It has become an almost tragic joke. Another marathon television event with hours of talk about health care, but no mention of abortion, birth control, Title X, or President Donald Trump’s crusade against Planned Parenthood. Last night (September 13), ABC News held the third election-2020 debate in Houston. It was also the third presidential debate ever to include more than one token woman on stage, which was good and historic, but you might not have known it from the conversation.
At the end of what felt like 4,000 hours of discussion about guns, war, Medicare for All, and immigration, I had counted zero questions about not just abortion, but paid leave, child care, or the lethal misogyny that has become its own national crisis in America. The moderators did ask (more than once) about health care, but no candidates used those opportunities to talk about abortion, such a common procedure that more than one in four women have one at some point in their lifetimes.
Instead, we had health care debates that focus on prescription drugs but didn’t mention a prescription drug that millions of women take daily—the pill. While the candidates made their disdain for our current president clear, none mentioned the fact that he once suggested women should be punished for having abortions, has been accused of sexual assault more than a dozen times, or cheated on his third wife with an adult film star whom he then disparaged and paid off. In short, to claim that the President of the United States is a misogynist seems almost unfair to misogynists. He’s at war with 51 percent of the population, some of whom, sure, voted for him. But his relentless crusade against women’s rights is treated as basically a political ploy and not an actual ideology with deadly consequences.
Or at least, that’s how it’s treated now that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is out of the race. In her campaign and at debates, Gillibrand repeatedly raised “women’s issues.” But she dropped out of the race a few weeks ago, because she couldn’t qualify for last night’s debate and also because a lot of people still blame her for kneecapping former Senator Al Franken for (of course!) his alleged mistreatment of women.
To be honest, I was never a Gillibrand fan. From the start there were other candidates I liked better. But I can also admit I found her “grating” and even a little “unlikable,” which, sure, could be the internalized sexism talking. Regardless, last night it occurred to me that the only person who had even tried to center Me Too, women’s health care, sexual assault, paid leave, and those other denigrated “women’s issues” in their campaign was Kirsten Gillibrand. Gillibrand was for women what Washington governor Jay Inslee was for climate, taking an underdiscussed but urgent issue and making it the center of her campaign. She and he have both since dropped out of the race (even as lesser candidates like Marianne Williamson and Mayor Bill De Blasio remain). But while Inslee’s proposals on climate have been praised across the board and Elizabeth Warren liked them so much she adopted his entire plan, Gillibrand’s platform has been more or less erased. It’s as if what candidates learned from Gillibrand’s run is…not to talk about women at all.
The candidate who focused on paid family leave, sexual assault in the military, and reproductive rights couldn’t get traction. It’s possible that this was because she just didn’t speak to people, as a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll suggested, with respondents reporting that Warren was “best qualified to address gender equality, followed by Biden, Sanders and Harris.” (Gillibrand didn’t even crack the top 10).
But it’s also possible that, well, sexism is real and that a lot of people—both male and female—don’t want to hear so much talk about ladies. “There may well be a risk,” Gillibrand herself said in the New York Times, when she talked about her “women plus” campaign platform a few months ago. “But it is who I am. I think the country would be so much stronger if women had greater voices.” I think so too, but will we ever have a chance to find out?
Gillibrand was the woman candidate who focused on women, but she was treated as an opportunist or, as some people called her, the Me Too senator, as if women are a niche issue and talking about issues that matter to us is a tactic.
The pundit class will argue that one of the reasons “women’s issues” don’t get air time at debates is because Democrats more or less agree on them; this is both not true and not the point. A lot of Democrats agree that we have a climate crisis or that we need to take action on guns but don’t agree on what we should do about it. Misogyny and sexism are catastrophes of epic proportions. If Democrats agree on that, they should defend their plans to address the issues. Debates highlight problems that might otherwise get lost. Debates are moments on national television when politicians can change the conversation. Debates matter, and what’s discussed in them tells us what matters to the candidates.
Trump has opened Pandora’s Box when it comes to racism. He has tacitly (and sometimes not so tacitly) encouraged white supremacy. But he has done the same thing when it comes to misogyny. He has brought its rhetoric back into the mainstream. He has made fun of sexual assault survivors. His mere presence in the White House sets the women’s movement back decades.
Women’s rights are under siege, and that needs to be a focus for Democrats. It needs to be talked about like a life-or-death issue, because it is. And most of all, it needs to be understood, on a deep level, that Democrats need women, and black women in particular, to win. Candidates, we’re ready when you are.
Molly Jong-Fast is the author of three novels. Follow her on Twitter @mollyjongfast.
Originally Appeared on Glamour