A total of six women sought the nomination, and at times Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) were among the top-tier candidates in a field that at one point included more than two dozen hopefuls. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) was the first woman to leave the race in August because of low poll numbers and fundraising, followed by Harris, who left the contest in December after struggling to raise money. Marianne Williamson, a self-help guru never gained traction and suspended her campaign in January. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) quit the race a day before Super Tuesday and endorsed Biden.
Warren didn’t win any of the 14 states and one U.S. territory that voted Tuesday, including her home state. Female political activists expressed anger and sadness when she announced that her campaign was over.
Some have turned their attention to pushing for Biden or Sanders to tap a woman as their running mate.
“Elizabeth Warren charted a path for what a campaign that values women of color should look like. Her collaborative policymaking process with women of color was transformative,” said Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a political organization that educates and mobilizes women of color as voters and candidates. “There is tremendous grief right now around how we got here from one of the most diverse primary fields in history. Biden and Sanders have only one option to turn that grief into hope: a woman of color as vice president.”
Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University at Camden and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, has studied and written about the struggles and the successes of the women running for president.
About US asked her to share her thoughts about lessons learned during this election cycle. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are the main takeaways from the experiences of the women who ran for president this cycle?
We knew the field would narrow. We knew that not all these women were going to win, and knew it was still going to be a challenge for any single woman to win. Those of us who do this work are well aware that politics remains a dominantly masculine institution, and that’s particularly true at the presidential level. Many of us were watching to see how far did we come even between 2016 and 2020 in the degree to which gender presented any sort of hurdle to women candidates and to equally look at ways they might use gender to their advantage. We saw both: that gender was a persistent hurdle, but we also saw ways in which they capitalized their distinct experiences and perspectives as women. … I think in this case having multiple women on the presidential stage and talking about women in plural, when thinking about candidates at the presidential level, it make us closer to normalizing women as presidential candidates, so that it would be weird or abnormal not to have a woman on the presidential debate stage.
The women did represent diverse political philosophies, from centrists like Klobuchar and Harris to liberals like Warren.
Yes, that also disrupted the idea of a singular model of what it means to be a woman candidate for president. There was no single lane for female candidates. We allow for great ideological diversity with men. We assume that not all men believe in the same thing or agree on the same platform. Historically, women have not always been allowed the same type of diversity in their political identities and positions, and so this is a way to challenge the singular notion of a “woman candidate,” not only at the president level but all levels.
Warren said that women were criticized as whiners if they acknowledged sexism and criticized as out of touch if they said it wasn’t an issue. How big a role did it play?
I think that gender is a part of the story of what happened in this race, but it would be shortsighted to say it is the sole factor that shaped both the experiences and the outcomes of the race. It would be overly negative to think that being a woman brought only electoral disadvantages. There were certainly ways that Elizabeth Warren and other women candidates were able to generate enthusiasm and support around the fact that they are women, based on them being able to talk about how being women offered them distinct experiences and perspectives that were missing especially at the presidential level when talking about and understanding policy problems and solutions. … The narrative can’t only be that sexism is inevitable and the gender dynamic is universally stacked against women. It can be disrupted and that should help other women as candidates going forward.
Exit polls showed more women supporting the male candidates. Do female voters bear responsibility for not supporting these candidates?
We have to be very careful not to assume that all women voters will back a woman candidate, just like men, women voters have very diverse points of view and political positions. And they use those positions to inform their votes. In general, affinity is a much less influential part of voters decision-making, and that makes sense. And so it should not be up to women to insure that we have a woman president. I think where we do need to all do self-reflection, men and women voters need to reflect on how their own gender biases shape their political decision-making, and in this election, I think where we saw that most often was in the perception of electability. We did see in some polls that women were even more concerned about women’s electability, and that makes sense because they have experience with discrimination and bias directly. It takes both men and women challenging this concern that … women aren’t electable. In fact, if you just vote for that candidate they become electable.