The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Everything we learned, and refused to learn, from Elizabeth Warren’s run

A crowd watches Elizabeth Warren speak in California on Monday, the day before her fate was sealed. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

One of the more intimate side conversations you were likely to overhear between women at an Elizabeth Warren rally was about the candidate’s skin. How it glowed. How it seemed perpetually soft and dewy, even under her eyes, and that’s hard for anybody to achieve but especially someone who is 70 years old. Her complexion became so famous that Cosmopolitan asked her about it in an interview once, at which point she shared that she used Pond’s moisturizer, and then this became part of the conversation, too. Pond’s! Such a simple, old-fashioned beauty tip, given so willingly by the woman who had a plan for everything, even your combination skin.

Men who never had a beauty magazine lecture them about their T-zones might have found this line of questioning silly, and people who think candidates should be grilled only on their policies might have found it offensive. Would you inquire after a male candidate’s beauty routine this way?

Well, no. But that was part of the point, wasn’t it? Many women saw that Elizabeth Warren was one of them. Finally, a presidential candidate who took things like maternal health and paid parental leave seriously, and who also knew exactly what Nora Ephron meant when she wrote that she felt bad about her neck. It was an impossible tightrope, but she made it look easy; she made most things look easy.

Speaking to reporters outside her home in Cambridge, Mass., Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) announced she was ending her presidential bid on March 5, 2020. (Video: The Washington Post)

A female acquaintance of mine once mentioned online that it scared her how much she loved Elizabeth Warren, leading a Bernie-supporting man to inform her that — actually — you shouldn’t be scared of a candidate that way; it was weird. No, the Warren fan tried to explain. She wasn’t scared of Warren. She’d just never felt so personally moved by a candidate before, which meant she’d never felt so vulnerable to the idea of her candidate losing. She assumed that would eventually happen, and she was correct. Warren announced Thursday that she was leaving the race.

Loving Elizabeth Warren means having a plan for when America breaks your heart

From almost the beginning, her candidacy was haunted by the gauzy, shapeless specter of sexism, which it turns out is the worst kind of sexism, because some people can feel it in their bones and some people don’t believe it exists at all.

Voters, especially Democrats, knew it wasn’t going to fly to call female candidates “she-devils” and “witchy,” as plenty of folks called Hillary Clinton back in 2016. Instead, this time around, they just had endless debates about being “electable” and what it meant to be “presidential,” and we decided that none of the female candidates — not Kamala Harris, not Kirsten Gillibrand, not Amy Klobuchar, not Tulsi Gabbard — were either of those things. Coincidentally.

Every time I mentioned Warren in a column, I received emails informing me that she was a lying liar who lied about everything. After a few back-and-forth exchanges, “everything” would gradually be distilled to “Pocahontas,” a reference to the Native American ancestry Warren said had been part of her family folklore. It was an awful mess. Her decision to take a DNA test — which revealed only a minute indigenous heritage and which ignored issues of cultural history that many Native Americans believe defines them — made it worse.

Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders flipped his position on delegates at a brokered convention. Meanwhile, Joe Biden took to trotting out a cockamamie story about being arrested in South Africa while trying to visit Nelson Mandela, which was not backed by contemporaneous or other accounts. But none of that mattered, because, as readers reassured me, they weren’t lying liars like Warren.

Sometimes I wished that some Warren-doubting pundit would just let loose and call her the C-word on live television. At least then we could stop wondering if the sexism might all be in our heads.

For the past three years, a lot of being a woman — a human, but especially a woman — has meant wondering whether things were all in your head. Had your boss been harassing you, or was it harmless flirting? Had Joe Biden really learned not to massage women’s shoulders uninvited, or was his apology kind of strange, and if you thought it was strange, should you keep it to yourself because it might all be in your head? Locker room talk, locker room talk, locker room talk, and that is partially why we loved Elizabeth Warren. Unlike even the most wonderful, wokest gentlemen, she didn’t need to learn about this stuff, because she already got it. She felt it in her bones.

For a while, it seemed like she had a good shot, but then as voting approached, she didn’t. Spooked voters blamed “the country,” as if they themselves didn’t populate the country. I’m ready for a female president, but the country isn’t. And then they voted for a man they could tolerate instead of the woman they loved.

On Super Tuesday, she didn’t even win her home states of Massachusetts and Oklahoma. She didn’t even come in second.

On Wednesday, anticipating her inevitable resignation, I toggled around social media, where a lot of my female friends awaited the news like one awaits the results of a cholesterol screening: nervous, but eating one last burger before the meds are officially prescribed (maybe Warren will still be vice president?). And mostly, mentally making a to-do list of all the lifestyle changes you’ll force yourself to make when the bad news arrives. When you don’t have a choice, you can at least have a plan.

Here’s what I kept thinking about.

I kept thinking about Elizabeth Warren going back to her house or her hotel, exhausted and disappointed, having spent a career trying to do the right thing and now preparing to do the right thing again: drop out. Unite the party. Work with either Biden or Sanders. Try to ignore the foot-stomping rage of whichever side you turn down, since supporters of both will feel entitled to your compliance.

“Choose to fight only righteous fights,” she told her campaign staff on a Thursday call, previewing her decision to leave the race. “Because then when things get tough — and they will — you will know that there is only [one] option ahead of you. Nevertheless, you must persist.”

I thought about how, exhausted as she is, she’ll still remember to open the jar of Pond’s cold cream and dab it across her forehead and cheekbones, the way her older cousin Tootsie once taught her, because these are the rules of womanhood. Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize. Put on your fresh face for the next day. Cultivate your little tips and tricks, your time hacks and the secrets of your success. Pass them down to another, younger woman. Hope to God they work for her.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit