When Elizabeth Warren ran for Senate in 2011, she met a lot of young girls on the campaign trail. She didn’t concern herself with their appearance. Instead, she would deploy a practiced move designed to inspire, she explained to the audience at a CNN town hall in April.
“My name is Elizabeth,” she would say. “And I’m running for senator because that’s what girls do.” Then she would extend her pinky and they’d swear on it.
She went on to become the first woman elected senator in Massachusetts. And now that she is campaigning for the 2020 Democratic nomination, a bid to become the first woman elected president, she’s still using the pinky swear move — swapping president for senator, of course.
Contrast that with how fellow 2020 hopeful Joe Biden sometimes talks to young girls on the campaign trail. It’s perhaps more immediate and revealing than any policy paper.
The former vice president was introduced to a voter’s granddaughter at a coffee shop in Iowa on Wednesday. He asked her age — 13 years old — and then turned to her brothers. “You’ve got one job here, keep the guys away from your sister,” he said, according to a tweet from a reporter at the Boston Globe.
Biden talks to girls and brings in their looks. Warren talks to girls and brings up their potential. Progressive Democratic consultant Rebecca Katz
It’s unclear if he said anything else to the girl. A representative from Biden’s campaign declined to comment.
Biden’s remark was not necessarily a stereotypical Biden gaffe. It is the kind of offhand thing that a lot of adults like to say about their daughters, or grandchildren, or any young girl, really — expressing the fear that soon enough they’ll grow into attractive women and be forced to fend off lecherous boys and men.
Warren’s pinky swear is far more deliberate.
“Biden talks to girls and brings in their looks,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive Democratic consultant. “Warren talks to girls and brings up their potential.”
Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), also contending for the nomination, have also shown that they understand the power of the message they’re sending to young women. “Girls can do anything,” is the title of a Gillibrand ad. “I’m really excited we’re going to have a female president,” says one of the girls in the video.
Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s “Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me!”, on Twitter recalled a time when Biden told Sagal’s daughters, “No dating until you’re 30.” It’s a standard joke of his, Sagal wrote. “Whether it’s a good joke, of course, is another question.”
It’s more than a joke, though. Remarks like these are meant to be protective. They’re probably even well-intentioned or often tossed off without much thought.
To girls, they send a more complicated message. In an instant, they’re turned from person to object. Ask any woman, and you’ll find she was once a little girl made uncomfortable by some adult talking about how she would grow up one day to be a “heartbreaker.”
Biden’s comment is a sad reminder that in a world stocked with “girl power” T-shirts, young women are still getting the message that their power is limited, and that they’re going to need a man for protection.
While Biden is perhaps unwittingly sending a confusing message to young girls — one that these girls might not even themselves be conscious of — Warren has, well, more of a plan.
She came up with that pinky swear move on the trail back in 2011 in response to the blowback she was getting as a female candidate, she said on CNN.
Warren was told that Massachusetts wasn’t ready for a female senator and notes that the early coverage of her campaign focused a lot on her appearance. “It’s about my hair. It’s about my voice. It’s about whether or not I smile enough,” she said, adding: “I didn’t.”
Looking at girls and women as potential victims is, of course, part of Biden’s policy history. His signature legislative win is the Violence Against Women Act. And women’s groups have lauded him, mostly, for the legislation.
Biden has had some real problems with how he interacts with women, but he is hardly a Donald Trump, a man accused of sexual assault and harassment with a long track record of misogynistic comments.
If anything, Biden’s deploying what’s known as “benevolent sexism,” a paternalistic way of seeing women as things in need of saving and protection.
His Iowa remark comes just a couple weeks after he told a 10-year-old girl named Vivi at a town hall in Texas, “I bet you’re as bright as you are good-looking.”
To be fair, Biden didn’t just comment on Vivi’s looks, he got into her smarts, too: “You gotta make me a promise when you’re president of the United States, you’ll remember who I was,” he said, impressed with the question she put to him about what he’d do to send a message of unity in her state.
He asked her what her favorite subject was, and when she said “journalism,” he grabbed her by the arm and led her back to the press section, pointing out the reporters from The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Vivi’s teacher said later that the girl was thrilled about the whole exchange.
Being a role model is something plenty of female candidates are conscious of. It was a theme for Hillary Clinton during her campaign for president. “To all the little girls watching ... never doubt that you are valuable and powerful & deserving of every chance & opportunity in the world,” she tweeted after she lost the 2016 presidential election.
Biden also touted Clinton as a role model back then: “Ladies and gentlemen, we all understand what it will mean for our daughters and granddaughters when Hillary Clinton walks into the Oval Office as president of the United States of America. It will change their lives,” he said in his speech at the Democratic convention in 2016.
Recently, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) put out a video of her being approached by three young girls.
“You are such a good public speaker, like, how are you so good?” one asks her.
If you read between the lines, Harris’ response serves as a nice counterpoint to Biden’s comments.
“So when you’re standing up to speak, remember that it’s not about you,” she says in the video, before asking the girls if they know about the Titanic.
“If you were on the Titanic and you know the ship is about to sink and you’re the only one who knows, are you going to worry about how you look and how you sound?”
No, the girls say, smiling and giggling.
“No,” Harris said. “Because the thing that’s most important is that everyone knows what you know.”