Each time a female candidate has stepped onto a presidential or vice-presidential debate stage, she has done so alone. Shirley Chisholm, Geraldine Ferraro, Carol Moseley Braun, Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and Carly Fiorina each carried the burden of their own candidacies to the podium. And, unlike the men they ran against, with the exception of Barack Obama, they were also saddled with the impossible task of representing their people — the fractious masses of American women — all by themselves.
Women in politics are hardly the only people to face this sort of pressure, though there is no arena in which the stakes are higher. Fail at the box office or in the Nielsen rankings, and another woman might not get a job. Fail at the ballot box, and women risk getting shut out of the most important decision-making processes in the world on the grounds that they’re not electable. But, either way, bearing that weight alone tends to shrink our public ideas of what women can be.
When the ABC drama “Scandal” debuted in 2012, making Kerry Washington, who played D.C. fixer Olivia Pope, the first black woman in 38 years to star in a leading role in a network television show, the character’s status as a role model was the subject of fierce, sometimes painful, debate. But as the show became more diverse and more complicated, Olivia Pope was allowed to be more interesting: As New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum put it, she became “at once a sanctimonious hypocrite and a vulnerable romantic, a masterful schemer and a manipulated sucker.”
Television as a whole has followed a similar arc. The recently-wrapped Netflix drama “Orange Is the New Black” is maybe the apotheosis of this idea, with its prison population of white-girl drug smugglers, erotic fan-fiction writers, evangelical grifters and profoundly decent GED tutors. The women in the show’s cast may have been incarcerated but, by the standards of televisual likability, they were wonderfully free.
There are limits in the very real world of politics that don’t apply on television, of course. No woman as self-absorbed and unlikable as Lena Dunham’s “Girls” protagonist Hannah Horvath would ever get within flashing distance of the presidency, though one man has. But if nothing else, the 2020 presidential campaign is showing us how liberating it can be when a whole bunch of women run for office at once.
On the Democratic debate stage, womanhood can look like Gillibrand, who spoke movingly about how she would have been willing to pay any price to save her son Theo when he had a serious allergy attack — and how she shouldn’t have to. Womanhood can be Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s prosecutorial feints and gray pearls, or Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s wire-rimmed glasses and joy in the fight. The Democratic debates can be a place where Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a notoriously tough boss, can have her voice waver with emotion, or where Rep. Tulsi Gabbard can be the least-expressive person on stage.
I wouldn’t vote for every woman running for president in the Democratic primary. But I’m grateful for the presence of every single one of them. Equality isn’t a single perfect human woman winning the presidency: it’s a bunch of flawed women being considered genuinely plausible contenders for the post.