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Less than a year ago, the Democratic presidential field featured a record number of female candidates, many of them with credentials as strong as any of the men in the race. As the primary carried on, however, the women in the contest gradually fell off one by one.
Elizabeth Warren, the last woman with a realistic shot at winning, dropped out last week after a poor showing on Super Tuesday. Her withdrawal ended the chance that the first woman president would be elected in 2020. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is still in the running but trails Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders by more than 500 delegates.
Women have been running for the presidency since 1872, when Victoria Woodhull launched an ill-fated challenge to incumbent Ulysses S. Grant. Female candidates became increasingly competitive in recent decades, culminating in Hillary Clinton’s narrow loss to Donald Trump in 2016. More than 50 countries around the world have had a female leader.
Why there’s debate
The narrowing of the Democratic field to two male competitors, four years after Clinton’s surprise defeat, has led to discussion about the barriers that prevent women from winning the presidency.
Overt sexism certainly exists — globally women are seen as inferior political leaders — but experts say a subtler form of sexism is more widespread and damaging in the U.S. This sexism arises in the standards that female candidates are held to, which some argue are higher than those placed on their male competitors. Women also face disproportionate pressure to be “likable,” a burden that can create a difficult balancing act between projecting competence and not coming off as too severe. Research also suggests that women are seen as less electable than men, a handicap that’s even more pronounced in a year when beating Trump is the top priority for Democratic voters.
Discussing these issues can itself be a hurdle for female candidates. “If you say, ‘Yeah — there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘Whiner.’ And if you say, ‘No, there was no sexism,’ about a bazillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?’” Warren said.
Some pundits make the counterargument that the impact of sexism is overstated and can sometimes be used as an excuse to cover up the more tangible shortcomings of failed campaigns. Others say disappointment at the presidential level shouldn’t overshadow the many victories women have claimed in congressional and state elections.
Many prominent Democrats have called for Biden and Sanders to commit to naming a woman as their running mate for the general election. A female vice president would be a first for America, if Democrats take the White House in November.
America’s system of direct elections makes it harder for women
“The parliamentary system allows parties to be more intentional about advancing women leaders. … Under a parliamentary system, the head of state is not decided by whether a particular group of voters — say, white working-class voters in Michigan — identify with a particular candidate. If the U.S. had a parliamentary system, then Nancy Pelosi might be president of the United States.” — Charlotte Alter, Time
Denying that sexism is a problem makes it more difficult to combat
“You can’t meaningfully address a problem like gender bias that half of the population refuses to acknowledge even exists.” — Tessa Stuart, Rolling Stone
The issue goes deeper than overt sexism
“The problem goes beyond voters who hold traditional views of gender roles or admit that they wouldn’t be comfortable with a Madam President. More subtly, ambitious women are viewed more negatively than men, while women leaders are often considered less legitimate than men, in the United States, at least.” — Michelle Cottle, New York Times
America is ready for a woman president but hasn’t been presented with the right candidate
“If there is one thing Americans are prepared to do is vote for a female president. … I have no doubt about it. You find the right person with the right set of ideas and leadership style, it’s over — it becomes an advantage.” — Pete Hegseth, Fox News
The burden of potentially being the first woman president hinders candidates
“No male candidate has ever been asked what it meant to run as a man for president. They have all had the luxury of being self-defined by other qualities.” — Amanda Terkel, HuffPost
Progress made in other important races shouldn’t be ignored
“While it is undeniably — and devastatingly — true that the United States has still yet to elect a woman president, there is progress taking place in the U.S. Congress that is building up an even larger bench of women lawmakers to keep pursuing higher office.” — Ella Nilsen and Li Zhou, Vox
Democratic voters are convinced a woman can’t beat Donald Trump
“Whether it was true or not, whether they would admit it or not, Democrats had somehow internalized the message that a woman could not beat Trump. It didn’t matter if it was reality. Enough people believed it to be true, thus making it self-fulfilling. All of a sudden, the presidency was once again out of reach for a female candidate.” — Molly Jong-Fast, Daily Beast
Female candidates are held to an impossible standard
“As is often, perhaps always, the case, these female candidates seemed held to a higher standard when it came to being presidential, electable — and even likable. In fact, for women, those three characteristics war with one another.” — Swanee Hunt, CNN
Women in 2020 field should be seen as trailblazers
“For the first time having multiple women in the race allowed each woman to run as an individual and challenge stereotypes. And that progress is here to stay.” — Amanda Hunter, PBS
Blaming sexism is an easy excuse for failure
“There are few things so intellectually lazy as concluding that a female candidate's lack of victory is mostly due to gender. This ignores not only the success of Hillary Clinton in 2016 but everything else that makes up an individual candidate and their appeal — or lack thereof.” — Kimberly Ross, Washington Examiner
Sexism isn’t the sole reason female candidates lose
“I think that gender is a part of the story of what happened in this race, but it would be shortsighted to say it is the sole factor that shaped both the experiences and the outcomes of the race. It would be overly negative to think that being a woman brought only electoral disadvantages.” — Political scientist Kelly Ditmar to Washington Post
Fear that women aren’t electable creates a cycle female candidates struggle to escape
“My concern is that not electing a woman president has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Folks are convinced that a woman can’t win, so they don’t vote for a woman, thus ensuring that a woman doesn’t win, and the cycle continues.” — Political scientist Melissa K. Miller to NBC News
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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP (2), Getty Images