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What She Said

Female candidates make history, waves in debate

Democratic Senators Kamala Harris, of Calfornia (left), and Kirsten Gilibrand, of New York, during the Democratic presidential debate in Miami on Thursday.Doug Mills/New York Times

There was no Lazio moment. No woman was dubbed “nasty” or “likable enough,” at least while the mics were still hot.

The first presidential debate to feature multiple female candidates was notable for its lack of gendered gaffes, as well as the breakout performances of Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris.

“It’s historic enough that we had six women over two nights of the debate,” said Betsy Fischer Martin, executive director of the Women & Politics Institute at the American University School of Public Affairs. “But to have, each night, one of the women rise to the top, I think was definitely something that was exciting.”


More women took the debate stage this week than had in all of American history, and their appearances gave viewers their first-ever array of alternatives in one election. Though some skeptics have misgivings about putting another female nominee up against President Trump after Hillary Clinton’s bruising experience in 2016, several female candidates beat back concerns, said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist.

“Who can take on Donald Trump most effectively” is Democrats’ top priority, Marsh noted. “Out of these two debates, Warren and Harris are the two candidates who proved they could.”

Fischer Martin, whose institute is studying “Gender on the Ballot” in the 2020 election with the nonpartisan Barbara Lee Family Foundation, found Harris to be a commanding presence.

“She did more than go toe to toe with [former vice president and frontrunner Joe] Biden. She took a giant step right over him,” Fischer Martin said. “If you were a Democrat watching that debate, one of your thoughts was, ‘I want to see somebody do that to President Trump on a daily basis in the fall.’ ’’

Warren used the word “fight” nine times, and frequently spoke of “courage,” Fischer Martin noted, presenting herself as formidable in dealing with Republicans, corporations, and “somebody who is going to take the fight to Trump.”


And Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar was the candidate most likely to invoke He Who Must Not Be Named in the first night’s debate, positioning herself as a fierce contender who is willing and eager take on Trump, Fischer Martin said.

But Marsh thought Klobuchar came off as calibrated in her debate persona, while some of the other women presented what today’s voters demand — authenticity. Women candidates — like Clinton — have often been encouraged to be themselves, even as they’re criticized at every turn for being too tough or not tough enough.

“It was refreshing to see Elizabeth Warren as a woman candidate stand up there and be the same Elizabeth Warren you’ve seen every day,” Marsh said. “That is a major step forward for women in general.”

Fischer Martin was a producer for the 2000 US Senate debate in which Republican Rick Lazio unexpectedly left his podium and charged toward Clinton asking her to sign a pledge, looking aggressive and more than a little too macho. Fischer Martin didn’t spot gender-based missteps of that caliber this time around. But she was struck to hear Washington Governor Jay Inslee try to distinguish himself as the only candidate who passed a law protecting abortion rights, and taking sole credit as the “one candidate that’s actually advanced the ball.”

“If you’re going to mansplain something,” Fischer Martin questioned, why would you choose reproductive rights, on a stage with three women?


In doing so, he set up Klobuchar to deliver her best line of the debate: “I want to say there are three women up here who fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.”

US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand also tried to make the case that she was being talked over by the men onstage, and even offered the floor to Marianne Williamson, a spiritual author and lecturer who is also running for president and hadn’t yet gotten a chance to speak.

“It struck me as being frustrated,” said Fischer Martin, who noted that Gillibrand got less speaking time than most of the candidates but that her frequent attempts to cut in were largely unsuccessful.

“I think she rubbed some people the wrong way, for sure,” she said.

Conversely, Harris owned the debate stage, interjecting, running over time when necessary and even using the clamor kicked up by Gillibrand to her advantage.

“Hey guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight,” Harris said, to applause. “They want to know how we’re going to put food on their table.“

To Marsh, the women’s performance — and the audience’s receptivity — proved a different lesson than some took from the 2016 election.

“Women are more political and more empowered than ever,” she said. “The perfect way to defeat Donald Trump is to have a woman do it.”

What She Said is an occasional column on gender issues. Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert