NASHUA — Appalled at Donald Trump’s election, Maureen Leary knit pink pussy hats for herself and her best friend and drove from Saco, Maine, to Boston to join more than a million women nationwide who marched in protest of a new president they saw as gender inequality personified.
But when it’s time to choose a Democratic presidential nominee next year, Leary, a former Hillary Clinton supporter, is probably going to pass over several female candidates and vote for a man: Joe Biden.
“I’ve loved Joe for decades,” said Leary, 55, giddy after squeezing into a selfie with the former vice president and current Democratic front-runner under a bracing spring mist here. “I also see him as having the numbers right now.”
Leary’s best friend, Krysten Evans, 44, accompanied her to see Biden in May, but was less convinced. “I would rather a woman or a person of color,” Evans said. “I’m done with old white men.”
About 2½ years after Trump’s victory, Democrats — especially women — have organized to send a historic wave of women lawmakers to Congress and state houses, and the party is now considering an unprecedented six female candidates for president. But it isn’t yet clear how important it is to female voters to try to put the first woman in the White House in 2020, leaving friends like Leary and Evans on opposite sides of the question.
At the moment, male candidates seem to be drawing more support from women voters than female candidates are. Despite Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s recent gains, a national Quinnipiac Poll released last week showed Biden with about as much support from women as all of the female candidates combined. It remains to be seen whether that trend is a function of his near-universal name recognition or a sign of enduring female backing.
“What’s surprised me is, 2018 didn’t translate into an automatic appetite for a woman,” said Celinda Lake, a pollster who has worked with Hillary Clinton and Biden. “They have to fight for it.”
Interviews with more than 50 female voters at campaign events around the country underscored these divisions between a long-held goal for some voters, and the complexities of the 2020 race. Many women said they feel a tug to try again to send a woman to the White House after Clinton’s 2016 loss, but expressed a willingness to support male candidates they believe are well equipped to take on Trump. At the same time, there is a sense of frustration that the race so far has been largely defined by male front-runners and an “electability” narrative that seems to give male candidates an unearned advantage.
Some voters “think that the women and the diverse women are not palatable,” said Lakia Wilson, a union official in Detroit, after candidate and California Senator Kamala Harris spoke in a school cafeteria there. “You can make someone electable if you just support them.”
Leaders of women’s political groups said it is much too early for women to coalesce around any particular female candidate, especially when there are so many to choose from. That on its own, they say, is a sign of progress toward gender equality in politics, as is the fact that both male and female candidates are working hard to appeal to women voters by speaking directly about abortion rights, family leave, and equal pay.
“That’s just really smart political strategy, frankly,” said Jess Morales Rocketto, the cofounder of Supermajority, a new group that aims to train 2 million women to engage in politics before 2020. Research shows women are usually no more likely to support female candidates than male ones on the basis of their gender, and at the moment, Rocketto said, women are getting to know the candidates and what they might do for them, not worrying about the symbolism of voting for one of their own.
“I don’t think they think about it like, ‘I am a woman who’s upholding 100 years of suffragette history,’ ” Rocketto said.
That view was held by Nisa Marks, 30, a student in Concord, N.H., who last month watched Biden cruise through a coffee shop where she was trying to study. She had knocked on doors for female city council members and for Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley, but said there was no woman presidential candidate she liked as much as Bernie Sanders.
“Gender is just not a factor in my vote for president at this time,” Marks said, “but I do want to be supporting the movement.”
But some women, such as Jane Moline, 61, of Dundas, Minn., have vowed to vote for a female candidate in the primary no matter what, and expressed frustration with Biden because of his treatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings and who has been criticized for invading women’s personal space, is doing so well.
Others, including Rosemarie Rung, a state representative from Merrimack, N.H., say they have to force themselves to consider issues other than gender in making their choice.
“See what happened when we didn’t elect a woman last time?” Rung asked. “This whole notion of having a woman president is important to me.”
More than nine in 10 Americans say they would vote for a female president, but a Pew Research Center poll released last month found that only 37 percent of Democratic women said they would feel more enthusiastic if the 2020 nominee were a woman.
Amanda Renteria, the board chair of Emerge America, which trains Democratic women to run for office, said she hears palpable anxiety from members of her network over whether female candidates can keep up their recent political gains in 2020.
“I don’t believe women have given up that fight — that women can’t win — I think they’re nervous,” Renteria said.
Even Democratic congresswomen elected in last year’s midterm wave hesitated to say the burgeoning female support that helped propel them to office means a woman will necessarily become the Democratic nominee.
“I think the activism has not abated, at least in my community, but I don’t know that it’s necessarily focused on gender,” said Representative Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania.
Representative Lauren Underwood of Illinois said it was simply too early to tell. “We’ve never had a female president. We’ve never had a female vice president. So when we have a [former] vice president who enters the field, it’s no surprise he would come in as the top-rated candidate,” Underwood said.
Experts say voters set a higher bar for female aspirants to executive office — such as president or governor — than in legislative bodies such as Congress. And the election of Trump, a man caught on tape bragging about touching women’s genitals, has sparked anger among women, but also worry about nominating a woman to run against a man who has gotten away with that kind of misogyny.
“I just feel that after Hillary Clinton, maybe our country’s not ready for a woman yet,” said Shirley Sylvester, 62, a Democrat from Hampton, N.H., who participated in the Women’s March in Orlando and volunteered for Clinton in 2016. “More than a woman, we need someone who can beat Trump.”
The six women candidates have worked to allay any gender-based reservations.
Harris often uses female pronouns to refer to a hypothetical president — “We need a president who takes on her responsibility to act,” she said in Detroit — normalizing the idea of someone like her in the Oval Office. Warren frequently points out that she beat an affable male incumbent to become Massachusetts’ first woman senator, and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar highlights her winning record in a state with an electorate closely split between Democrats and Republicans. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has made the idea of elevating women central to her candidacy, although the theme seems yet to resonate broadly with female voters.
“Women have been on fire since President Trump got elected, and we’ve been marching and we’ve been advocating and we’ve been voting ever since,” Gillibrand said in a brief interview. “If we just give this election the time it needs, I think things will change.”
Many women voters, particularly those who are leaning toward female candidates, are rankled by the shape of the Democratic race so far. They see the same sexism they experience in their own lives — forcing them to be better prepared than male colleagues, or to have to work harder to prove themselves — playing out in a campaign in which highly qualified female candidates must compete for the media flattery heaped on less-experienced male contenders, such as Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke.
“As a woman,” said Nancy Yeisley during a Warren campaign stop in Osage, Iowa, “you have to be that much more brilliant.”
Julie Chamberlain, 36, a Warren supporter from Rochester, Minn., already is tempering her expectations.
“I think the best we can hope for is vice president, but we’ll keep going,” said Chamberlain, who drove to Mason City, Iowa, to watch Warren speak at a brewery recently. “Why she’s not further, and why some of the other female candidates aren’t further in the polls, it’s a little deflating as a woman.”
But Crystal Lee, a Detroit public schools teacher, said she was only more determined to back a woman in this election. “The glass ceiling that’s up there — women are tired,” Lee said. “We have let men try to rule. Let the women show them how to run a house.