I spent a lot of 2008 feeling crushed. It was exhilarating covering Hillary Clinton’s historic run for the presidency, but there was so much about the race that was backward and retro, more 1958 than 2008. It wasn’t just the media’s goggle-eyed questions about whether the country was “ready” for a female president or the inane things that spilled out of people’s mouths on cable television—though let’s remember that Christopher Hitchens called Clinton “soppy and bitchy,” Mike Barnicle compared her to “everyone’s first wife standing outside a probate court,” and Keith Olbermann suggested that the Democratic Party needed “somebody who can take her into a room and only he comes out.” All of that was grim. But it was symptomatic of a far bigger problem: that in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the nation still had difficulty imagining a female president as anything other than an exception, a somewhat threatening anomaly.
Should she run, as she almost certainly will, people will be idiots about Clinton this election, too. They’ll call her a bitch and express their distaste for her through fantasies of misogynistic violence. But when I consider the distance we have traveled since 2008, I find myself strangely hopeful about what’s ahead. The degree to which our cultural attitudes about women in politics have matured is astonishing.
Most print and online political publications now employ writers who cover politics and media from an explicitly feminist perspective. Cable news features far more women, as both anchors and pundits, as well as more men who are as likely to engage in spirited gendered critiques as they are to unspool freaky-deaky gendered nightmares. And all over social media, there dwell armies of unpaid but widely read commentators, ready to launch hashtag campaigns and circulate change.org petitions in response to the slightest of identity-politics missteps.
But we haven’t come far enough. Instead, we’re in a tricky, potentially explosive stage: bursting with ideas about how to normalize the concept of women in power, but still constrained by a system that politically, economically, and culturally remains dominated by white men. We are tweens, caught between an awareness of the injustices of our past, yet not grown up enough to seize control and right them.
So how do we catapult out of this cusp period? Having a woman in the White House would certainly help. But in advance of that, and perhaps just as crucially, other women in the Democratic Party need to do what they’ve so far shown no stomach for: They need to challenge Hillary Clinton for the nomination.
For the very first time, there are four Democratic women who could plausibly run for president, four women whose names get mentioned on short lists and in wishful-thinking conversations among party faithful. Of course, only one is ready for the job today. Nobody of any gender has more
experience, name recognition, fund-raising capabilities, or real-world preparation for what awaits in partisan-riven Washington than Hillary Clinton.
But the other three aren’t laughable candidates. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is the troubadour of the populist left and the one challenger Team Clinton legitimately fears. Kirsten Gillibrand, who sits in Clinton’s old Senate seat, has built a reputation as a savvy strategist by moving from center to left and makes no secret of her presidential ambitions. There’s also Amy Klobuchar, the two-term Minnesota senator who’s popular in her state and in her party, and who has already made a couple of exploratory trips to Iowa.
The imperfections of these potential contenders—inexperience, lefty politics, lack of name recognition—certainly hurt their chances. It’s also worth pointing out that presidential campaigns cost time and money; they’re not to be entered lightly. But think about all of the men who have run for high office before they were “ready” in the way Clinton is. Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer, Mike Gravel, and Herman Cain all stared in the mirror and decided they looked presidential. Far more analogous here are the under-seasoned but serious politicians who run all the time. Lots of them—from Jerry Brown to John Edwards to Rick Santorum—don’t make it the distance; but they make an impact on their party. And sometimes unlikely candidates can get pretty far—as far as a young Bill Clinton in 1992 or Barack Obama in 2008.
Interestingly, the issue right now isn’t that the party establishment is disqualifying women other than Clinton from running for president. It’s that the women are disqualifying themselves, seemingly on behalf of Clinton.
Warren, Gillibrand, and Klobuchar reportedly signed a letter to Clinton—along with every other Democratic woman in the Senate—urging her to run and pledging their support if she did. In June, Klobuchar attached her name to a fund-raising invitation for the group Minnesotans Ready for Hillary. And in
a recent interview coinciding with the release of her book, Off the Sidelines, which she described as “a call to action, asking women to participate in politics,” Gillibrand said that she’ll consider running for president “someday, I’m sure, but not any time in the near future.” Instead, she predicted that “Hillary Clinton will be our first woman president.” According to some close to Gillibrand, she is plotting a long game for 2024, but if Clinton weren’t to run in 2016, she almost certainly would. So if she can do it, why not do it? Partly out of fear of that storied Clinton political machine, sure, but also as a sign of the esteem for Clinton that Democratic women seem determined to put on display.
On some level, that’s terrific; good for them. Clinton has not always enjoyed the support of the women in her party, and given some of the challenges she faced in her last go-round, it’s refreshing to see her poised to enter a race backed by a bunch of smart, tough broads.
Except that this is a presidential election, not a trust fall. And the sisterly deference being shown to Clinton by her colleagues—while intended as a sign of respect—is doing far more harm than good.
The last thing any woman in politics needs is the appearance of having won only because her would-be opponents gave her a pass. This perhaps goes double for Clinton, whose years in the spotlight have demonstrated again and again that she is at her most appealing when she is fighting and scrappy, and at her most loathed when she is self-assuredly coasting. Clinton and her party require arresting, attention-drawing competition. She needs to be duking it out, and not just with a bunch of white guys. How many people are salivating at the thought of a Martin O’Malley candidacy? 19? 20?
A predictable primary is a boring primary, and a boring primary leads to a disinterested Democratic Party—a major hindrance going into a general election. Part of what hooked voters in the mesmerizing 2008 race was the thrum of newness, the frisson of history-making every time a woman and a black man stood on a debate stage together. And while we could reproduce that thrill in a variety of ways—there is, after all, a shameful abundance of racial, ethnic, religious, and gendered history to be made before presidential politics become remotely inclusive—one of the most realistic, ready-to-roll scenarios of 2016 is the one in which multiple women show up to debate each other.
