Back in 2018, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren met for an off-the-record conversation. Warren says that during that conversation, Sanders told her a woman could not win the presidency in 2020; according to Sanders, he said it would be difficult, not necessarily impossible. Now that both parties involved are running for president, this exchange has been made public, as have their conflicting memories of what was said. And yet only one of these two people — the woman — has had her social media inundated with images of snakes to underscore her apparent duplicitousness.
As the 2020 presidential race approaches its final throes, Warren and her fellow female candidates are being distilled to the most basic and dehumanizing of stereotypes. Because in our American patriarchy, when accomplished, outspoken women pursue positions of power, they are routinely painted as unreliable and unlikable — snakes in human form.
And so we are, once again, being asked to question whether a woman is "electable," by which we really mean whether all of her qualifications for the job can outweigh the fact that she is a woman. Meanwhile, the man all the Democratic candidates are running to unseat has bragged, on tape, about committing multiple sexual assaults; even the revelation of this shortly before the 2016 election was, apparently, not enough to render him "unelectable."
Regardless of which candidate(s) you support in a crowded-but-dwindling Democratic presidential field, the current flood of headlines is pretty rough for anyone who's not a cisgender white man. Being alive to the news in 2020 means being constantly reminded of our status as lesser-thans, as non-default humans, as objects. And the latest dustup between Sanders and Warren is just another illustration that, in America, the very fact of a woman's ambition is enough to make her motives suspect.
Not long ago, I spent the night at a friend's house with a few other women. After dinner, we all changed into our sweatpants and poured ourselves glasses of wine. It was a familiar scene of feminine bonding: a chance to let down our daily guard, to speak without explaining. The conversation turned — as it so often does, these days — to politics, and the endless drumbeat of disheartening news.
We began to talk about all the indignities of the past few years, the headlines that keep popping up to remind us of where we really stand. We talked about the shock of 2016 — the realization that even after surviving a bruising campaign and winning the popular vote, a woman would still be shut out of the White House in favor of a dangerously unqualified man (who, it bears repeating, has bragged about sexually assaulting women).
We talked about Brett Kavanaugh, and the gut-punch of his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. About watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford speaking of humiliations and violations that rang incredibly true to all of us, her words landing on indifferent ears. Watching her throw herself in front of the train, knowing that it would make no difference, that she would be disbelieved and dismissed, that he would be confirmed anyway. Knowing that he now sits on the highest court of the land, for life, making precedent-setting decisions on how and whether women are allowed the rights to our own bodies.
We talked about #MeToo, and the opening of the floodgates. About the surprise of actually seeing some men held accountable for their sexual predation of women, at least for a little while. About how quickly and thoroughly the news coverage of these cases pivoted from long-overdue justice for survivors to "witch hunts" for perpetrators. About how much it hurts to hear about the specter of "ruined" male lives, while so many men accused of misconduct have in fact remained in the public eye, and even begun resuming elements of their former careers, while the women who spoke out are forever defined by having done so.
And yes, we talked about "electability." About how a man like Bernie Sanders can be as prickly and rumpled as he likes in public, relying on the substance of his politics and the strength of his convictions to impress. How a woman like Elizabeth Warren must always follow a moving target, presenting the perfect (impossible) combination of feminine softness and political edge. How we never hear men being called "likable," because for men, being liked is not a prerequisite for being successful.
Over and over, these conversations are bubbling up. So many of my interactions with friends these days have become commiseration sessions. We give each other significant looks, and sigh, and shake our heads. Many of us have been engaging with news media only glancingly; others have been diving in deep, coming up exhausted and enraged. It's so much, we say. I'm so tired.
This is anecdata at best, and it obviously carries disclaimers. My friends and I are politically liberal, living in parts of the country that, for the most part, voted Democratic in 2016. We are primarily (though not exclusively) white or white-passing, and living in relative socioeconomic privilege. Not all of us who feel the gendered weight of the 2020 news cycle identify as women, or were assigned female at birth. And none of this is new or surprising to us; it is just increasingly inescapable.
Regardless of precisely what Sanders said to Warren in 2018, he isn't wrong about the role of misogyny in this election. And that, for me, is the most painful part of all of this. The knowledge that, with all the privilege that women like me now have, we are fighting an uphill battle that we very well may not win. Every time I peek at the news — every time I see another dispatch from the presidential race, another mention of a pending Supreme Court case, another thinkpiece about the lasting effects of #MeToo — I wonder whether absorbing all of these insults will ultimately make any difference. Can we really push back against a machinery that was built to keep women (and so many others) out of the halls of power? Or will we simply have to swallow our emotions, tamp down our exhaustion, and resign ourselves to America's misogyny as an immovable object?
"It piles up," writes columnist Connie Schultz, "this stuff that forces women to explain ourselves over and over again. And it never ends." When women speak about our experiences, the burden of proof is on us; when we fail to adequately convince an audience already disposed to disbelieve us, we are called snakes. And meanwhile, the men who violate our bodies and dismiss our minds are ensconced in positions of power all across the land.
It's not clear whether this will be the year when that paradigm is finally challenged, or the year when it's reinforced. November is a long ways off yet.
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