud of this time and all we’ve accomplished,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “But I think it’s important to know how you can best serve. To our supporters: Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. Now, let’s go beat Donald Trump and win back the Senate.” 

The news is a blow to everyone who believed in Gillibrand and her campaign. This is the woman, after all, who was the first senator to call for Al Franken’s resignation after eight accusations of sexual harassment were levelled against him. This is the woman who repeatedly centred the #MeToo movement in her politics and who promised to bring issues of gender and sexual equality to the main stage of politics.

This is the woman who risked her career by condemning Bill Clinton, stating that he should have resigned from the presidency during the impeachment scandal. When asked why she spoke out against Franken and Clinton, Gillibrand said: “There is no prize for someone who tries to hold accountable a powerful man who is good at his day job. But we should have the courage to do it anyway. I do not have any regrets.”

The race for Democratic presidential nominee is crowded and its contestants varied. The road to nomination in just under a year’s time is long, and the road to the battle for the presidency in the November 2020 elections even longer. There are still a number of Democrats vying for the position of nominee and poised to take on Trump. 

Now that Gillibrand is no longer part of that number, who will continue her legacy? Who will speak up on the subject of gender equality and women’s rights?

Kirsten Gillibrand protests the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh with Emily Ratajkowski and Amy Schumer.
Kirsten Gillibrand protests the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh with Emily Ratajkowski and Amy Schumer.

Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, of course. Both of these senators are two of the four favourites to secure the Democratic nomination (more on the other favourites below) and have repeatedly and frequently spoken out on the subjects that impact women. Warren and Harris have decried the recent spate of abortion bans in the US and have vowed to protect reproductive rights if elected.

Warren’s platform includes universal childcare, free college education and an ultra-millionaire tax to pay for it all. Harris is campaigning on a range of policies that include gun control, climate change and equal pay. Her vision is for sanctions to be placed on companies with gender pay gaps, no longer putting the onus on employees to ensure they are receiving a fair wage.

Harris is currently the fourth favourite, according to a CNN poll, with Warren in front of her. Just ahead of her is Bernie SandersJoe Biden is in first place.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at the Democratic debates.
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris at the Democratic debates.

Sanders calls himself a “lifelong advocate for women” and he stands for many of the same issues that Gillibrand campaigned on. He has fought for abortion rights, protections for women against domestic violence and sexual abuse as well as equal pay. He has promised that, if elected in 2020, he will enshrine gender equality into the constitution.

So what about Biden? Here is where things get a little bit murkier. Though Biden has come out as pro-choice and against abortion bans in recent months, this has not always been the case. As a young politician Biden said that Roe v. Wade “went too far” and that he didn’t believe that “a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body”. Until very recently Biden was the major supporter of the Hyde amendment, which prevented government-funded abortions, meaning that women on low incomes and reliant on Medicaid could not access terminations.

Harris called him out on this at this at the second Democratic debate. “Why did it take so long to change your position on the Hyde amendment… until you were running for president,” Harris asked him. Biden’s response was weak: “Because there was not full funding for all reproductive services.”

Some 25 years ago Biden crafted the Violence Against Women Act, which changed the way police and the legal system persecuted domestic violence. It achieved staggering results: the annual rate of domestic violence has dropped 63% since its inception. In 2017, Biden and Lady Gaga recorded a PSA about campus sexual assault as part of then-President Barack Obama and Biden’s campaign to raise awareness on the subject of violence against women.

Joe Biden and Lady Gaga
Joe Biden with Lady Gaga at an event to raise awareness of campus sexual assault in 2014

But Biden is also the same man who, back in 1991, completely mishandled the testimony of a woman who claimed that Clarence Thomas, a nominee for the Supreme Court, had sexually harassed her. That woman was Anita Hill, and though Biden has since spoken to her privately to tell her of his “regret”, she has stressed that Biden owes an apology to all assault victims – all women, really – who had to endure the Clarence Thomas hearings.

“The focus on apology to me is one thing,” Hill told the New York Times. “But he needs to give an apology to the other women and to the American public because we know now how deeply disappointed Americans around the country were about what they saw. And not just women. There are women and men now who have really lost confidence in our government to respond to the problem of gender violence.”

And then there’s claims against Biden himself of inappropriate touching. These assertions, made by women including Nevada assemblywoman Lucy Flores, former congressional aide Amy Lappos, one-time White House intern Vail Kohnert-Yount, writer DJ Hill and sexual assault survivor Caitlyn Caruso, are not claims of sexual harassment. But they are claims that Biden is a man who has a tendency to invade women’s personal space, particularly in the workplace, and doesn’t understand how uncomfortable and disorientating this can be.

Kohnert-Yount said that, in one interaction with Biden, he put his hand on the back of her head and pressed his forehead to hers while they were talking. “I do not consider my experience to have been sexual or harassment,” she said. “But it was the kind of inappropriate behaviour that makes many women feel uncomfortable and unequal in the workplace.” 

US Democratic debates: Elizabeth Warren
US Democratic debates: Elizabeth Warren

Biden is currently the favourite to secure the Democratic nomination, and if he does he ranks favourably against Trump – leading the current president by 16 points in the most recent polls. (In fact, all five major Democratic candidates lead Trump in the polls. Four of them – Biden, Sanders, Warren and Harris – do so by double digits.) 

For those who care only about ousting Trump, Biden is an attractive candidate. As his own wife said this week: “Your candidate might be better on, I don’t know, health care than Joe is. But you’ve got to look at who’s going to win this election, and maybe you have to swallow a little bit and say, ‘OK, I personally like so-and-so better,’ but your bottom line has to be that we have to beat Trump.” 

The Guardian had a lot of fun with this. “Joe Biden inspires no one – not even his own wife,” was their headline on a story about those comments by Jill Biden. But was she right? Is it true that the only person who can take on Trump is another white man? Is this what we’ve come to, less than a year after a record number of women and people of colour swept through the midterms and knocked down the house

US election 2020: Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders
US election 2020: Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders

It’s a mess, a big old mess, and while this is going on Trump is no doubt rubbing his hands with glee. It doesn’t matter if the polls put him behind Democratic candidates. As we know all too well the polls have been wrong before.

“A sad day for the Democrats,” Trump troll-tweeted. “Kirsten Gillibrand has dropped out of the Presidential Primary. I’m glad they never found out that she was the one I was really afraid of!” 

Many have written Trump’s comments off as sarcasm, but there’s something more there. I think Trump really is afraid of Gillibrand, and of any woman who speaks out against him, in the same way that he is terrified of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley. In the same way that he was genuinely afraid of Clinton back in 2016.

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And in the same way that some of the Democratic nominees strike fear into his heart. Not Biden – if there’s anything Trump can handle it’s a 76-year-old white man. But Harris and Warren. They are, to use Trump parlance, nasty women.

And, as Warren has said: “Nasty women are tough. Nasty women are smart. And nasty women vote.” 

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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