The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kirsten Gillibrand didn't just play the gender card. She defiantly played the whole deck.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) tries on a hat for the Capital City Pride festival in Des Moines in June. (Christopher Smith/For The Washington Post)

The music at Kirsten Gillibrand’s rallies was the kind of playlist that a bunch of sorority sisters might compile to pull a recently dumped friend out of a funk: “Superwoman” by Alicia Keys, “Just a Girl” by No Doubt. Gillibrand’s preferred walk-on was often Lizzo’s buoyant self-love anthem “Good as Hell.”

She seemed to enjoy trying on hats or sunglasses at quirky shops along the campaign trail. She often arrived at events wearing pink, or surrounded by “Gillibrand 2020” campaign signs, whose fuchsia color schematic was more symbolic than visually appealing. While conventional wisdom has encouraged female candidates to avoid “playing the gender card,” Kirsten Gillibrand was always running specifically as a woman.

She never made an attempt to lower the pitch of her youthful-sounding voice. She never stopped talking about paid family leave. When she discussed abortion, she was loud and unapologetic. She was relentless in matters relating to sexual misconduct and wanting to punish the predators who were guilty of it.

During the two official debates she participated in, Gillibrand vowed to prioritize women so often that an average woman watching from her living room might feel bashful in the face of such attention, overwhelmed by the audacity of Gillibrand’s support. As the debate minutes ticked by, I saw social media posts unfurl from men who wondered when she was going to start talking specifically about them, and then became enraged when they realized the answer was maybe never.

If it sometimes seemed that Kirsten Gillibrand was running on the single issue of gender, she was doing so recognizing that it encompasses all issues. As pejorative as the term “identity politics” has become, not a single part of our lives is untouched by our identities. So she talked about how her identity as a white woman had put her in a position of power, and how “white women in the suburbs” had a role in ending structural racism. She unveiled a detailed LGBTQ agenda, which encompassed everything from fighting homelessness to reducing the cost of HIV medication.

She put together a platform based on the revolutionary idea that “women’s issues,” affecting fully half of Americans, are not some fringe side note to our culture; they are American issues.

In her manner, she was — and I say this knowing that the word will sound dismissive, and knowing equally it shouldn’t — girly. Elizabeth Warren plays your zany, brilliant aunt, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar your stalwart best friends. Kirsten Gillibrand plays the sister who would drive you to Planned Parenthood for the pill and agree not to tell your parents.

It seemed obvious she couldn’t win. From the very beginning, she was lacking . . . something. Star quality? Name recognition? However genuine her intentions, there was occasionally a sense that she was just performing, that she was trying too hard to make fetch happen. A Fox News reporter called her “not very polite” on air after she criticized the network’s coverage of abortion. By the next day, her campaign was advertising tote bags with the insult scrawled in rosy, feminine script. It was a good move, but hadn’t that been Elizabeth “She Persisted” Warren’s trick first?

I can’t say that I planned to vote for her.

And, of course, there was the matter of Al Franken. When her former colleague was accused of sexual misconduct, Gillibrand was the first senator to call for his resignation. More than two dozen senators, both male and female, joined her. But after the public opinion began to waver — maybe Franken should have stayed after all? — it was Gillibrand who was blamed for his demise.

“Who is being held accountable for his decision to resign?” she rhetorically demanded at a public event. “Women senators, including me. It’s outrageous. It’s absurd.”

After her exit from the race on Wednesday, pundits and prognosticators harked back to Franken. Had leading the charge against him irreparably damaged her? Did it matter that she was the one leading the charge, even though other senators were mere minutes behind her?

Franken, after all, was the one who allegedly behaved inappropriately to begin with — a fact that was presented as incidental by some of her detractors. Tucker Carlson went on air Wednesday night and declared that, though he’d never been a fan of Franken, Gillibrand was officially the “worst candidate” to have ever run for president.

She was hardly the worst, at least judging by how voters responded. Though her polling was never high — and though it was hardly a surprising decision that she would drop out — she’d fared as well as or better than numerous other candidates who haven’t left the field, including Bill de Blasio, John Delaney, Tom Steyer and Tulsi Gabbard.

In the end, she said on Wednesday, she had decided that she would be more useful to the cause from outside the race. “It’s important to know when it’s your time,” she said, and she’d decided it wasn’t hers. Immediately, other Democratic candidates from Warren, to Harris, to Cory Booker, to Julián Castro began thanking her for her service, and for her contributions to the dialogue.

She’d spent her campaign fully embracing being a woman, and more importantly, she made us have at least a few conversations about what that meant.

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