But there’s more at stake here than the health of the party in one presidential election. Viewing women as adversaries—ideologically and also within their own parties—is an urgent next step in helping the nation adjust to the idea that female politicians are just like, you know, regular politicians. That means we have to swiftly abandon the processional model, in which one diligent woman takes her hard-earned turn, while the next waits patiently in the wings.
Ambitious men don’t behave that way. They realize that, in politics, very few (legal) acts get you the attention that running for president does. Primaries can bolster fund-raising capabilities and help politicians gain more influence within their party, sometimes setting them up for vice-presidential and Cabinet slots. Driven candidates also run for president in years when they don’t have much of a shot in order to become better known to voters and position themselves for the next round. Ronald Reagan ran for, and lost, the Republican nomination in both 1968 and 1976 before winning in 1980. Al Gore lost his 1988 bid for the Democratic nomination before being elected vice president in 1992 and then winning/losing the general in 2000.
Besides, if more women don’t run this cycle, next time could be a long way off. Should Clinton remain the only Democratic woman on the ballot and win the nomination and the presidency, that’s good for her and perhaps good for the country. It’s not necessarily good, however, for the other female prospects in her party, who would have a decade sucked from their presidential timelines. There are surely other ways for these women to build their profiles, and it’s true that Clinton has a strong record of hiring and promoting women, which would help lots of future leaders. But it’s clearly not the same.
By getting over their impulse to defer to Clinton and instead show her the real presidential respect of taking her on, Warren, Gillibrand, and Klobuchar would dramatically improve the tenor and content of political discourse on the left. Because here’s another benefit of women challenging each other, in presidential and other races: It alleviates the pressure of only-ness.
When a single avatar stands in for womankind, womankind projects onto that avatar its own varied ideas and priorities and standards. Clinton suffered from this last time, metaphysically unable to satisfy a million divergent hopes. She couldn’t be progressive enough, authentic enough, strong enough, stoic enough, or well-dressed enough for everyone. That’s part of why it’s dangerous for one woman to mean so much to so many.
Being The Woman Candidate also means donning a straitjacket when it comes to policy issues that make a direct impact on women. Just as Obama has been limited in his ability to directly address racial injustices out of fear of being tagged The Race Guy, a lone Clinton would find herself hamstrung in debates over reproductive rights and social policy. On her book tour, she has already sounded too hesitant in talking about paid family leave, a wildly important issue she should be all over, having claimed credit for pushing the Family and Medical Leave Act during her husband’s administration. But now, hanging out there all alone in her lady-ness, Clinton is behaving like someone who is (not unreasonably) worried about being feminized.
But what if there were other women out there to shoulder some of that weight and contextualize these crucial conversations? Whether or not Warren, Gillibrand, or Klobuchar could topple Clinton, they could make sure that certain issues got talked about. John Edwards, before melting into the oil slick of his own loathsomeness, performed a real service, nudging Democrats in a direction they badly needed to go on poverty and the class divide (in advance of the Occupy movement, Dodd-Frank, and Warren’s rabble-rousing, no less). And he did most of that work as a candidate who in neither his 2004 nor his 2008 bids ever had a strong shot of winning the nomination. This time around, the Democratic Party would become a stronger party if it got to listen to Clinton argue paid sick days, reproductive rights, day care, and equal-pay protections with a few other women who know how serious and far-reaching these policy questions are.
Democrats would also be able to hear those arguments more clearly, since they wouldn’t be filtered through the inevitable scrim of either over-solicitousness or condescension that comes when a bunch of guys take Clinton on. Remember “You’re likeable enough, Hillary”? Remember Edwards telling her he didn’t like her jacket? Yeah, that was ear-splitting. We don’t need two years of that, and if Democrats had more women around, there’d be less of it.
Relatedly, getting a bunch of women into the race would help us power through this irritating stage in which the media obsesses over likeability and pantsuits, cankles and hair and heels, and speculation over whether a candidate’s electoral support derives from some moony ovarian affiliation. That’s all clutter, and it lingers as the surest sign that female leadership remains exotic and weird.
I’m obviously aware that a primary with multiple women would make certain parts of the process worse before they got better. This cycle, we’d be presented with a whole new fetishized motif for presidential elections—the catfight. But this, too, is a developmental hurdle we must clear. If withstanding a season of hair-pulling jokes and “meeeow!”-ing New York Post headlines helps us get used to it and move forward, then by all means, let’s do it now, when the possibility is in front of us, instead of simply postponing it for next time. Ambitious, promising young politicians including Tulsi Gabbard, Nina Turner, Grace Meng, Kamala Harris, Kathleen Kane, and Stacey Abrams will be so much better off as a result.
Let me be clear: Very little of the blame for the tentativeness of other female pols should be laid at the feet of Clinton, who at the moment is the only woman—and the only Democrat—behaving like a future president. That she lugs around such a huge symbolic burden is the structural reality in a nation that has historically and uniformly excluded women from executive power. Clinton is a trailblazer, capable, tough, and strong. She damn well should take advantage of her position of power entering the election. But her individual fate shouldn’t have to carry so much overwrought meaning. Which is why I’m pleading with the talented and well-positioned women of the Democratic Party: Run. Run right now. Run for yourselves. Run because the country, the party, and Hillary need you to. Just run already.
Rebecca Traister is a senior editor at The New Republic.