Six women joined the packed roster of candidates running for president at the outset of the 2020 campaign a little less than a year ago. By the time the New York primary rolls around next month, I probably won’t get to vote for a single one. After Super Tuesday, the campaign for the Democratic nomination will probably be a “two-man race.” Emphasis on the man.
I think, often, of all the women who have lost. I think of the wall that stands between women and the White House and wonder if it is scalable. I want to vote for a woman. I want to vote for a woman because she’s a woman.
Plenty of people would call this “identity politics.” I view it as a matter of ideology, no different from a moderate supporting another moderate, or a progressive supporting another progressive. Dismissing as identity politics a vote for someone who most clearly approximates us fails to consider that the male faction of the voting population has never had to question whether their best interests were being acknowledged by the president, because the president has always been like them in this one specific way.
Why can’t being a woman be an issue that guides us at the polls, when the political world has treated us unfavorably, limiting our reproductive rights, dismissing us in medicine, penalizing our careers when we choose to have families, providing us with no affordable options for child care and, generally, paying us less for the same work done by our male counterparts?
We have been afraid — or, at the very least, reluctant — to vote according to this ideology in the past, but that reluctance is not in keeping with the way most identified groups vote. “People vote in line with their salient group identities because that helps them figure out which policies are going to benefit them as individuals,” said Ashley Jardina, assistant professor of political science at Duke University. This brand of voting, should we choose to adopt it, would be new to women, who, as Jardina correctly noted, do not tend to vote as a bloc.
Part of this conflict lies with (mostly white) Republican women, 53 percent of whom voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Those women supported party politics over the ideology of womanhood — but maybe they shouldn’t have. Assuming that a Republican woman running for president placed a premium on women’s matters, I would reconsider my loyalty to the Democrats in favor of the ideologies that are most important to me, and a critical one is connected to being a woman. After all, research suggests that voting for female lawmakers benefits women as individuals. A 2016 paper by the political scientists Craig Volden, Alan E. Wiseman and Dana E. Wittmer concluded that “female legislators focus their attention on ‘women’s issues’ to a greater extent than do male legislators.”
Self-interested voting is not identity politics; it’s ideological alignment. But men who vote for other men — which is, to be clear, most men — don’t participate in self-interested voting in the same way. A lower-middle-class man voting in a self-interested manner, for instance, may opt to vote for a Democrat, because the Democratic platform more broadly supports initiatives directed toward low- and middle-income people. Or he may opt to vote for a populist, such as Trump, who offers sky-high promises to lower-income voters, even if those promises never come to Earth. A high earner would be likely to support the Republican Party, because it is known for its lax approach to taxation and regulation. That approach would most closely align with that voter’s financial concerns. These are all unifying issues within socioeconomic categories, but there are no unifying issues that apply only to being male, issues that would drive a male voter away from a female candidate and toward a male one.
Unlike female voters, who can point to identifiable political matters that primarily affect people of their gender, men cannot look to the electorate as out of step with the needs of male citizens. Being a man cannot be wrapped up into an ideological argument, while being a woman necessarily involves a minefield of politics. Abortion, maternity leave, child care, wage inequality and sexual harassment are but a handful of political subjects that we group together as “women’s issues” because they affect women more than they do men.
Certainly a male president can dive into the ideological waters of female concern. One frequent argument arising from the camp of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in particular, is that a (male) President Sanders would fight for all Americans, regardless not only of socioeconomic class but also of gender, race or religion. And it is true that Sanders has made clear his intention to extend certain protections — namely, protections against illness and medical debt with Medicare-for-all — to all Americans. It is also true that broad policies such as Medicare-for-all probably would benefit women in monumental ways, because women frequently suffer from mounting medical expenses that are gender-biased. Why would I vote for, say, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who is unlikely to win, when I could throw my weight behind Sanders, an ideological match and the current darling of the polls?
