Gender and 2020

After seeming to deemphasize it—corruption and inequality were her original themes—Elizabeth Warren has now made gender a defiant linchpin of her argument for electability, in a year when some think electability is all . . . . and many fear a woman is not electable. (Whether or not Bernie Sanders is one of these I will leave to your speculation. I am quite sure he believes a woman would be capable of serving as president. I am not so sure he is immune to the widespread worry that America is not capable of electing one. But that’s a subtle distinction long since trampled by the wildebeests of propaganda.)

The picture is chaotic and infuriating, ruled by a nasty mix of timidity and calculation. Progressives think a centrist is not electable; centrists think a progressive is not electable. Significant numbers of each group seem prepared to make their prophecy self-fulfilling by staying home or casting a protest vote if a candidate from the other group wins the nomination. Many women who say they would welcome a female president are so sure that the majority of their fellow Americans wouldn’t that they are hedging their bets by supporting a (white) man. (And, they say they find Warren “strident” and “schoolmarmish,” then deny that anything sexist shapes that perception. Klobuchar is fine, one such friend protests to me; others point out that she’s a “bitch” to her staffers.) Many black voters have made a similar calculation about race. Mayor Pete’s popularity demonstrates that being male (and white) trumps sexual orientation—progress of one kind at the price of another. It’s a sign of panic and petulance that likely voters can neither agree on who the strongest candidate(s) might be nor simply support whomever they believe in.

I started out liking Warren; after the merciless exposure of an overlong campaign season, filled with mistakes and attacks, of course I like her a lot less. I still support her, precisely for what progressive purists (whipped up by a chorus of Furies left, right, and bot*) hate her for: she could compromise. She is hard enough on rampant inequality, plutocracy, and corporate malfeasance while yet not burning every bridge to business or to those who fear government tyranny. It’s a squeaker whether she could pull that off and not be simultaneously traduced as a “liar” and sellout by the left and a socialist Carrie Nation by the right. But no one else has any of both (except possibly Tulsi Gabbard, whose best shot at the presidency—still a long long long shot—is to be Bernie’s VP when he has his next heart attack, presuming him “electable”).

It’s a mess, one we seem hopelessly mired in when we can least afford it. The republic hangs by a thread.

The irony is, gender has never been Elizabeth Warren’s foremost characteristic to me.** I’ve been in situations over the years in which gender was so backgrounded that I forgot to notice it: karate classes in which I was the only female and only realized it as an afterthought; publishing meetings in which there was only one guy, ditto; most conversations with friends. Warren’s candidacy is another one of those for me. The best way I can put it is that she has had the life experiences of a woman but has undergone them as a human. She apparently can’t be bothered with feminine wiles or niceties; she doesn’t dress her intellect or her vehemence in softening sweetness or charm. Ironically this post-genderedness—such a relief—is held against her as a female candidate.

In so many ways—in so many meanings of “we” and “win”—we can’t win.


*What is bots’ preferred pronoun?

**What is Warren’s foremost characteristic in my mind? It’s not just one: inspiring/ charisma, courage, a sense of destiny that at moments has seemed to possess her; maddening/ a boneheaded, tone-deaf tendency to stick to script too long and then shift with an artless clunk-screech of gears, giving the impression that she is both stubborn and opportunistic.

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