Debra Soh holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience research from York University and writes about the science and politics of sex.
Last Thursday, Elizabeth Warren made the announcement that she was dropping out of the Democratic primary race. In a perhaps predictable move from her campaign playbook, the senator said sexism may have played a role in her disappointing primary performance, and thanked “every single person who just moved a little in their notion of what a president of the United States should look like.”
Really? That’s what she took away from her loss? For those following the 2020 race, there were myriad other culprits that could have contributed to her downfall – among them, declaring that she was of Native American ancestry; announcing plans to appoint a transgender nine-year-old to approve the Secretary of Education; and telling the Culinary Workers Union in Las Vegas to “call a woman” when you have a mess that needs cleaning up.
This enthusiastic embracing of the wokest of identity politics was not the only thing that led to her campaign’s demise. A widely seen video of a father in Iowa disagreeing with Ms. Warren’s proposition to cancel student loan debt spoke to her difficulty in connecting with voters.
The sexism explanation is a potent source of comfort for those who have bought into the idea that society’s cards are inevitably stacked against women, and Americans’ inability to elect a female president is rooted in a deep-seated hatred for female leaders. However, individuals defending this perspective, especially in reference to Ms. Warren’s decision, come across as misguided.
Many reasonable Democrats are not on board with extreme-left policies, and the party has gone so far left that even lifelong supporters don’t recognize it any more. But instead of turning the ship around, almost every one of the candidates, including Warren, made the mistake of taking two additional steps to the left in deciding to double down.
(Although Bernie Sanders has shown immense popularity, coming in a close second to Joe Biden with 573 delegates currently, many liberals no longer feel that the party speaks for them.)
I don’t deny that misogyny exists or that women experience discrimination in ways that men do not. Indeed, female and male candidates face different challenges in the public eye, and a new study in The Economic Journal shows that likability (something that Ms. Warren arguably struggled with) has a greater impact on women’s success than men’s. The researchers found that for women, being likeable matters in every interaction they have, whereas for men, it only matters in interactions with the opposite sex.
As unfair as it may be to have to account for this, future female candidates might offset the bias by ensuring that other areas of their campaign are infallible, avoiding constant references to their sex, and – regardless of one’s sex – refraining from using rhetoric that alienates men, who constitute half of the population.
Ms. Warren became emotional when talking about “all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years” for a female president. As much as I feel for her, blaming her loss on gender politics does a disservice to her young female fans. It breeds a sense of helplessness and self-righteous pity, instead of telling the next generation to take responsibility and learn from their failures.
Granted, politicians are probably not the best place to turn for teachable moments about conceding defeat. That’s where columnists and pundits are supposed to come in. Instead, we see a continuation of this narrative, paired with praise for other female candidates who have dropped out, and a complete omission of the fact that Tulsi Gabbard is still running. It lays bare the hypocrisy surrounding any discussion on gender equality; sympathy about sexism and support from the sisterhood only extend to women who share one’s ideological mandate.
It isn’t empowering to scream “sexism!” every time life doesn’t go according to plan, and in the end, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When Democrats have, for the past four years, been beaten over the head with the belief that a female politician can’t win for this reason, they will act accordingly, and vote for a man to contend against Donald Trump.