But here’s a deeper look. Women face roadblocks that extend beyond health care. Where are the male candidates’ plans to deal with those? The Center for American Progress reports that mothers are 40 percent more likely than fathers to experience the negative effects of child-rearing on their careers. In May, Warren went on “The View” to discuss this problem, referring to her days as a young mother. “I’ve got two little ones underfoot,” she said. “God, it was hard. And I was, like, getting dinner on the table at 8:30, doing baths at nine o’clock, laundry at 11, preparing for the next day’s classes after midnight. I could do hard. But the thing that nearly killed me was child care.”
As a woman with young children, I can’t hear Warren’s statement and not feel in lockstep with her mothering struggles — with all the boulders of domestic life that fall squarely on women. It’s relatable, yes, but it’s also what women have been waiting for: an opportunity to have our explicit needs addressed by a system that has dismissed us as unimportant. Is that really any different from the voters in the now-populist Rust Belt crying out for the recognition denied to the “forgotten” blue-collar worker?
The disproportionate family burden on women — as well as the often insurmountable cost of child care — prompted the two major remaining female presidential candidates to release comprehensive proposals on how to solve a problem that many American mothers face. Warren’s plan, the Universal Childcare and Early Learning Act, which she introduced in the Senate shortly after her appearance on “The View,” would offer families a network of choices from local providers at a subsidized rate. Poor and low-income families would receive free child care and preschool, while those with higher incomes would be limited to 7 percent of household income. The Child Care Workforce and Facilities Act, which Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) introduced in the Senate last year, would limit child-care expenses to 7 percent for families earning up to 150 percent of their state’s median income. Although her plan is decidedly more moderate than Warren’s, it is still actionable.
Former vice president Joe Biden, the other half of the “two-man race,” along with Sanders, has released no specific information regarding an overhaul of the American child-care system, nor has the billionaire candidate Mike Bloomberg. Sanders released his child-care plan only after the Nevada caucuses. According to The Washington Post, it would cost $800 billion more than Warren’s plan — an indication that he does wish to take a realistic stab at solving it. Health care, according to stumping candidates seeking our votes, is a right. So what is child care, exactly, besides a uniquely female problem, unworthy of serious attention?
Warren’s plan evokes the Comprehensive Child Development Act of 1971, a failure largely attributable to the power of a male president. “Tragically, President Nixon vetoed the bill because he and Pat Buchanan, then a White House special assistant, believed the bill undermined the role of women child-rearing and would result in more women leaving the home and entering the workforce,” Warren’s brief states. It stands to reason that no President Warren or President Klobuchar would have vetoed a bill that promoted the best interests of women.
The idea of supporting a candidate who most clearly understands your personal struggle the way, say, a child-care-burdened Warren does, extends beyond policy specifics. In January, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research released a study concluding that women complete two more hours of daily housework than men. That number describes only the quantifiable work: time spent caring for children, cooking dinner, cleaning up. It does not account for the mental load — the “worry work” — that women also carry. “Maybe we’re held to a different standard,” Klobuchar told CNN’s Jake Tapper in November. That standard is an ideological point.
There’s a necessary correlation between candidate and person. That’s why Biden, a working-class man from Pennsylvania, wears the mantle of Everyman. It’s why Sanders has invoked his father’s financial struggles in his call to eliminate the problem of living paycheck to paycheck. It’s why the Warren platform presents a bare-bones case for women to come to her corner. It’s why Klobuchar has argued — however dubiously — that electing a female president could eradicate sexism. The candidates are concentrated versions of themselves. When we vote for them, we vote for people and ideas. And part of the idea of the female candidate is the fact that she is, indeed, female.
For those who have buried themselves in the work of mothering and domestic responsibility — who have said no to opportunity in favor of a family life and who have counted personal goals expendable in the face of the greater good of spouses and children — it really does matter whether a candidate can translate the complicated problems of being a woman into policy. Why shouldn’t women vote for other women as a matter of ideology? We absolutely should.