KEENE, N.H. — Within three minutes of getting in line for an Elizabeth Warren rally, I’ve been handed a business card for a woman-empowerment organization called Brass Ovaries, and the founder, my linemate, has drawn me into a conversation about Warren that has begun to feel like the only conversation to have about Warren: the kind that’s about hope, and despair, and how it’s possible to love America and also want to throw it out the window.
“I went to one of her events before, and I gave her one of my Brass Ovaries pins,” Michelle Johnson says. “And I started to explain how it’s about fed-up women — but she said, ‘Oh, I get it,’ and I said, ‘I knew you would,’ because Elizabeth always gets it, doesn’t she?”
This is the first part of the Warren conversation. It involves dreaming of a version of the country where leaders are excellent at explaining certain things, such as the current shortcomings of health care and child care; and where they don’t need other things explained to them at all, like what it feels like to be an exasperated woman.
But Michelle, who plans to vote for Warren in her state’s Tuesday primary, also finds herself having a second, more maddening part of the Warren conversation. When she told her mother that she thought Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) would be a good running mate, her mother blanched. “America isn’t ready for two women on the ticket,” she said, then added that America might not even be ready for one.
That part is about fear. It’s about fearing a version of America that was certified as the real version four Novembers ago, when Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump. Or so people keep saying.
It’s a conversation that isn’t really about Elizabeth Warren at all; it’s about the rest of us.
There we were in New Hampshire, in the exhaust fumes of Iowa’s caucuses, which had been such a spectacular fiasco that Warren’s supporters in Keene now believed it was up to them to sort things out and, ideally, to sort things out for Warren. For all the chaos in Des Moines, one thing was clear: Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg were wrestling through a tie with a quarter of the votes apiece.
And Warren, who had topped polls in October, had finished a distant third.
This alone didn’t faze her New Hampshire supporters. She’d outpaced the erstwhile front-runner Joe Biden, after all, who took his fourth-place finish as a “gut punch.” Plus, while Iowa was “a bunch of people running around in a gymnasium,” as one voter here put it, their state’s election was a civilized primary, and was also in the backyard of the senator from Massachusetts.
But then a new prediction came out. It had Warren polling at 10 percent in the Granite State. Behind Sanders. Behind a rising Buttigieg. Behind even Joe Biden. (She’s fared better in other recent polls but still well behind Sanders and Buttigieg.)
Then Warren’s campaign announced that it was pulling ad dollars in Nevada and South Carolina.
Then it was time to really think about Elizabeth Warren. Which really means sorting through what version of America you believe in — the one where we are ready to vote a woman into the Oval Office, or the one where we aren’t — and whether it’s the believing, one way or another, that makes your version true.
"The thing is, I can picture her up there on the debate stage with Trump, and she's debating him to pieces," says Deb Wilson, a retired New Hampshire educator. "To pieces."
“We need her,” says Wendy Keith, a social worker. “We need her so badly. We need someone that strong and that smart.”
“I think having a woman in the White House — I think she’ll care for us,” adds Esther Scheidel, standing next to Wendy.
“Of course, I’m not voting for her because she’s a woman; I don’t even think of her as a woman,” another supporter chimes in a few minutes later, having overheard the earlier conversation, “I think of her as a candidate.”
Then this line-stander decides he doesn’t want to be quoted after all and shoos me away, but it’s a preposterous statement, right? It’s a preposterous, relatable, vexing statement. It’s impossible not to see Warren as a woman. Many of her policies were explicitly shaped by that identity, as she readily acknowledges. Is “not thinking of Warren as a woman” supposed to be a compliment?
What I think this man means is that ever since 2016, we have been trapped in a vague debate about electability, and whether it’s only men who have it. In the fog of uncertainty over Hillary Clinton’s complicated defeat (she neglected Wisconsin, she used a private email server, she was a “nasty woman” slain by weaponized misogyny, she still won the popular vote), the debate has mutated into an abstract panic about whether any woman can get elected in 2020.
Trying to ignore Elizabeth Warren’s femaleness is an attempt to neatly sidestep the whole problem. To pretend that we have the capacity to vote entirely on merits. To behave as if each election can happen in a vacuum, uninformed by the elections and the hundreds of years of history that came before it.
Can you ignore that while Pete Buttigieg might be a millennial wunderkind, a female 38-year-old mayor of a midsize town would have a hard time being taken as seriously if she up and ran for president? Can you ignore that Bernie Sanders’s shouting is seen as righteous but if Kamala Harris ever raised her voice, it was seen as anger? How did Joe Biden automatically get to wear the cloak of electability for nearly a full year before Iowa tore it off?
Warren has made some massive bungles — the DNA test, ugh — but is it ever, ever possible to scientifically determine how much “I don’t like her” is a code for “I wouldn’t like any woman”?
These days, of course, people don’t say, “I won’t vote for a woman”; they say, “I’m scared my moderate father-in-law needs a man on the ballot to motivate him to the polls.”
This isn’t progress. This is treating the election as a psychic reading.
“I’m leaning toward Warren,” says Frank Brownell, a retired editor who relocated to Keene from Upstate New York. “I’m not a big Buttigieg fan. But I want to pick someone to win.” He sighed, deeply troubled. “Women have such a burden. I actually wish women ran the world.”
If he wished women ran things, I asked him, was there a reason he was still merely leaning toward Warren? Here was a woman he liked who was offering to run the country, and he literally had the chance to give her the job.
