2020 is shaping up to be a historic year for Democratic women

It's early, but ...

Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren.
(Image credit: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images, AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

"I will be phenomenal to the women," Donald Trump said in August 2015. Yet somehow, "the women" were not assured — particularly when a year later they heard him on tape bragging about how he could commit sexual assault with impunity. Nevertheless, women did not turn against Trump in sufficient numbers to get Hillary Clinton an Electoral College majority.

And all too predictably, there was no sexist trope that was not tossed at Clinton during the campaign. Indeed, Trump's vision of a return to an earlier time when the primacy of white men was unquestioned proved distressingly compelling to voters. So what happens next time a woman runs for president? We're going to find out starting in about a year and a half, when the 2020 presidential election gets underway.

In fact, we might say that the campaign has already begun, albeit with just the most tentative steps. This week, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar ambled down to Des Moines to appear at a Democratic Party fundraiser — not for any particular reason, just because Iowa's nice this time of year, I guess. And she's not the only Democratic woman who's at least contemplating running against Trump. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has certainly thought about it — how could she not, when she gets asked in almost every interview whether she's going to run? She's got a bestselling new book outlining her vision for the country, as every presidential candidate must have, so that's taken care of.

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Then there's New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who has been working to heighten her national profile and is widely assumed to be preparing to run (like Klobuchar, she's up for re-election in 2018 and insists that she's only focused on that race). And California Sen. Kamala Harris, who may have only been in the Senate since January, but these days no one thinks you need a long tenure in Washington to justify a run for the top job. And who knows, maybe Oprah. (I'm kidding, I guess.)

If President Trump's approval ratings remain where they are now, there may be 30 or 40 Democrats who try to run against him. But chances are that at least some of them will be women, and if more than one runs, it would a first.

The number of women who have run for president is remarkably small. Depending on whom you include, it's about a dozen who had what could be described as serious candidacies, compared to the hundreds of men who have run. For many years, they were long-shot primary candidates — Republican Margaret Chase Smith in 1964, Democrat Shirley Chisholm in 1972 — whose runs were greeted with little more than mild amusement by the (male) mainstream media. The first female major-party candidate who was treated as though she might have a genuine shot to win was probably Elizabeth Dole, who ran in the 2000 primaries (but pulled out of the race before any votes were taken). Like those who followed her — Carol Moseley Braun in 2004, Michele Bachmann in 2012, Carly Fiorina in 2016, and of course Hillary Clinton — she ran in a field that was otherwise entirely male. We've never seen a primary debate where there was more than one woman on stage.

But now imagine what it would be like to see a debate with, say, 10 Democratic presidential aspirants, four of whom were women. Would that change how voters saw any one of them as an individual?

It's hard to say. One thing we can say is that female candidates may not receive precisely the same kind of sexist criticisms they used to be subjected to. In the past, women candidates have seen their accomplishments and experience dismissed, been asked who was taking care of their kids while they were out pursuing a career (a question no male candidate has been asked, ever), and been assumed to be weak on defense or crime but nurturing on "mommy" issues like health care or education.

We saw something very different in 2016. There was no question which candidate was smarter, more experienced, and more prepared. So the reaction to Clinton's gender came out in ways that were utterly unadorned, a pure and visceral misogyny. There was nothing subtle about a bunch of guys wearing "Trump That Bitch" T-shirts and shouting "Lock her up! Lock her up!" like it was Salem in 1692 and they wanted to burn Clinton at the stake. Even the ludicrous obsession with her emails can be understood as an expression of sexist ideas that go back centuries; as Adele Stan wrote, "The forbidden fruit isn't sex; it's knowledge, and Eve means to get herself some." No matter what the topic, the message was always that Clinton was hiding something, and that made her impossibly dangerous.

Will there be another iteration of those dark sentiments aimed at the Democratic women who run for president? Almost certainly. But the bizarre race between Trump and Clinton may have scrambled the traditional means by which candidates are judged enough that there's an opening for a woman who hasn't been the target of a flood of misogyny and mistrust for 25 years to find her way to the White House — particularly if Trump fails in his mission to restore the white man to his former place atop the societal hierarchy.

At this point, we know at least that there are going to be plenty of women willing to give it a try.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article misstated the year Michele Bachmann ran for president. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.

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Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is a senior writer with The American Prospect magazine and a blogger for The Washington Post. His writing has appeared in dozens of newspapers, magazines, and web sites, and he is the author or co-author of four books on media and politics.