At Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Sen. Elizabeth Warren got into a heated exchange over the best way to tax the wealthiest Americans.
This exchange was tense but fairly mundane ― a Democratic moderate going after a progressive who is leading in the polls. And it wasn’t the first time that Klobuchar had gone on the attack against Warren during the night. Earlier, Klobuchar referred to the “Medicare for All” plan that Warren supports as a “pipe dream.”
Neither candidate held back in her critiques of the other (see: Warren’s pointed smirk when Klobuchar referred to her as just “Elizabeth”), and both Warren’s and Klobuchar’s answers on taxes and health care made clear their differing political priorities and world views.
The only thing out of the ordinary about it was that both of these candidates are women. And there was something wildly refreshing about seeing a primary debate stage with enough women on it that they could get into vigorous, healthy ― and yes, heated, even tense ― arguments over policy.
“Amy Klobuchar’s simmering hatred for Elizabeth Warren is not feminism, but it doesn’t have to be,” tweeted feminist conmentator Shelby Knox. “Feminism is having 4 women, 2 of them [women of color], on the #demdebate stage, running for president. They don’t have to get along.”
Klobuchar and Warren represent just half of the women who qualified for Tuesday’s debate ― Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) also joined the 12-person debate stage. Harris and Warren debated each other about big tech and whether Twitter should suspend Donald Trump’s account. Klobuchar chimed in to talk about monopolies. None of these disagreements were over “women’s issues,” per se. (It’s also worth noting that all the candidates ― not just the women ― were asked directly about abortion rights by moderator Erin Burnett.)
These candidates represent a diversity of not just political ideology but of personal experience. They span generations, racial identities and religious identities. They bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table. In short, they are like any other set of Democratic presidential candidates, gender being only one relevant detail of their lives and political careers.
When there isn’t a singular woman inadvertently tasked with representing all American women, female politicians are free to simply be politicians. This is something that Hillary Clinton struggled with during the 2016 presidential campaign. She was THE woman, saddled with all of the baggage of institutional sexism and misogyny, and all the weight of being THE FIRST. She just didn’t… look presidential. She was just a little… shrill. A little… cold. A little… nasty. A woman could absolutely ― should absolutely ― be president. Just not her. But when there are more women out there campaigning, these baseless, sexist digs simply don’t land in the same way.
“Every woman [who] runs makes it easier for the next woman,” Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications for EMILY’s List, told HuffPost in January, “in part because it changes the way we look at candidates.”
There is also a pressure, when there is just one woman candidate, for all women to line up behind her. In 2016, Gloria Steinem was criticized for suggesting that younger women were supporting Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) because that’s where “the boys” were. Understandably, many young female voters felt offended at the idea that their politics must align with Clinton simply because they shared a gender identity with her. Again, not having just one and only woman candidate relieves this pressure and allows the women running for president to make it crystal clear that women are by no means a monolith.
In January, when the presidential primary was just kicking off, I wondered whether “in 2020, the sheer number of them out on the campaign trail and on the debate stage, expressing a variety of political views, even arguing with each other while displaying a variety of demeanors, will force voters to look at women politicians as individual candidates, rather than as avatars for 52 percent of the population.”
If Tuesday night’s debate is any indication, we’re on our way there.