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Women politicians are ‘spitting mad’ about the leaked Roe draft opinion — and they’re actually showing it

Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke to abortion rights activists outside the US Supreme Court last week. "I am angry, but committed," she told them.Oliver Contreras/For The Washington Post

Senator Elizabeth Warren rarely minces words. But as she stood before the Supreme Court last week, protesting a draft decision that would roll back the right to abortion, she showed a churning, incandescent rage, her voice gritty and determined even as it shook with fury.

“I’ve never seen you so angry,” a reporter observed to the senator in a widely shared video.

The unprecedented leak last week of a Supreme Court draft decision has produced a rare moment in American politics: Women in high office, long cautioned to avoid public displays of rage lest they be labeled hysterical or worse, are unleashing unapologetic, uncompromising anger.

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Such vivid displays of feeling are hardly rare on a polarizing issue like abortion rights, and officeholders’ reactions are mirrored at marches and rallies and dinner tables across the country. But it is far less common for elected women to express such steely, seething emotions in front of TV cameras, and to voice them boldly in the halls of power.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York was practically vibrating with rage at an appearance last week as she implored men to “imagine you do not have authority over your own body for 10 months.” Representative Cori Bush of Missouri described “righteous indignation” as she shared her story of having an abortion as a teenager. Senator Patty Murray of Washington state said she was “spitting mad.” As part of a series of tweets expressing frustration about the state of the abortion debate, Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii made clear she would be dropping some f-bombs.

The draft opinion remains just a draft and could change before it becomes law, though few expect Roe to remain standing. Regardless, the leak has ignited a frenzy of activity in both political parties, and a firestorm of public protest, not least among women politicians of the generation that can recall the days before abortion was a protected right.

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It remains to be seen whether this moment will mark a lasting shift in the political norms that govern women in the public eye — and whether it will prove politically effective for Democrats, whose efforts to pass abortion protections through Congress appear doomed. But experts in gender and politics say it is notable even if it proves anomalous or ineffective.

“In other situations, if a woman candidate were feeling really strongly about this, her communications director, her pollster, her media consultant would’ve said, ‘Oh no, you’ve gotta tone it down a little bit,’ ” said Celinda Lake, a leading Democratic pollster. But now, she said, “with the raw, cold, icy anger that these women are expressing, I think the communications director. . . would say, ‘This is very powerful to your voters. You should be saying this.’ I think people really see it as a unique chance.”

Will it set a new standard? “I’ll bet not,” Lake said. “There’s just an intensity about this [issue] that is pretty unique.”

For women in the public eye, the question of how much emotion to show has always been a fraught one. Too little and you risk being called robotic or cold; too much and you’re labeled hysterical or unhinged. Anger presents a particularly tricky balance.

But women in politics are increasingly showing genuine emotion — and increasingly finding support for it from their constituents, analysts said. The Roe leak came as a surprise, leaving politicians to react in real time with little opportunity to calculate a strategic public response.

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“Women are abandoning concerns about fitting into a template, or how they’re supposed to sound, and they are authentically responding in line with the way that they feel about the issue,” said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, where she leads efforts to increase women’s representation. “That resonates with voters. We know that authenticity can be very powerful.”

Voters are more approving of women politicians whose anger comes on behalf of others, rather than on their own behalf, Hunter said, citing the foundation’s research.

Still, norms about public displays of emotion are even more heavily policed for women of color, particularly Black women, who all too often are labeled “angry” when they evince any passion or frustration.

Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts has been candid about that challenge. In 2018, during the high-intensity Brett Kavanaugh hearings, she said some advisers cautioned her to hide her outrage in an effort to avoid the “angry Black woman” stereotype — but she also made clear she will not shy away from showing her outrage when she feels it is justified.

On Wednesday, Pressley spoke passionately on the floor of the House, underscoring that the country’s maternal mortality crisis disproportionately affects Black women and warning that the abortion ruling portends “forced birth.”

“I demand that you act,” Pressley told her colleagues on the other side of the building in the Senate. “We have the voice. We have the power. We have a mandate. It is time for action. Anything else is insufficient.”

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Then she and other congresswomen led a march to the Senate chamber, exhorting them to codify abortion protections in law.

“They think about that every day in their presentation,” Atima Omara, a political consultant, said of women of color in politics navigating how much feeling to show. Even when expressing “identical rage about the same thing,” Omara added, women of color in politics are forced to consider “how it might come off versus a white woman colleague.”

The challenge is making the point that their perspectives, and the emotions that accompany them, make women of color better policy makers, not worse, said Glynda Carr, president and CEO of Higher Heights for America, a group dedicated to electing progressive Black women.

“One of the things that make women and women of color unique in their leadership is that they bring their whole selves. They bring their lived experiences,” Carr said. “We need to continue to call out that leaders show up in different ways and those different ways actually are what makes them uniquely qualified to lead in this moment.”

For now, the power of emotional persuasion may be about the best Democrats have. Senate Democrats on Wednesday pushed a vote on legislation intended to codify abortion protections in federal law, but the effort failed, with Republicans and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia voting against the bill. And while many on the left believe abortion will mobilize voters this fall, Democrats still face a discouraging forecast for the midterm elections.

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Liz Mair, a national GOP strategist, said voters are more likely to be influenced by broad economic trends, like inflation, than by abortion.

Still, the anger Democratic women are showing may have one significant benefit, she said: fund-raising. A strong showing in the money race could help Democrats overcome some of the other headwinds they face in November.

“It matters for money,” Mair said. “At the end of the day, the more pissed off that people like Gillibrand or Warren appear, the more money Democrats in general are going to rake in.”


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.