“I’m going to vote for her,” he decided, then waffled. “I don’t know, I don’t know.”
His qualms weren’t with Warren. He loved Warren. His qualms were about everyone else, everyone else who might not be ready to vote for a woman. “I’m hopeful but I’m not hopeful. I don’t think America is what I always hoped it was.”
Here are some things that happen at Elizabeth Warren events: Warren sprints onstage, much tinier and slighter than she appears on television, to Dolly Parton singing "9 to 5." She shares that she was her parents' late-in-life baby, and her mother never stopped referring to her as "the surprise." She talks about her first marriage, and then she jokes that it's never good when you have to number your marriages. She tells a story about a toaster, and the toaster becomes a metaphor for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which she helped create, and the CFBP becomes a metaphor for how things can change, but only if you are willing to believe they can change.
You have to believe; that’s the key. You have to jump into the void of possibility. Ready or not.
She is optimistic and upbeat, almost comically so, as if she is Elizabeth Warren playing SNL’s Kate McKinnon playing Elizabeth Warren. She is empathetic in a way that could feel phony if you’re not accustomed to that sort of thing in a politician.
At one event in New Hampshire, a little girl approaches the microphone, accompanied by her mother.
“My name is Elizabeth,” she says.
“Your name is Elizabeth?” Warren reels back. “Oh wow! Double Elizabeths! I feel the power.”
“I’m seven years old.”
Warren pauses, deadpan. “I’m . . . not.”
“I want to know if you will close the camps,” the 7-year-old Elizabeth asks.
Here, Warren’s response grows impossibly soft and intimate, so soft that it feels almost indecent to listen to, like this has become a private conversation. The camps in Texas where they are holding children? Warren asks. The 7-year-old nods. Those camps.
“Yes,” Warren says. “Yes.”
And then people in the audience tear up because in that moment, they did seem to believe things could change, that Warren was the best candidate, that others thought so, too, and just needed to be convinced that it’s safe to vote for her. That there’s nothing to fear in nominating this woman but fear itself.
“If everyone is trying to play that [electability] game,” offers Nancy Loschiavo, a Warren supporter, “then what has our country come to?”
But, Loschiavo hastens to add, she’ll absolutely vote for whomever the nominee is.
Everyone at the Warren events hastens to add that.
A survey had come out a few days before, asking each candidate’s supporters whether, assuming their own first choice dropped out, they would vote for whoever was the Democratic nominee. Some supporters professed a my-guy-or-bust attitude — nearly half of the Yang Gang said they wouldn’t vote for another Democrat. But Warren’s supporters, more than anyone else, said they’d vote for whomever they needed to vote for.
One way to read this is that Warren doesn’t have crossover appeal: She appeals only to the folks who would have voted Democratic no matter what. Another way to read this is that her supporters are as practical as they are passionate: There’s an outcome they’d prefer, but if it doesn’t happen, they’ll move on to the next best thing. They’ve got a plan for that.
After talking to enough of her fans, I think it’s the second explanation. The second explanation, mixed with something deeper:
Loving Elizabeth Warren means planning for America to break your heart.
It means watching her tweet out an optimistic message after Iowa, and then watching how all of the early replies instruct her to defer to Sanders and drop out.
It means making sure to preface your pro-Warren statements with “I don’t have anything against the male candidates,” as if the act of supporting a female one was somehow misandrist in itself.
It means listening to people complain about her schoolmarmishness and quietly wondering what was so wrong, exactly, with sounding like a schoolmarm. What’s so wrong with sounding like a grandmother? What’s so wrong with her animated hand gestures, her cardigans, her preparedness, her laugh, her husband, her brain, her work, her femaleness, her voice?
It means hoping things will break your way but accepting that they probably wouldn’t, because America never quite seems to work that way, does it?
America doesn’t just render a verdict on the acceptability of women and their clothes and laughs every four years; America does that every day, in a lot of different ways. That’s the reason Michelle Johnson feels moved to make “brass ovaries” pins, and the reason Elizabeth Warren doesn’t have to ask her to explain why.
"The biggest reluctance I hear is 'Can a woman win?' " says Ron Jones, who, along with his friend Tom Harris, has been canvassing for Warren and had come to see her speak in a Nashua community college gym. "I point out that a woman has already won," he said, referring to Clinton's popular-vote victory.
“I tell them, look at other countries with successful female leaders,” says Harris. “I tell them, look at successful female CEOs.” Or just look around you. “Women are the majority in the country!” says Jones.
Inside the gym, attendees filled the folding plastic chairs, and when those were full, leaned against the walls, parkas draped over their forearms. Seatmates introduced themselves to one another and talked about why they liked Warren, and why there were still reasons to be hopeful, maybe.
“I just want someone to bring energy back,” M.K. Hayes tells the fellow New Hampshirites sitting next to her. “And with her, there’s no cynicism, but there’s urgency. With her, you can say, ‘I’m liberal and I’m proud.’ ”
Her husband likes Warren, too, but he’s not here today. He likes her, she explains, but he might not vote for her; he’s not sure it’s the practical thing to do.
“I am trying to get him to vote with his heart,” Hayes says. “I am trying to get him to have the courage to risk.”
The music in the gym gets a little louder. When “9 to 5” comes on, Warren sprints onstage. She talks about her family. She talks about her toaster. She says she is running a campaign from the heart, because she believes 2020 is “our moment.”
“I believe in that America,” Elizabeth Warren says, and then she tries to convince the audience that they believe in that America, too.
Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.