The historic debate moment nobody is acknowledging
We need to talk about the women candidates
Elizabeth Warren. Kamala Harris. Amy Klobuchar. Kirsten Gillibrand. Tulsi Gabbard. Marianne Williamson.
These six women have made history in 2019. They make up the largest group of women ever to vie for the highest office in the land at the same time. This is a big deal. While women are the majority in America — 51 percent percent of the population is female — historically, the presidential debate stage has been reserved for men. The fact that so many women are running for president right now is not only unprecedented, it's inspiring: Finally, the gender that makes up the majority of Americans, but whose rights have for so long been squandered, might be represented by the person occupying the Oval Office.
Yet somehow, this significant landmark went entirely unacknowledged during the five hours of TV that comprised the Democratic debates this week, and that's a shame.
It was almost as if the country has forgotten that there's a man occupying the White House who preys on and demeans women. It was almost as if the last Democratic presidential nominee wasn't a woman who won the popular vote by 3 million. It was almost as if women aren't standing at a terrifying crossroads at which state legislators are fighting tooth and nail every day to take away our reproductive rights in order to keep a stranglehold on our bodies. It was almost as if we were being gaslit into thinking we're not quite as powerful as we are.
Sometimes, there's a very real need for women at a certain level of power to appear genderless: to show they're "objective" and, when running for president, perhaps to demonstrate that they will govern for everyone. But right now, our politics don't represent "everyone." Women, in particular, are being systematically ignored, undermined, underpaid, and oppressed. It's frankly gross malpractice by the debate's moderators not to make candidates address how they'd approach issues facing women.
"From Warren to Marianne Williamson (even her!), these women know that opportunities to make a difference are rare and chances for women to be the people to do it are rarer still," Molly Jong-Fast wrote for Glamour after the first debate. "Now is not the time to squander that shot."
And these women candidates haven't. But in addition to the fact that nobody acknowledged the unprecedented number of women on the debate stage, CNN's debate construct made it next to impossible for those candidates to explicitly make the case for why they'd be the best president for women in America. The first and only question to directly do just that came in at 10:03 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on the second night of the debates in Detroit, and it went to ... a male candidate.
"Mr. Yang, women on average earn 80 cents, about 80 cents for every dollar earned by men," said CNN's Dana Bash to businessman Andrew Yang. "Senator Harris wants to fine companies that don't close their gender pay gaps. As an entrepreneur, do you think a stiff fine will change how companies pay their female employees?"
What followed was a brief discussion on pay equity, a brief discussion about Biden's past comments on women in the workplace, and a briefer still discussion of the Hyde Amendment, which bans the use of federal funds to pay for abortions in most cases and which Biden at one point supported. Additionally, on night one, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg vaguely alluded to "women's right to choose." Women deserve so much better than footnote status.
In the course of a heated debate about immigration and asylum, Gillibrand was the only candidate on either night to focus specifically on why women are fleeing their countries to seek refuge in America.
"When I was at the Texas border, I visited with women who had fled violence," she said. "A woman from El Salvador owned a small business, gangs came to her and said if you don't give us all your money, we're going to kill your family. That's why she fled. Another woman was raped. That's why she fled."
Despite her best effort to inject this important point into the conversation, the other candidates failed to pick up the thread.
What makes all of this even more egregious is that it's not like women merely took up space on CNN's Hunger Games-style stage: They're leading the pack!
Warren, the senior senator from Massachusetts, and Harris, the junior senator from California, have in recent months been at the front in a race made up of more than 20 candidates, running neck-and-neck with former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in all major national polls. While they may not be the One Chosen Candidate, like Hillary Clinton was back in 2016, they're also not fringe. And the luxury of having many women in the race, instead of just one, is that one woman doesn't need to represent all women. Because there are different ways to represent and address the needs of women, and it's important that Americans know — in specific terms — how the candidates would tackle things for which solutions are long overdue, like maternity leave, domestic violence murders, the gender pay gap, reproductive rights, and women's mental health, among many other things.
It's taken decades of advocacy and protest to get women on the presidential debate stage. And while it's heartening just to see them at their podiums, the historic nature of their presence cannot be understated. It must be recognized and respected. Perhaps many women are hesitant to invest in a female candidate. Maybe they still bear the scars from Hillary Clinton's loss and are haunted by chants of #ImWithHer. But now is not a time to be timid or genderless. Those six women have made history in the 2019 presidential race, but we still have a long way to go toward true representation in politics.
Elizabeth Warren said on the first debate night, "I am not afraid. And for Democrats to win, you can't be afraid either." The moderators, the men candidates, and even the women candidates, shouldn't be afraid to acknowledge history as it's being made.