Arizona state lawmaker Isela Blanc found herself chatting one day last year with one of her fellow lawmakers, a Republican white man in his 70s, about some legislation she wanted to pass. He turned to her, Blanc recalled, and asked, “Isela, do you not know how this works? Do you not know that to get stuff done, you have to be a little bit quieter? Maybe not ask as many questions?”
“In other words,” as Blanc saw it, “if I would just sit back and look pretty, I might get more bills passed.”
That moment came back to haunt Blanc last week when she watched her pick for president, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, announce that she'd be dropping out of the Democratic primary. For Blanc and many of the female politicians who’d endorsed her, the demise of Warren’s campaign — and the criticisms that were lobbed at Warren throughout her run — was a frustrating reminder of the sexism they’ve seen in their careers.
“This is a clear indication of how much harder and tougher women have to be in this political sphere. However, even if we’re all those things, we’re still not ‘competent’ enough to be seen as leaders,” Blanc said. “As an Arizona legislator here in this state, who does work among a majority [Republican] party that is mostly white and male, I experience — as [do] several of my colleagues, women colleagues — we experience sexism every single day in one form or another.”
“If they think the woman has gone too far and is too tough, then they don’t like that.”
In interviews, female politicians emphasized what they believe to be Warren’s legacy: her devotion to policy and plans, how she helped redefine what it looks like to be a woman running for president. Bolstered by a seemingly endless supply of progressive proposals — and her unofficial slogan, “I’ve got a plan for that” — Warren was briefly a front-runner last fall. But she failed to take the top slot in a single primary contest, even after a debate in which Warren disemboweled former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s campaign with sharp questions about his use of non-disclosure agreements.
Nearly every female politician who spoke with VICE News said the strength of Warren’s campaign cast a spotlight on how tricky it is for women to be powerful leaders without being denounced as “aggressive” or “unlikable.”
“Voters want a candidate that’s strong enough, but they also have to satisfy feminine stereotypes, and not be too tough,” said Amanda Hunter, research communications director at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, which studies and supports women in politics. “If they think the woman has gone too far and is too tough, then they don’t like that.”
There was one label that kept getting brought up, which tends to get slapped on women who cross that invisible line: “shrill.” That’s the word a Democratic chairman in the most populous county in New Hampshire chose to use when describing Warren; an Iowa chairman did the same. A Democratic voter in North Carolina told U.S. News & World Report that Warren “is way too strident. Her voice, just the way she talks, she turns people off.” That criticism made its way to TV: On MSNBC, commentator Donny Deutsch slammed Warren for apparently having “a certain stridentness to her.”
Massachusetts Rep. Katherine Clark said these types of criticisms can be “a source of real frustration.”
“I just hear that as she is a forceful woman talking in vocal tones that women use. And she has very clear opinions and plans and details and she believes in it and she’s passionate, and yet it is often well, ‘She’s too angry,’ or ‘She’s too shrill,” Clark said. “Those same characteristics, in a man, are seen as advantages.”
It’s a tightrope walk that Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the second-to-last woman standing on the primary debate stage, unintentionally highlighted during a late December debate, when all of the candidates were asked to either “gift” something to another candidate or ask for “forgiveness.” All of the men “gave.”
Both Warren and Klobuchar, however, apologized for the same thing: being too passionately invested in their literal jobs.
“I know that sometimes I get really worked up. And sometimes I get a little hot,” Warren said. “I really don’t mean to.”
“Oh my god, why do we always apologize?” Democrat Lorena Gonzalez, a member of the California state Assembly, recalled thinking at the time. But, she added, “We’re trained to do this, we’re expected to do this, and we’re viewed differently if they hadn’t done that.”
For Gonzalez, even qualities that might make her relatable, like having children, have resulted in criticism. She’s discovered that she just can’t satisfy everybody, and she’s working on moving past that.
“I’m an assertive, competent person doing my job and that might rub people the wrong way,” Gonzalez explained. “I’m also a mom, and I hug people, and sometimes I cry. And that rubs people the wrong way. It’s like there’s no winning.”
Calling out sexism?
Whenever women run into prejudice, they face a choice: Should I let this go, or risk calling it out? When she announced her decision to drop out Thursday, Warren revealed that, throughout her campaign, she’d never found the right answer.
“If you say, ‘Yeah, there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says ‘Whiner!’” Warren told reporters. And if you say, ‘No, there was no sexism,’ about a bazillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?’”
Denise Merrill, Connecticut’s secretary of state, said that as a woman in politics she does feel like she’s held to a higher standard. But she couldn’t remember an instance where she’d called out sexism.
“Women focus too much sometimes, I think, on the barriers and I think what you have to do is just brush them aside and keep moving forward,” Merrill said. “It’s still probably the best way to get where you want to go. You have to be incredibly persistent and not let things sway you.”
Blanc said that she did tell a male legislator that he was being sexist, after that legislator told her he’d been getting too many complaints about her. But she believes that tactic doesn’t always work.
“It’s not the woman who’s experiencing the sexism that can call it out unless it’s incredibly obvious,” Blanc said. “It is our supporters, it is the people that are with us working with us, experiencing with us, and especially the men who see it, who also have to start being brave.”
There was one solution, though, that everyone agreed on: Elect more women. These female politicians hope that what happened to Warren — as well as the four other Democratic women who’ve announced the end of their presidential campaigns — will motivate more women to run for office in the 2020 elections.
“Instead of being discouraged, I think it’s time we redouble our efforts,” Clark said. “I am very confident that, with Elizabeth Warren’s example and Hillary Clinton’s, we are going to get a woman president. But I also think that it’s incumbent upon all of us.”
Cover: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., pauses while speaking outside her home, Thursday, March 5, 2020, in Cambridge, Mass., after she dropped out of the Democratic presidential race. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)