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It’s not what everyone would choose for a vacation.
But this year, I’m spending the time and money – time and money that could have gone to a Mexican beach vacation – being a political tourist at the U.S. presidential primaries in frozen Iowa and New Hampshire.
I expected to be agog over the many strange differences between the American and Canadian political systems and, after going to rallies for everyone from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders and all those in between, I can say that I am.
What I didn’t expect was the sheer surprise I would feel when it came to the issue of women in politics, as I went to debates and speeches where women gleefully talked about the way they are triumphing in recent American politics.
There’s something very different going on here, light years removed from the tentative enthusiasm about Hillary Clinton’s run for president in 2016. Like anyone who is a “first” (black presidential candidate, gay presidential candidate), she often downplayed her unique role.
That’s changed now, when there are two women candidates – Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar – in the top five. I’ve been covering civic politics for more than 35 years in B.C., starting with a fight involving raccoons at a community council in the province’s Kootenays region in 1983 to Vancouver’s struggles with drug addiction, housing and homelessness for the last two decades. Along the way, there’s been increasing attention paid to how many women are getting elected in local races. After the last civic election in Vancouver, there was a certain puzzled satisfaction, because no one particularly campaigned on the premise of electing women over men, when council ended up being composed of eight women and three men. This reflected the general picture of earnest but somehow uninspiring efforts at gender balance in elections in Canada.
But in the U.S., at every event I go to, women – voters, candidates, campaign workers, donors – are fired up in a way I haven’t witnessed in Canada – and I think it’s because they’ve been ignited by Trump’s presidency. The enthusiasm is even fuelling upstarts like The 19th*, a female-run news outlet named after the U.S. amendment that gave women the power to vote.
It’s not just the issues – detaining children in cages, threats to social security – getting women’s attention. It’s Trump’s hyper-macho style, which many women seem to find repellent. (It’s affecting the way they vote too: Polls from 2018 show that the gender gap between Republicans and Democrats voters is at the highest level ever. Democrats saw 59 per cent of women support them in 2018 midterm elections, while Republicans got only 40 per cent.)
Attending these events, I have been struck by how women, especially young women, are highly visible in many of the campaigns, not just with Klobuchar and Warren, but also Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders. They head campaigns as lead organizers and precinct captains. (Yes, there is still a heavy contingent of Bernie Bros, but there are plenty of young women in the mix.)
And some of these women have already been elected themselves. For instance, at a Warren rally at Manchester Community College three days before the New Hampshire vote, an introductory speaker was one of the many young women elected as a state representative. She’s part of the wave of young women voted in across the country in 2018.
“We need this woman to be our next president,” said Jackie Chretien, as she talked about both Warren’s thoughtful policy approaches along with her ability to focus on the smallest personal detail.
This time, too, there’s not just a focus on “the woman” in the race, the way there was with Clinton. Having two women in the debates has meant much less attention to this novelty. And they are clearly different. Warren is the progressive from the liberal east, the former law professor who became the first female senator elected in Massachusetts in 2013, while Klobuchar, the first female senator ever elected in Minnesota in 2007, is the moderate one from the conservative Midwest.
But I don’t want to paint too utopian a picture. Many old attitudes linger. Warren is just as progressive as Sanders, though with more detailed plans to achieve goals. She came in third in Iowa, but all the focus went to examining why Joe Biden did so poorly. Klobuchar should be the bright new star for those in the moderate lane. But it’s Buttigieg who is getting the attention, even though he is the two-term mayor of a small town in Indiana while Klobuchar, as her campaign T-shirts say, has been the lead Democrat on 100 bills.
It’s not just a media preoccupation. It’s some voters, all by themselves, who still hang on to the idea that women just aren’t quite up to the job. Like one Manchester man I ran into, 70-year-old Robert Dubreuil. His first choice was Biden; his second, Buttigieg. “Warren is good,” he tells me, “but Trump would eat her up.”
Washington Post writer Monica Hesse touched on that hesitation, which emanates not only from older men. I don’t feel as dismayed as Hesse. Yes, people worry about whether “a woman” can take on Trump. But they also worry about the attackable aspects of other candidates: too old, too young, too damaged, too inexperienced, gay, socialist. The woman thing is just one more worry among many. And for hundreds of thousands of Klobuchar and Warren supporters, it’s not a factor. They think women are potentially the best fighters.
Even if neither of those two makes it this time, the needle has moved.
What else we’re reading:
Being on the politics trail of the U.S. primaries is something I’ve fantasized about for more than three decades because of a book I read as a fledgling reporter. It was Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse, written about the 1972 presidential election, which painted a vivid and unconventional close-up look at the gruelling process of reporting an election, along with the weird pack-like mentality. There is one woman among “the boys” who stands out because she doesn’t stick with the herd as rigidly as the others do. I thought of that often the past two weeks as I saw the dozens of women – young, older, middle-aged – typing furiously on their laptops in hotel bars or at rickety press tables in school gyms or appearing on talk shows to analyze the dynamics of the election, sometimes gender issues but also much more.
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