In 2016, I voted for President of the United States for the first time. I remember walking to my polling place in Ann Arbor, Michigan as a freshman in college, and waiting in line with a feeling of thrill in my chest. As I walked toward the booth I felt a bit of hesitance — almost as though I didn’t have the agency to cast my own vote, and thought back to the times my brothers and I would file in after my mother to watch her vote in the town hall in our hometown of Fair Haven, New Jersey. I thought back further to the women who fought for me to have this privilege today, how it wasn’t always given at the age of 18. I looked down at the ballot for the highest office in American politics, old enough to make my own vote, all alone, and had the privilege to see a woman’s name printed clearly on the ballot alongside then-nominee and current Republican President Donald Trump.
In plain writing, there it was: history.
Seeing a woman represented on a major political ballot shouldn’t have to feel surprising, exciting or exhausting, but it does — it did. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who faced harassment and targeted gender attacks throughout her campaign, beat Trump in the national popular vote by nearly 2.9 million votes, but ultimately lost the presidency by 77 votes in the Electoral College. Clinton had numerous qualifications for the presidency, such as her Senate seat, position as U.S. Secretary of State and her work as First Lady, but in the aftermath of the election, many argued that despite her popular vote win, America wasn’t ready for Hillary — or any female president.
Perhaps it seems like a no-brainer that most women gravitated toward Hillary Clinton as their choice in 2016, but this was not the case. According to an Edison National Election Poll run in 2016, just over 50 percent of white women with a college degree voted for Clinton in 2016 — not really an overwhelming win. This is in large part due to white women, as 61 percent of non-college educated white women and 44 percent of college-educated white women voted for Trump.
Among women of color, only 3 percent of non-college educated African American women and 25 percent of non-college educated Hispanic women voted for him. 77 percent of nonwhite percent of college-educated women of color voted for Hillary Clinton — much more than college-educated white women.
The support for Trump from white women has been analyzed as arising from the white woman’s historic loyalty to the right, their privilege in being able to support a male, Republican president, and the power their whiteness has. Moreover, and among women and men alike, there was the underlying anxiety of trusting a woman in power, regardless of her qualifications. For some women, electing a female president is secondary to winning the election — beating Trump comes first. Others simply cannot see a woman in such a high position of power. In 2016, studies showed that Clinton’s gender had a huge impact on her loss, with people going so far as to say “she doesn’t have a presidential look.”
Structural gender bias and the Clinton campaign’s steady uphill battle against gender discrimination and sexism made it ridiculously difficult for a victorious election. By way of analyzing slogans like “Trump that Bitch,” the criticism Hillary faced for not smiling (or smiling too much) and a fear of the subordination of Trump by a woman, it is clear that Hillary’s gender was used against her throughout the 2016 election, and Trump’s was not. This led to a stark double standard. Clinton was berated for matters that Trump was not: While people criticized Clinton’s use of private emails, they barely questioned Trump’s involvement in utilizing a private email for work himself. The bias deficit made it immensely more difficult for Hillary, or any woman, to be elected over a straight man.
Despite all the possibilities to Clinton’s 2016 loss, there befalls a valid and important question, arguably the most telling one: Would those who voted for Donald Trump have been more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton if she were a man?
Following the election, there was a deflated feeling among Clinton’s supporters and those who hoped for the first female president to dismantle the historical norm and superior electability of male presidents. Despite the hope for many that a woman would make her way into the White House in 2020, All in Together’s 2019 poll found that both Democratic and Republican voters predicted a male Democratic nominee — not a female one — would win against Trump in 2020. They saw hope in the prospect of a male Democratic candidate and feared another apparent expected loss by a Democratic woman. Now, with Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, as the last woman in the race and polling extremely low, it’s apparent the next President will indeed be a man.
