Patriarchy, it turns out, is sticking around. With Super Tuesday in the rearview mirror, it now appears that the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination will be between two white septuagenarian men: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden are vying for the opportunity to take on another 70-something-year-old white guy in the general election.
Meanwhile, over on the Supreme Court, five conservative men hold the fate of women’s health care rights in their hands. On Wednesday, they will hear arguments in a crucial abortion rights case.
The country seems far removed from the heady days of the summer of 2019 when there were six women – six! – in contention for the Democratic nomination. All of them even appeared on a debate stage at the same time, a historic first.
It truly seemed like something was about to change. After all, in 2018, a wave of Democratic women were voted into Congress. In 2016, a woman nearly won the presidency. The idea that a woman would soon occupy the White House seemed … not unrealistic.
And yet, here we are.
As of Wednesday morning, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) were still in the running for the 2020 nomination, but it seems all but certain that the race is now down to just 78-year-old Sanders and 77-year-old Biden.
So in the end, the 2020 race is another reminder that while Americans are growing more comfortable with female politicians, they’re still resistant to the idea of a woman as an ultimate decider.
“It’s one thing to support a woman to be a decision-maker, but if she’s going to be the decision-maker, voters are going to have to be convinced over and over again that she’s qualified,” said Amanda Hunter, communications director at the Barbara Lee Foundation, which studies and advocates for female politicians.
That’s clear if you look at governor’s mansions — there are only nine female governors in the United States, and there have only been 48 of them in U.S. history, compared with more than 2,300 male governors.
Or if you look at CEO offices. Those numbers are bleak, too. Women run just 6% of S&P 500 companies. The startup world is similarly bleak. Female startup founders get only 3% of all the venture capital funding in the world, according to research from Crunchbase released Wednesday morning. That number hasn’t changed in a decade.
It’s hard to parse out the sexism and the bias in most situations, and a presidential election is no different. Did the female candidates underperform because of sexism? It would be hard to pinpoint that definitively.
The relentless focus on electability this cycle certainly didn’t help female candidates or candidates of color. White men have always been president, so it’s hard to argue that they would be less electable than a woman or a candidate of color.
For a long time, if you searched for “CEO” online you’d get a photo of a middle-aged white man. If you conjure an image of an American president in your head, you’ll likely get similar results.
Hunter and others have pointed out moments in this cycle when it certainly seemed like women were being held to a higher standard than men.
Warren, who has released myriad detailed plans, was widely criticized for not providing enough details about her health care plan, while Sanders, as Hunter pointed out, still hasn’t gotten too in-depth with his.
When women run for office, research has shown that voters expect them to have detailed plans in order to show their competency. Male competency is assumed.
When she was in the race, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) was slammed for running a disorganized campaign. Biden’s skated on that one. Indeed, pundits marveled on Wednesday at how the former vice president was able to dominate without even doing much campaigning in some of the states he won.
Both Harris and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) were criticized for making factual errors. Biden is teased for those and seems able to laugh them off.
To be sure, no one is arguing that a Sanders or Biden presidency would be bad for women. The Democratic men would unquestionably do less harm to women in the U.S. than a Trump administration has done and will do. They would protect Obamacare, which is particularly good for women. Sanders has robust family leave and child care plans. They’d certainly avoid nominating a rabidly anti-abortion judge to the Supreme Court.
Hunter pointed out that the U.S. has come a long way in recent years, with more women becoming politically active, more women running for office. And even though they’re largely gone from the race, the women who threw their hats in did a lot to role model what a leader could look like.
Still, the 2020 race right now does feel like a letdown for anyone who cares about electing women.
“I’m wearing black today,” Hunter said.