Extremely white and incredibly male

Monday, March 9, 2020 - 2:55pm

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Design by Taylor Schott

At events across the country, from Iowa to Arkansas to Nevada to California, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., ends each night by taking a selfie with every person who wants one, often snapping hundreds of photos — which, including a moment to talk to each supporter, runs for several hours. Each time a little girl reaches the front of the line and walks up to take her selfie, Warren bends down and says, “My name is Elizabeth, and I’m running for president because that’s what girls do,” then offers her pinkie so they'll promise to remember it.

When asked about these now-famous pinkie promises, Sen. Warren recalls her first run for the United States Senate: People encouraged her to run, but admitted they thought it was unlikely a woman could win against a male incumbent. Feeling frustrated with sexist remarks about her hair and her clothes and her voice, she began making these pinkie promises with little girls. She said, “It matters a lot to me that little girls see themselves as future presidents of the United States.” 

Every time I see a picture of Warren down on one knee, pinkie promising another young girl that running for president is what girls do, I feel a combination of affection, tenderness and I’ll admit, a bit of jealousy. How I wish I could be one of those little girls, intertwining my pinkie and promising to do what girls do with Elizabeth Warren. 

My first memory of an American presidential campaign is from when I was about their age. It must have been early June 2008 because then-Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., had just secured a majority of delegates to become the nominee. In the spring and summer of that year, I would have been about to turn 10 years old. I remember sitting in our living room while one of my parents was watching cable news, which, by that point, was plastered with coverage of the Democratic primary. Though I knew little about the candidates or their policies at the time, I can still recall the visceral anger I felt, red hot right in my belly, when someone explained that this meant Hillary Clinton would not be president. 

I wasn’t old enough to know anything about the policy differences between Obama and Clinton, and I was sheltered enough that I didn’t realize that Obama’s nomination was also historic and what it would mean to a lot of people — including me. Down the line, I could understand how important Obama’s presidency was for the forward progress of our country and how his legislative accomplishments would directly affect my life (by expanding healthcare to millions of Americans, banning insurance companies from denying coverage to those with preexisting conditions and allowing young people to stay on their parent’s health insurance until 26, he personally improved my life as a person with a chronic illness). All I knew then was that it really, really mattered to me to see someone like me gain the confidence of the nation and ultimately stand on the East Portico of the U.S. Capitol, right hand raised, swearing an oath to the Constitution and becoming the President of the United States. 

My anger then may have been a little misguided, but the place it came from wasn’t wrong. Look where we are now: It’s 12 years later and the two front-runners in the 2020 Democratic primary are two rich, heterosexual, able-bodied white men in their 70s, to say nothing of the traumatic, decisive misogyny that was rampant in the 2016 election. 

At 21 years of age, I’ve only ever voted for a woman for president of the United States. It meant so incredibly much to me, and to millions of young women across the country, to cast my first-ever vote for president for a woman candidate — not just because she is a woman but because she was an incredibly qualified, smart and passionate nominee. I imagine it felt similar to how Black people felt casting their vote for Obama for president or how LGBTQIA+ Americans felt casting their vote for former-South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the first openly-gay presidential candidate.

The 2020 Democratic primary began as the most diverse field of candidates to run for president ever, which was made possible, in part, by both Obama’s and Clinton’s candidacies. We had Kamala and Julián and Cory and Amy and Kristen and Elizabeth and Pete and Andrew. For the most part, it wasn’t just tokenism — there were multiple candidates of color and multiple women filling various different ideological lanes. Of course, Buttigieg was the lone gay candidate, but it seems likely his historic candidacy will open the doors for many after him. 

Now, though, the field has been whittled down to two candidates who offer the least diversity and hold identities with the most social power and privilege. We can and do talk about their policy positions or their experience or their age or their ability to do the job, but for just a moment, we should reflect on the candidates themselves, particularly their identities. 

Of course, all Democrats want to beat Donald Trump in November, but when the conversation about how to win revolves around how to appeal to some imaginary white male conservative voter in Wisconsin, this framing of electability — which is based on the same biases that elected the first 44 white male American presidents — has deeply hurt every candidate who is not white and not male. It is profoundly disappointing and frankly disheartening to see so many people retreat to their comfort candidate — i.e., a heterosexual, white male — when things get tough. It indicates the weakness of so-called allyship and demonstrates an easy willingness to abandon non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual candidates when it comes down to the wire. It is not the progressivism we’ve been promised. 

When making the argument for a woman candidate, a woman of color candidate, a gay candidate and so on, many will toss accusations of playing identity politics (something that somehow only applies to people who aren’t heterosexual white men). If you support a woman candidate and like the fact that she’s a woman, other candidates’ supporters will call you a “vagina voter”. To some, it is unimaginable that anyone identifying as female might be capable of making a rational choice, even when it results in choosing someone who looks like them, and that holding a marginalized identity might actually be a valuable quality when running on a platform of working for those who have been left behind by the status quo.

In my case, my support for Elizabeth Warren in the primary was not based on the fact that she’s a woman (though it wouldn’t be bad if it was!). While I see the fact that she’s a woman as an incredible bonus, I supported her primarily based on the fact that she committed to getting rid of the Senate filibuster, something which Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has and says he will not. The filibuster requires 60 votes, which the Democrats don’t have, to pass any form of universal healthcare. As a chronically-ill person in desperate need of accessible healthcare, I want the candidate who not only has the best policy, but also the best plan to get it passed. 

Alternatively, others will accuse you of prioritizing representation instead of actual progress. Beside perpetuating a foolish brand of tokenism, this idea that increased representation — having women, people of color, disabled people, indigenous people and queer people at the table making decisions — doesn’t matter is simply wrong, for two major reasons. 

Think about that “indelible image” of Obama down on one knee in the Oval Office, kneeling before Jacob Philadelphia, a little Black boy who, with a look of wonder and joy on his face, is rubbing the head of the first Black president, knowing that his hair is just like his own. There is a reason that image is so beloved and memorable — you can see, in one succinct picture, how incredibly important it was for all Americans — though most especially Black Americans — to know his election was possible. We can only imagine what we know to be possible, and his election is meaningful for all the Black children who grew up only ever knowing an America led by a Black president. There’s more than just the inspiration and symbolism on the line, though. When the people most affected by the decisions of those in power are in the same room as the decision-makers themselves, they are much more effective than those who already hold social, economic and political privilege. In 2018 and 2019, the group that achieved more legislative victories than any other group of lawmakers was women. In fact, congresswomen passed, on average, twice as many bills as congressmen in the current Congress and women legislators are more likely to introduce legislation that is aimed toward helping women. 

In the span of less than a week, five candidates have dropped out of the race to be the Democratic nominee, including Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, and on Thursday, this streak ended when Warren announced she was suspending her campaign for president after being unable to see a mathematical path forward. 

After spending the day thanking her staff and volunteers, Warren was asked about the choice voters are now left with. She said, “One of the hardest parts of this is all of those pinkie promises. And all those little girls who are gonna have to wait four more years. That’s gonna be hard.” 

It is going to be hard — the waiting, wondering when it will ever be our turn, getting our hopes up every four years just for our hearts to be broken again. Nevertheless, like Warren, we must persist. If that means making pinkie promises with ourselves to remember the tremendous grief of seeing yet another over-qualified, smart, charismatic woman rebuffed in favor of two other septuagenarian, white men, then so be it, because it will be worth it when every little girl in American knows that being the President of the United States is what girls do.

Marisa Wright is a junior in LSA studying Political Science and Women's Studies and is a Statement Deputy Editor. She can be reached at marisadw@umich.edu.