In the past two Democratic presidential debates, women have dominated by casting aside those traditional admonitions about what voters will tolerate.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) owes her stronger-than-expected New Hampshire finish to her confident performance there four days before the primary.
Her hand shot up when moderator George Stephanopoulos asked whether any of the candidates was concerned about the prospect of having a socialist — i.e., Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — at the top of the ticket. She mocked former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg as “a cool newcomer.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), battling to prove she was still in the race after disappointing showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, owned the stage Wednesday night in Las Vegas. As she grilled former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg over sexist comments he has made, she sounded like a prosecutor.
The response was immediate. Even while the debate was still underway, her campaign reported, via Twitter, that Warren had raised $425,000 in a single 30-minute period. What remains to be seen is whether the debate has given her flagging campaign a boost in Saturday’s Nevada caucuses and beyond.
It is still hard to imagine that a woman in that setting could get away with shouting to make a point, as Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden so often do. Or that it would be tolerated if she rolled her eyes contemptuously at an opponent, as billionaire Bloomberg did when Warren challenged him on the number of sex-discrimination lawsuits he and his news and business-information company have faced.
But Warren’s attacks had clearly hit their mark.
On Friday, Bloomberg announced he will release three women who have accused him of sexual harassment from the nondisclosure agreements they signed. He also said that, after “a lot of reflecting,” he will not demand confidential agreements to resolve sexual-misconduct claims going forward.
It counts as progress to see female candidates breaking out of the mold into which political consultants so often say they must squeeze themselves.
As Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, told me: “Campaigns make choices, whether to adapt to expectations or to challenge them.” More and more, female candidates appear to be choosing the latter path.
In November, Biden wrote a Medium post that suggested Warren holds an “angry, unyielding viewpoint.”
Warren ignored Biden’s criticism for a few days, then fired back in an email to her supporters: “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.”
“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.”
At the same time, female candidates are increasingly open about their vulnerabilities and the setbacks they have suffered, something that also defies what they have traditionally been advised to do.
That trend became more pronounced in the 2018 election, which saw record numbers of women running for office and elected up and down the ballot.
In Georgia, gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams talked about the fact that she had more than $200,000 in personal debt. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) talked about her mother’s addiction to drugs. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) launched her successful election campaign with an event at the Hy-Vee grocery store where she had worked as a young mother.
They “ran as their authentic selves, rather than trying to fit into a template designed for men,” said Amanda Hunter of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, an organization that seeks to increase female representation in politics.
Of course, both Warren and Klobuchar still face long odds in their quest to win the nomination. Sanders is opening up what could prove to be an insurmountable lead if the field of candidates remains as large and fractured as it is now.
But win or lose, they have already helped shatter the expectations to which female candidates have been held. And for that, the first female president — whoever she may be — will owe them a debt of gratitude.