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Opinion Politics is finally a coed sport. So, what rules apply?

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) in Des Moines on Oct. 21. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

The notion of a woman running for president has evolved from singular curiosity in 2016 (Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina, alone in their respective parties) to multicandidate reality in the 2020 campaign. There is no turning back; it is now hard to imagine an all-male Democratic ticket next year.

But gender in politics remains fraught, with candidates, male and female, still navigating their way through the minefield. They are sorting through not only the question of what is the best way for women to run — especially in the wake of Clinton’s defeat — but, almost as daunting, what is the best, and safest, way to run against them. What is acceptably tough language in the rough-and-tumble of a high-stakes campaign, and what is barely disguised sexism?

Meantime, the presence of multiple women in the race does not mean that the field is anything close to level for men and women. It suggests a welcome transition to an era of gender equality, someday, but it would be foolish to believe that moment has arrived.

Both of these phenomena — the developing rule book of what is now a coed sport, and the tilted field on which that sport is still played — have appeared in recent days. The first episode involves Democratic front-runners Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. The former vice president criticized Warren’s Medicare-for-all health-care plan; the Massachusetts senator retorted that Biden might be “running in the wrong presidential primary” (a veiled shot at Biden’s moderation); and Biden shot back that Warren was elitist, condescending and suffered from “an angry, unyielding viewpoint.” South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg had earlier made a similar point, tagging Warren’s “my way or the highway approach” and saying she is “so absorbed in the fighting that it is as though fighting were the purpose.”

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Some Warren supporters took this as gendered language, evoking women, especially women who seek power, as harridans and shrews, shrill and emotional. “Warren depicts herself as a fighter, of course, as do countless, perhaps most, male candidates,” Harold Meyerson wrote for the American Prospect. “But somehow, male zeal is treated as normal, while female zeal crosses some patriarchy-sustaining line into anger.”

Warren herself, after a few days of watching the repercussions play out, decided to embrace the accusation — at least, in a fundraising email. “Over and over, we are told that women are not allowed to be angry,” Warren wrote. “It makes us unattractive to powerful men who want us to be quiet.” She added, “Well, I’m angry and I own it. I’m angry on behalf of everyone who is hurt by Trump’s government, our rigged economy, and business as usual.”

What to make of this? It can’t be that a female candidate gets to clobber a rival — “running in the wrong primary” was pretty tough — but can’t be hit back. As the Biden campaign pointed out, he has used similar language about men, calling John McCain “an angry man” in 2008, for example. The woman in the arena has to be able to take a punch as well as throw one.

At the same time, it is naive not to acknowledge that some words applied to a male candidate are loaded with implied derision when applied to a woman. “Angry Bernie Sanders” is a more palatable nickname than “Angry Elizabeth Warren.” Two things can be simultaneously true: Biden is not being consciously sexist in using the A-word, and yet his use of the word when applied to Warren carries risks seen and unseen. Gender is an ancient minefield with explosives still to be detected, much less defused.

If Warren’s challenge is that passion, at least to some, looks different on a woman, Amy Klobuchar’s is that experience does as well. Klobuchar directed some frustration at Buttigieg for what she described as the small-town mayor’s shorter path to being taken seriously. “Do I think we would be standing on that [debate] stage if we had the experience that he had?” Klobuchar asked of Buttigieg’s résumé compared with that of Klobuchar and the other female senators running for president. “No, I don’t,” Klobuchar continued. “Maybe we’re held to a different standard.”

Would 37-year-old Penelope Buttigieg — Rhodes scholar and Navy veteran —be taken as seriously? It’s hard to know. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 30, offers an example of a young woman who rocketed to political stardom with scant experience, and in her case gender (and associated glamour) was an undoubted plus in achieving celebrity. The shiny new object always has political allure — Barack Obama was a former state senator scarcely into his first term in the U.S. Senate when he made his audacious run for president. Yet it may also be true that the model of a female president remains so unfamiliar, so jarring even, that the melding of youth and gender would impede our imaginary Penelope.

The gender wars erupt in politics without warning and at times, without perfect clarity. They are a measure both of progress and how far we have to go.

Read more:

Kelly Dittmar and Debbie Walsh: The gender diversity in the debates will be unprecedented. Here’s what it’ll tell us.

Ruth Marcus: Warren had a good zinger on gay marriage. It was bad politics.

Helaine Olen: Stop asking candidates to pledge to name a female vice president