Pretty, Put-Together, and Prepared: Women in the 2020 Presidential Field
Over the past few weeks, I have been attempting to write about the upcoming presidential election and the diverse field of Democratic candidates. I myself have not settled on who I will be supporting; there are so many qualified, interesting, and hardworking people in the mix, and I actually feel quite content with a few of them should they win the nomination. I have gone back and forth on how to approach the apparently ‘thorny’ subject of a woman president — should I argue for a woman president against everything else simply because I do really want to see a woman in the White House? Should I argue that based on the current political climate, it doesn’t matter if our candidate is a woman — just that they can beat Trump in the general election? I don’t have answers to any of these questions yet, though I know my opinions and positions will solidify as the election draws closer.
Yesterday, however, I felt what I would call my first ‘rage wave’ of this election. This type of feeling was common in the runup to the 2016 election, as we were forced to listen to misogynistic, unfounded criticism of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee. She was too shrill. She was too masculine. She was too feminine. Her hair was bad. She spent too much time on her appearance. She looked old. Her health was poor. Her social media was cringe-inducing. She was too prepared, out-of-touch with everyday Americans. This classic anti-woman nonsense had so much to do with why Clinton lost the election. Take, for example, this quote from a recent New York Times article: “‘I actually heard so often that people didn’t like her and she was unlikable that I started to think, ‘I don’t know if I really like her so much,’ Heather Pasqualino Weirich, a Democrat from Phoenixville, Pa., said of Mrs. Clinton, whom she later supported. ‘I realized I had no reason why I didn’t like her.’”
Imagine, then, how my anger sparked after reading this tweet from Matt Yglesias: “One issue with [Elizabeth] Warren having *so many* proposals is that basically nobody is going to actually agree with all of them (especially not at the level of detail she offers) ... the traditional politician’s preference for vagueness has a real logic to it.” Is he serious? Elizabeth Warren is by and far the most intelligent and qualified candidate in the running. She brings well-researched, thoroughly crafted policy plans to her campaign. She has been in the U.S. Senate since 2012. She is a gifted public speaker, and her blunders are far from crimes.
Despite all of this, Yglesias has the nerve to criticize the number of her proposals and the amount of detail she has put into them, as if this is a bad thing. Warren undoubtedly has enough self-awareness to know that no one will agree with every single proposal she has made, but nevertheless she has worked tirelessly to flesh out all of her policies in a way that allows the public to see who she is and what she stands for. She has made relentless efforts to appeal to a wide range of voters by putting her agenda on display for all to view. She wants to break up monopolies and tech companies to weaken corporations’ holds on the American economy; she wants to introduce a wealth tax; she has proposed universal pre-k. Her policies are both vast in quantity and robust in quality, and yet there are still arguments that she is too prepared for the average American, who apparently may prefer an aloof, vague candidate with swagger and superstar appeal but altogether lacking in any positions at all, like Beto O’Rourke. Are you kidding me?
The argument that we shouldn’t have a woman for president simply for the sake of having a woman for president does hold some weight. But it sure feels like we have had plenty of men for president simply because they are men. There is no question, now that Trump has been in charge for over two years, as to who the more qualified, prepared candidate was in 2016. Over and over we heard the same lazy logic: ‘I wouldn’t mind a woman for president, just not her.’ This is such sexist garbage, and yet it continues to drive coverage of the candidates to this very day. Kirsten Gillibrand is too likeable. Kamala Harris is too harsh. Elizabeth Warren is too prepared. In our analysis of the candidates, we like to pretend that we’re basing our positions on their arguments and accomplishments, but in this race so far it’s remarkably evident that this simply isn’t the case. The rise of Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg are perfect examples, and the air of excitement around these candidates is summed up brilliantly by Jill Filipovic: “The problem isn’t that ‘[Buttigieg]’s a man.’ The problem is that we are focusing on him because he’s a young white man. With men, we focus on their promise, not their accomplishments. We do not do this for women, which is why all four running for president are hyper-accomplished.” Only a man could be young and lacking in well-rounded political experience and still create the hype of O’Rourke and Buttigieg. Only a man could grace the cover of Vanity Fair and be quoted as saying “I’m just born to be in it.” Hillary Clinton, perhaps the most accomplished and qualified candidate for president ever, made a few comments on her lifelong aspiration to be president and was subsequently vilified by the media; Beto has received hardly any of the same criticism.
It is astounding to me that a prominent Twitter pundit, one with a platform as large as Yglesias’, would be tone-deaf enough to assume that the everyday American is too dumb and indecisive to support a candidate like Warren. But at the same time, perhaps our standards are now so low that maybe we’ve come to expect the very least from our presidential candidates and thus we expect very little from the people who report on them. Right now we have a president who cannot even coherently deliver a speech without going off topic, who knows nothing at all about policy or legislation, and who is ludicrously unfit for office. Any of the Democratic candidates would be an improvement at this point. To argue that Warren’s well-preparedness won’t serve her as well as Beto’s rugged charm or Buttigieg’s Norwegian skills is to diminish her as a person and to lay bare what we all know but seem to still deny: we hold women to a higher standard than men. Not only do women have to be pretty, put-together, and prepared, but they also cannot be too pretty, put-together, or prepared. If we pass up on a candidate like Warren because we collectively assume that the American public is too stupid to handle her policies, then we almost certainly hand the election to Trump.
Lauren Olmeda holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in international relations. She is an editor based in Dublin, Ireland and is Editor-at-Large of the Attic on Eighth.