Amid the grandeur, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) also watched every word and move the president made. Harris proved adept at the polite clap cut perfected by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Earlier this year, these three senators entered the circle of contenders in the Democratic primary. Given there are 25 women in the Senate, this is extraordinary.
In fact, nothing like it has happened here before. There are times when hope and history rhyme, as poet Seamus Heaney wrote. And the next presidential election beckons to female candidates and voters alike with a bit of poetry in the prose of politics. That year will mark the century milestone of U.S. women winning suffrage, the right to vote, in 1920.
The recent shift to the Senate as the proving ground for a presidential run serves women well. It was once an article of faith among pundits that governors made the best candidates. Women have more opportunities to enter political careers and rise on the national stage as as lawmakers than as governors.
Warren, 69, is slightly older than battle-scarred Hillary Clinton was when she became the Democratic standard-bearer in 2016. They share a streak of intellectual brilliance, but that didn’t help Clinton in a cycle of populist anger with a vein of misogyny.
Harris is on the Barack Obama path, as a biracial freshman senator who cut a swath through the chamber. Like Gillibrand and Klobuchar, she’s in her 50s. Harris made her name in state politics as attorney general in an era of harsh sentencing, now under revision.
Gillibrand, a senator since 2009, has a solid record confronting the military on how sexual harassment cases are handled. She led the outcry against Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) when evidence of sexual misconduct forced him to resign.
Klobuchar, the only one from the heartland, has emerged as a skilled questioner of Supreme Court nominees. Brett M. Kavanaugh’s outburst on beer came responding to her asking if he had ever blacked out. Her cheery demeanor stands out during a glum losing spell for Senate Democrats since Trump took office.
Suffrage gave us and them the passport to democracy. A hundred years ago, women were closing in on it.
The 19th Amendment vindicated a movement that began in 1848. Lucretia Mott and Frederick Douglass were abolitionists on the front lines of women’s rights. Suffrage was a hard journey, with victory finally won under the leadership of Alice Paul, a fearless young Quaker who believed in public scenes for all to witness. She took parades, protests, vigils and bonfires up to President Woodrow Wilson’s doorstep.
A Princeton man — student, professor and president — Wilson hated the defiant displays. His lofty slogan about keeping the world safe for democracy inspired women to demand democracy at home. He once called suffragists into his office to be scolded like schoolgirls. They were the first wave of college-educated women claiming citizenship for the new century.
Never had legions of American women mobilized for a cause of their own. In 1913, Paul invented the blueprint for nonviolent marches on Washington, as well as the elegantly simple strategy in the civil rights movement 50 years later.
In a striking sight in the first suffrage parade, lawyer Inez Milholland looked like a goddess high on a white horse along Pennsylvania Avenue. Spectators were riveted, drawn away from the arrival of President-elect Wilson. It was an opening act for the campaign that saw some arrested, jailed and force-fed. Halfway through Wilson’s second term, facing growing sympathy for suffrage and public approval of women’s contribution to the First World War home front, he finally surrendered.
Today, four Senate women running for president — and a House Democrat, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii — reveal an awakening that has occurred with nobody planning it. Pelosi points out that the 2018 midterm election meant that more women than ever will be in Congress to mark the 2020 centennial. House Democratic women celebrated by wearing white, the suffragette color, to the State of the Union ritual. The visual statement of sisterhood’s spirit was unmistakable, even for Trump.
Trump is a living insult to women, people of color, immigrants, the media, environmentalists, disabled people and the federal government. In 2020, he may meet his match in one of us.
Let us not forget three Senate men — Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — are laying the groundwork to run as well.
But, knowing how women suffered for suffrage, let’s savor the moment we’re in.