As America readjusted in the weeks after Trump’s election and subsequent inauguration, I wondered when Americans would vote a woman into office — with both a popular vote and overwhelming support of the Electoral College — if Hillary Clinton, a woman with accolades and throngs of experience, who many thought was a shoo-in, didn’t beat Donald Trump. I wondered if the fact that Hillary Clinton almost reached the Oval Office would ignite a fire in Americans to truly strive for a female presidency, or introduce a lackadaisical attitude about promoting a female president, coming off of the sting of Clinton’s loss.
Despite the fact that the Democratic Party saw many women campaign throughout the 2020 Democratic primary election cycle, they also saw these women slowly drop out, due to lack of support or exhaustion of expenses. With the stakes high for the Democratic Party to defeat Trump in 2020, the mainstream conversation in the media has become less about breaking the White House’s glass ceiling, and more about getting a Democrat — any Democrat — in the Oval Office. The priority for Democrats is turning the White House blue again, and both Democrats and Republicans alike have commented they don’t think a woman is the person for the job.
As Americans watched all six women face defeat, they have begun to analyze how these politicians’ shared identity as American women affected their likeability and campaign success during the primaries.
I wondered how college-aged, left-leaning women consider their gender identity when selecting a candidate to vote for. And more specifically, how the candidate’s policies on women’s issues affect how young women voters consider them as viable options when voting.
In the weeks prior to Super Tuesday, I spent time interviewing college-aged, left-leaning women from the University of Michigan. What I found, in talking to them, is that the rhetoric of candidates and their stances surrounding women and minorities is overwhelmingly important when selecting a politician to vote for — issues like a woman’s agency over her body, equal pay and foundational human rights. Voting, for these women, is extremely subjective based on their needs and preferences, yet all of them had astute opinions on Warren — the strongest female contender — her struggle for the nomination, and how her gender stood in her way.
Theatre & Dance junior Emerson Smith voted for Bernie Sanders on March 10, and leans strongly on policy when making a decision about who to vote for. I asked her what communities she identifies with within society, and how these groups affect her voting choices.
“I identify strongly as a member of the LGBTQ community, as a lesbian trans woman, and feel strongly connected to those groups. I do think my identity plays in some way to how I want to vote,” Smith said. “Sometimes politicians have specific policies that affect me. Like Medicare For All — specifically affects trans people and those types of surgeries are super expensive and not everyone has access to those. I was lucky to have access to that and it made me feel like myself. I want to see what groups are being talked about and recognized by politicians in their debates and websites and speeches.”
When asked how Warren’s identity as a woman plays into her likeability, or perhaps, in making a decision to support Bernie Sanders, Smith said, “I think Warren’s identity as a woman keys into my like for her. I don’t have a strong feeling of empowerment or progress from a feeling of a female president being elected — I think Elizabeth Warren is great, the reason I don’t want to vote for her right now is mainly because of her policies in relation to Bernie’s. She’s a bit more center.” Smith said she would have voted for Warren as her second choice, but feels a lot of hope in the prospect of a Sanders presidency in 2020, and deeply appreciates his fight for Medicare For All.
Beside her personal voting habits when it comes to gender and sex, Smith does identify a theme for overall voting when it comes to identity.
“Like all things, electoral politics are affected by racism and misogyny that has been built into the fabric of America. There’s been talk recently about how women candidates have such more of an uphill battle than male candidates do because they’re torn apart by people who hate them because of their gender. … If there were a trans candidate that would strongly play into how their campaign was affected because people really hate women and people really hate trans people.”
With Warren’s exit from the primary elections, and the difficulties surrounding gender and sex within political elections, it seems to come as matter-of-fact that marginalized people will have a hard time being voted into office because American society is not ready to see a deviation from the status quo — straight men in power. Warren and Clinton, both of whom are qualified individuals for office, faced a similar issue in their fight to the top — many people can’t see a woman holding office and have long decided that women, specifically in 2020, just aren’t “electable.”
Some voters, many of whom were planning to vote for Warren in Michigan’s primary prior to her exit from the race, hailed her identity as a likable and intriguing factor in her candidacy.
