From left, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), former congressman Beto O'Rourke of Texas, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) arrive for the first Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season in Miami. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
Columnist

It’s hard to express the giddy delight of seeing three female candidates on a debate stage, but I’ll try.

My god, the clothing alone — and I don’t mean this in a shallow way. I mean that we as a nation once collectively wasted stupid, stupid hours of our lives discussing whether Hillary’s podium pantsuits set the right tone, and now, on Wednesday in Miami (round one of the first Democratic debate), here were three women all dressed differently from one another — Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) in a skirt and heels, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) in trousers and low boots, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii) with long hair and a flag pin — and they all performed just fine.

It turns out women can wear a variety of clothes to a presidential debate and all appear perfectly presidential; let us never speak of this pretend issue again.

Thursday evening’s debate would feature three additional women — Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and author-activist Marianne Williamson — allowing for even broader sartorial and behavioral interpretations of what it means to be a female candidate.

I watched most of Clinton’s 2008 and 2016 debates as one watches a horror movie, peeking from behind splayed fingers. It was panic born of the whole first-female-candidate thing; the idea that this was hugely symbolic and hugely weighty, and that if she screwed something up, the country might not give a woman another chance to run for president for a long time.

If you’re a white man you might not be entirely familiar with this feeling — or maybe you are, I don’t know — but for many women it’s real. There’s only one of us up there. Please, don’t let her be too loud or too soft or too timid or too weird. Don’t let her blow it for the sisterhood.

But now: Three women. Three! If Warren had behaved like a dope, she had backup and we had alternatives. Gabbard, a military veteran, correcting Rep. Tim Ryan (Ohio) for mixing up the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Klobuchar, swooping in on Gov. Jay Inslee’s (Wash.) assertion that he had done more for reproductive choice than anyone else on stage. “There are three women up here who have fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose,” she admonished him.

Inslee laughed at her clapback, perhaps a tad chagrined. But really, the entire exchange was remarkable. It was remarkable that Inslee had voluntarily waded into the abortion issue, which is reliably a third rail. It was remarkable that he’d offered such unequivocable support, instead of hemming and hawing while moderators attempted to drag a coherent position out of him.

What choice did he have? There were three qualified women on the stage! If he hadn’t come out with a clearly defined opinion on reproductive health care, voters could simply opt to go with a candidate who actually had a uterus.

This was a pattern through the night: Former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro easily came across as the debate’s most vocal feminist. He spoke about the gendered wage gap. He didn’t merely support reproductive choice, he said, but “reproductive justice” — a term acknowledging that poor women and women of color seeking abortions often encounter insurmountable barriers. He was the first candidate to speak out for transgender rights, mentioning that trans men can and do also get pregnant.

Former congressman Beto O’Rourke chimed in, too: “Health care also has to mean that every woman can make her own decisions about her own body and access to the care that makes that possible.”

I have a hard time believing these conversations would have happened so frankly if the stage had been occupied entirely by men. These issues are difficult and contentious, after all. It would be easier to avoid them until absolutely pressed.

But women have never been able to avoid these difficult issues; they reside in our bodies. We carry these issues around with us, and on Wednesday, three women carried them on stage. Their presence meant these issues now needed to be discussed.

Often, when feminists or political activists talk about the need for more female candidates, the assumption is that these activists want only female candidates to win. That’s not true, though. As Inslee, Castro and O’Rourke showed, men are also capable of being good advocates for women. They are also capable of being thoughtful on issues of sexism and equality.

Sometimes, though, it helps for them to have a little motivation. Sometimes it helps for them to have three (three!) women joining them on stage, making it clear that half the population can no longer be ignored.

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