With the exit of Senator Elizabeth Warren, the last viable woman candidate has vanished from the 2020 presidential race, and with her the hopes of many who imagined this year would bring the election of the first woman president — redemption after Secretary Hillary Clinton’s stunning defeat in 2016.
It wasn’t to be.
In the wake of Super Tuesday, the next president is now all but certain to be another septuagenarian white man. Still, let’s not discount the enduring impact of Warren — the first candidate to enter this race — and the historically diverse field of candidates who followed her.
Whether she was packing rallies, dominating debates, taking selfies, or pinky promising young supporters that running for president is “what girls do,” Warren gave us a model of a fierce and tireless female front-runner. She hit back against sexist criticism and outlasted 24 rivals. In January, she notched the New York Times first-ever dual endorsement along with another woman, fellow Senator Amy Klobuchar.
Before this election cycle, only five women in history had ever so much as set foot on the presidential debate stage. Last year, we saw a record six women onstage at the same time. Simply by running, Warren and fellow Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Amy Klobuchar upended our expectations about who belongs at the presidential podium.
It’s been said that you can’t be what you can’t see; now that we’ve seen what a diverse debate stage can look like, it’s hard to imagine being satisfied with anything else. Indeed, many analysts have argued, and I agree, that an inclusive ticket will be imperative to energize and mobilize 2020 voters, the most diverse electorate to date — a factor the remaining candidates would be wise to keep in mind.
Still, as the past year has demonstrated, women and candidates of color face real hurdles on the long road to the elected office. At the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, our research shows that voters continue to hold women to both different and higher standards when it comes to qualifications and likeability — and punish them more harshly for perceived shortcomings.
Of course, this is nothing new. For as long as women and people of color have fought for equal power, they’ve been censured for standing up and speaking out. Nevertheless, courageous women have repeatedly jumped into the fray, often at great personal costs.
For more than a century — from the protest candidacies of suffrage movement heroes Victoria Woodhull and Belva Ann Lockwood, to the trailblazing campaigns of Shirley Chisholm and Patsy Mink — women’s often lonely campaigns for president have opened minds and introduced new possibilities to an ever-evolving electorate.
One hundred years after women won the right to vote, another monumental shift is underway. Our research shows that over the past several years, voters’ attitudes have moved decisively in favor of women’s leadership. In fact, for the last two years, we have consistently found advantages for women running on both sides of the aisle, including in our latest report “Ready, Willing, & Electable.”
The pipeline is only growing, as women and candidates of color continue to gain ground both nationally and locally. A record-breaking 117 women were elected to Congress during the 2018 midterms. In the last three years, San Francisco, Chicago, and New Orleans have all elected Black women mayors. Here in Boston, the election last November led by women of color gave the city council its first-ever female and minority majorities.
The Women’s March in 2017 drove women first to the streets, and then to the campaign trail in numbers previously unimaginable. Women are more politically active than ever, and our research shows that will not change any time soon. In December, a New York Times piece declared Gen Z “the first generation in which women appear to be more likely than their male peers to be engaged in politics.”
In short, the idea that women do not belong in high office — that they cannot compete on the presidential stage alongside men — has gone the way of petticoats and corsets. And that means that whatever happens next, the 2020 campaign has already been historic.
It is no longer a question of whether but when a woman will win the presidency. If the progress of this cycle is any indication, it will be sooner than later. That may be cold comfort today, but the mounting evidence is irrefutable: the era of women’s political leadership has arrived, and there is no turning back.
Barbara Lee is president and founder of the Barbara Lee Political Office.