LSA senior Michelle Follett, who has previously worked for the DNC and Michigan Democratic Party as an Organizing Fellow, planned to vote for Warren prior to her dropping out of the race. Follett, an Asian American woman studying Sociology with a subplan in Law, Justice and Social Change was impassioned about her choice in the Michigan primary.
“I think that Elizabeth Warren being a woman inspires me, it doesn’t stand in her way. She’s a complete go-getter and she goes after what she wants and is very clear about what she believes. … Her gender wasn’t something I was incredibly conscious of when I was making the decision. … I made the decision based on ideology and policy preferences. A woman is more than capable of being president. I focus on the more technical aspects.”
Follett wants not only her rights as a minority woman defended, but also the rights of all marginalized people, as she feels a lot of these rights are being called into question given the current administration.
“Empathy is a big thing for me,” Follet said, “Somebody who can holistically evaluate things and someone who champions the rights of all people, someone who can acknowledge structural and institutional oppression by not only myself but by many, many other people in this country with different racial grounds, gender identities and social backgrounds … I want someone who can truly and genuinely empathize and understand the depth of certain circumstances.” For Follett, this person was Warren.
I followed up with Follett to see how she is feeling now that Warren has dropped out of the race, leaving Follett with only two options: old, white men.
“I’m incredibly disappointed and feel pretty trapped,” she said, in regards to how she was feeling. “It’s so hard for me to decide between the two because they’re wildly different and neither are representative. While I align more so with Bernie, I struggle so much to confidently say I’ll be voting for him. He’s definitely the more progressive of the two, which is nice, but Warren fans are split because neither can take her place. I fear that he’s too far to the left, and with a red House and Senate — which is the worst-case scenario — he’ll have an ineffective term,” Follett said.
“Warren could’ve worked with that. She’s less averse to compromising,”
Some critics have claimed that Warren played the “gender card” throughout her campaign, and others argue that she has no choice. Yet, as a woman who battled a field of mostly straight white men, she had to acknowledge the fact that a female president has yet to exist and use this as a running point to champion and inspire.
A quote from Warren, which contextualized how she navigated the gender issue throughout the race, was, “You know, that is the trap question for women. … If you say, ‘Yeah — there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘Whiner.’ And if you say, ‘No, there was no sexism,’ about a bazillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?’”
In a debate in November, Sen. Klobuchar said, “Women are held to a higher standard. Otherwise, we could play a game called ‘Name Your Favorite Woman President,’ which we can’t do because it has all been men, including all vice presidents … ” Warren heard it time and time again throughout this primary race — “I’d vote for a woman. Just not her,” — which was used as a defense from accusations of sexism by Bernie supporters. Voters and media outlets alike also filled her campaign with degrading comments.
Forty-five men and exactly 0 women have held this position in office in the history of this nation. We’ve been lucky to witness presidents who have given America progressive policies and even elected our nation’s first Black president, but we’ve floundered to provide our daughters with an example of a woman as the president of the United States. Representation, of course, matters in our political spheres, however so does holding a unique perspective. As a country, we’ve yet to have a female’s perspective in lawmaking and leading within the commander in chief position.
Our country is stuck on the idea that it’s a man’s world — a man’s presidency — that we will now watch two men in the majority: straight men in their 70s battle for the next few months, just to take on another one for President. It’s 2020, and America still isn’t “ready” to elect a woman into office. Perhaps we’re so caught up in electability we fail to realize that anyone is electable if you vote for them. This won’t be the end for Warren, Klobuchar, Gabbard or the hundreds of women who are rising up after them, inspired.
I won’t be able to cast my vote for President for a woman over Trump this November, and many of us fear that 2016 could be the last time in our lifetimes a female option even makes it to the nomination. I have no choice but to keep believing, though it is discouraging and we have another long road ahead. My hope is the next time her name will not only be printed on the ballot — it’ll make it all the way to the presidency.
To quote from Elizabeth Warren’s final message to supporters, printed after she ended her campaign, “So if you leave with only one thing, it must be this: Choose to fight only righteous fights, because then when things get tough — and they will — you will know that there is only one option ahead of you: Nevertheless, you must persist.”