SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Elizabeth Warren introduced herself to Iowa voters this weekend as an Oklahoma-born economic populist willing to take on billionaires and big banks. She also wanted voters to know she’s already broken through one glass ceiling and has her eye on another.
“People told me back in 2012 that Massachusetts would not elect a woman to the United States Senate. We got organized, we fought back,” Warren said in the lobby of a theater here.
Warren is leaning in on the gender issue. She joked on Instagram that women are more “likable” in Amtrak’s quiet car, where loud talking is not allowed. She evokes Senator Mitch McConnell’s attempted putdown, “nevertheless, she persisted,” at the end of her stump speeches, and has scheduled a “conversation with women leaders” Sunday in a Des Moines suburb.
For many female Democrats here, it is thrilling to see another woman candidate take the stump after the disappointment they felt when Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election to Donald Trump in 2016. But some of the voters who have eagerly greeted Warren said they still feel a sense of anxiety and frustration about the double standards they believe women politicians face, despite the gains of the #MeToo movement and the remarkable events of the past few years.
“It wasn’t in 2016. Is it going to be 2020? 2024?” wondered Elaine Hansen, 55, who lined up early to see Warren in Sioux City. As much as she wants a woman to be president, Hansen said, “I’m not sure the culture is going to change.”
And some of the same voters who embraced Warren’s willingness to take on male-dominated institutions like big banks and the Trump administration — and wanted to vote for her because of it — said they worried those qualities might turn others off.
“Anyone who’s a strong woman appreciates her directness, her candor,” said Lisa Koch, 48, an attorney and Warren supporter who attended the first campaign event in Council Bluffs. But, Koch added, “I just wonder if it’s going to backfire somehow. She doesn’t mince words. Some people aren’t going to like that — like men.”
There is reason for optimism among women voters. They helped power Democratic gains in the House in the 2018 midterms by electing women candidates who proudly put their status as working women, mothers, and wives on display. The 2020 campaign is already expected to yield a historic field of female candidates, with senators Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, and others eyeing the race in addition to Warren.
“Is gender a plus this time? I think it’s a great thing that we potentially have four or five women running,” said Anita Dunn, a longtime Democratic strategist. But gender bias, Dunn added, is “going to be a challenge, not just for Senator Warren, but for every one of the women talking about the presidency right now.”
Part of the challenge for women presidential candidates, analysts said, is that the history of top female presidential candidates is limited to the loss by Clinton, which was particularly galling to many voters because Trump was caught on tape joking about sexually assaulting women.
Jennifer Lawless, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, said there remains a widespread perception that sexism cost Clinton votes.
“There are going to be a key group of women out there who believe we’re still not ready to elect a woman president, and there are going to be people that have a knee-jerk reaction to Warren and will automatically compare her to Clinton,” she said.
Warren is attempting to combat that challenge both directly and subtly. She frequently evokes her 2012 Senate race against Scott Brown, where she used to tell girls at campaign events that she was running “because that’s what girls do.” Brown had roundly beaten Martha Coakley two years earlier and was widely viewed as an affable Republican. But her victory, Warren suggests, proves she knows how to beat a man.
“We’re used to being compared to any woman that ever lost an election,” Warren’s campaign said in one e-mail dispatch this week.
Warren is just one of several female candidates who are likely to seize on the rush of protest and anger from women fueled by Trump and further fed by the Republicans’ defense of Judge Brett Kavanaugh after he was accused of sexual assault.
“It’s time for women to go to Washington and fix our broken government, and that includes a woman at the top,” Warren said in September when she first announced she was considering running.
Here in Iowa, Warren’s appearances drew lines around the block and an entourage of staff and media following her every move. Her speeches center on her core messages of economic inequality and corruption — not gender — and she ties her economic philosophies to a modest upbringing in Oklahoma.
“I am willing to say to the rich and powerful, ‘You’ve got to pony up your fair share,’ ” Warren said in Sioux City.
She received a rousing reception from Iowans who admire her economic populism, but also faced questions about her decision to release results of a DNA test showing a small amount of Native American ancestry.
On Saturday morning, one voter asked her why she gave Trump, who has widely mocked Warren’s claims, “fodder to be a bully.”
Warren said she was not claiming to be “a person of color . . . a citizen of a tribe,” but rather that she simply needed to “put it all out there.” Making a rare mention of Trump on the stump, Warren said, “I can’t stop him from hurling racial insults, I don’t have the power to do that.”
For Katey Namanny, a high school student from Sioux City, it was Warren’s ancestry claim, not her gender, that makes her skeptical the Massachusetts Democrat is electable. Namanny noted women have already shown they can win more votes than men: “Hillary Clinton won by 2 or 3 million,” she said.
Gender dynamics are shifting in Iowa politics, too. Last fall, voters for the first time elected a woman governor — Republican Kim Reynolds — and first ever female US representatives, Democrats Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne.
“I think that the women’s march was really sort of a turning point,” said Jennifer Konfrst, elected to the Iowa House in 2018 after losing two years earlier. Still, she said, any female candidate will face a double standard.
“Whether or not it makes it harder for her to win is a question I don’t know the answer to,” Konfrst said.
Others said Warren this week reminded them of their own experiences with sexism. Candella Foley-Finchem, 45, a therapist from Glenwood, Iowa, recalled facing gendered insults when she was awarded a prestigious scholarship.
“People who called me ‘brassy’ will call her ‘brassy,’ ” Foley-Finchem said of Warren, who remains her first choice. “I don’t have any reservations about supporting a female candidate, because eventually we will have a female president.”Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.