Forget everything you thought you knew about women running for president.
Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) controlled and dominated the Democratic debates held in Miami this week, featuring 14 men and six women, over two nights, contending for their party’s 2020 presidential nomination.
On Wednesday, Warren commanded the stage and set the tone for the conversation. She won. The next day, Harris mostly walked away with the whole thing, ripping the assumed front runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, in the night’s most dramatic moment.
Together these women shattered the conventional wisdom that surrounds female politicians.
“By showing up as the leaders they are — powerful, smart and deeply connected to the issues impacting all Americans — [Warren and Harris] showed us what a president could be and it was thrilling,” said Shaunna Thomas, the co-founder of the women’s advocacy group Ultraviolet, calling Harris and Warren the winners of the debates.
But Warren and Harris weren’t even the only women in the fray — each night featured three female candidates on stage. A truly radical number. Out of the more than a hundred U.S. presidential primary debates, only five women have ever appeared onstage.
Each had to shoulder the burden of being “the woman” ― the token female in a world of men. The only one on stage.
This time, six women got to show the country that there are plenty of different ways to be a female candidate: From Warren’s command performance to Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Harris’s penchant to interrupt their way into the conversation (breaking the stereotypes on how women behave), to Marianne Williamson’s loopy performance.
“Simply by being on the presidential debate stage this week, each woman made history and is changing the face of leadership,” said Amanda Hunter, research and communications director at the Barbara Lee Foundation, which advocates for women in politics.
Together, these women broke through the gender stereotypes that have tripped up female candidates in the past: Women are supposed to be interrupted, but not to interrupt anyone else. They allegedly mostly care about women’s issues and don’t go too deep on the “important” stuff like the economy. They aren’t aggressive and lack confidence. And of course, needn’t be taken too seriously.
Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.
On Wednesday night, Warren ― the only candidate polling in the double digits on the Miami stage ― dominated the room. Her deep bench of policy ideas set the topics for at least the first hour. She was poised, calm and clear with her messaging. Warren stuck with the broad theme of her campaign ― fighting for the structural changes needed to ensure the economy is working for everyone. The other candidates scrambled to respond to her.
Harris was even more astonishing Thursday. The California senator, a former prosecutor, brought home the most dramatic moment of the two nights when she ripped into Biden for his comments on segregationists. She pulled off the hat trick of combining her personal history with the bigger political picture, telling Biden she was hurt to hear him wax nostalgic earlier this month about his relationship with two segregationist senators decades ago.
“And it was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing,” she said, alluding to his role beating back federal integration efforts in the 1970s. “[Y]ou know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
Biden said she mischaracterized his record.
It was a breathtaking and emotional moment, securing Harris’s place as the night’s winner and cementing her to the level of a serious presidential contender. Her performance, fierce, calm and assured, was a clear sign of how far women candidates have come over the past couple of years. (Her performance was marred, perhaps, by a moment during the health care conversation that she later walked back.)
By showing off their executive chops, the two women may have dented the notion, held by many, that a woman can’t beat Trump in 2020.
“By excelling in their respective debates, Senators Warren and Harris challenged the narrative that a woman can’t be the ‘safe’ candidate. Voters can feel safer with a woman onstage,” said Hunter.
The two nights of debates capped off what’s been a monumental run for female candidates over the past few years, a fire born out of the ashes of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat to Trump.
In 2018, a wave of women won seats in the House of Representatives and they did it by running campaigns that defied beliefs about how female candidates are supposed to act.
“By excelling in their respective debates, Senators Warren and Harris challenged the narrative that a woman can’t be the 'safe' candidate. Voters can feel safer with a woman onstage.”
In the past, female candidates were encouraged to wear pants suits, try to model the behavior of their male counterparts, downplay their personal lives and act tough. (Clinton deja vu anyone?)
But the 2018 candidates found a way to be more authentically themselves ― think Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) talking about bartending and Instagramming herself cooking dinner but also talking about inequality or Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) at the kitchen table with her kids, but also looking at hard financial issues.
But gaining seats on a deliberative body is one thing, women typically have a much harder time typically proving they can be the ultimate decider. The question coming into the 2020 presidential race is: Can the women running for the highest office in the country pull off a similar feat?
After this week, the answer seems to unequivocally be yes.
Harris’s performance Thursday night was emblematic of the changes in campaigning over the last few years.
“Twenty years ago, a woman would be implored not to talk about race or her struggles as a student,” said Hunter, marveling at Harris’ performance. “She was honest and authentic. This is how campaigning has changed in the last few years. By sharing her personal story, Senator Harris showed voters how her personal experience would influence her decisions as a leader.”
It’s worth noting, in fact, that over the two nights the six women candidates didn’t speak much on gender issues. Paid leave and childcare barely were mentioned —with Gillibrand bringing up her family bill of rights on night two. Sexual assault didn’t come up at all ― somewhat surprising in this MeToo era.
Reproductive rights was an issue both men and women discussed. Memorably, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) took Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to task for boasting about his record on abortion. She reminded him that the three female lawmakers on stage ― herself, Warren and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii — had all “fought pretty hard for a woman’s right to choose.” It was yet another moment showcasing the confidence and poise women brought to the table in these debates.
Over the two nights, unbelievably, the women candidates spoke for more minutes than the men. The male candidates commanded 7.9 minutes each, on average, the women got 8.1 minutes, Vox reports.
Of course, the presidential election is more than a year away, and in the end, a man could snag the Democratic nomination or, worse, Donald Trump our accused rapist-in-chief could even win again.
At the end of the day, women leaders in politics will still have to struggle to overcome the old-school expectations for their gender, said Elizabeth Stapp, a professor who studies women’s leadership issues at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. “To the old guard, women must not take up too much space,” she said.
This week though, women did take up a whole lot of space. And it was glorious.