WASHINGTON ― Democrats wanted to make history in 2016. They did it in 2008 by electing Barack Obama and they were ready to do it again by putting the first female president in the White House.
This time, however, the overriding goal is to get Donald Trump out of office. And many voters just aren’t sure that anyone but a white man will be able to do it.
“I heard that but I disagree with it strongly,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who dropped her bid for the Democratic nomination in August. “Of course a woman can beat Trump. Hillary won 3 million more votes than Trump and Nancy Pelosi eats his lunch daily.”
On Monday, the progressive world blew up wondering whether Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) that he didn’t believe a woman could beat Trump during a private meeting in 2018. She said he did, he said he didn’t.
Concerns about the electability of women are pervasive this cycle. Former Vice President Joe Biden offered a similar comment this month. In making the case to Iowa voters about why he could succeed where Clinton had lost, he noted that Clinton faced “unfair” sexist attacks.
“That’s not going to happen with me,” he added.
It’s a major concern with many voters too. A significant number of women were excited at the idea of the first female president and were heartbroken when Clinton lost. If someone with her qualifications couldn’t defeat Trump’s attacks, who can?
A HuffPost/YouGov poll conducted in March of last year found that 3 in 10 Democratic voters think most of the electorate would be less likely to vote for a female candidate because of her gender, compared to just 4% who think a male candidate would face a similar disadvantage. Similarly, 28% think a nonwhite candidate would face more difficulty with voters.
“Unfortunately, I don’t really believe that a woman can win the general presidential election. Hillary sort of proved that for me. She was so qualified, but people didn’t like her,” Chloe Levin, then a 19-year-old engineering student at Stanford University who was registered to vote in her home state of New York, told HuffPost in April.
The New York Times recently talked to Jessica Nusbaum, a woman in Wrightsville, Pennsylvania, who said, “I think right now there’s still not going to be a female president, unfortunately. Right now I think we kind of — not regressed, but looked to the past. ... Women should still run, even if they keep failing.”
Warren herself has said she faced those well-intentioned doubts when she was first considering a run for the Senate in 2011. And they came from people who were placing “friendly calls.”
“That was … the saddest part, the most infuriating part about these calls; they came from people who wanted to be kind but wanted to make sure that I understood the hard reality of America,” she told journalist Rebecca Traister in 2018.
These sorts of perceptions and doubts have real-life effects on whether women run for political office.
Jennifer Lawless is a political science professor at the University of Virginia who co-authored a 2016 book that examined female candidates and the biases they face. Lawless found that the perception of sexism in the electoral arena at the congressional level was widespread.
“You had more than 50% of voters believe that a woman couldn’t win an election, couldn’t raise as much money, faced higher standards on the campaign trail. And as a result, female candidates think that they need to be more qualified than the men against whom they compete,” Lawless said.
If that’s the uneven playing field women are looking at, she said, “then that’s certainly a rational reason to say, ‘You know what? I’m going to sit it out.’”
In reality, women raise just as much money and are just as likely to win as men.
Jess McIntosh, who has worked on the Clinton campaign and with EMILY’s List, said that even in the progressive movement, she’s heard men express doubts that women can win.
“It’s just an unwillingness to step out of the way or share power with a bigger pool. I don’t want to believe that about Sanders (or Biden), but it’s very convenient to define ‘electable’ as ‘someone who looks exactly like me,’” she said in an email.
“I’ve been running for office for over 30 years and people have told me all kinds of things and you know, you just move on,” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said. “In this day and age, it’s not anything that is accurate.”
Warren presents her feminism a bit differently than Clinton did, as Traister noted on Tuesday.
“It’s not that Warren hasn’t talked about gender; it’s that until now, she has presented the feminist ambitions of her campaign in a way that hasn’t been about her or her experiences of bias, instead giving a series of big speeches that have subtly reframed the history of American organizing and policy change by foregrounding women,” Traister wrote on The Cut.
It’s been a way to talk about the power of women, she added, “without actually having to get into the muck of describing what it’s like to be that candidate or what it’s like to run against her. That’s over now; we’re in the muck.”
Hours after CNN came out with its report about the 2018 meeting between Warren and Sanders, the Massachusetts senator put out a statement saying, “I thought a woman could win; he disagreed” and asking that people move on.
Drawing attention to sexism carries risks. Women can be ― and have been ― accused of simply seeking the limelight or trying to profit off their misfortune.
But Lawless said her research has shown that in a Democratic primary, launching a gender-based attack against a woman could be the bigger mistake.
“The male candidate pays a bigger price,” she said. “So part of the reason that we don’t see this kind of attack that often, I think, is because male candidates know that they might take a hit, and that hit is bigger than the doubts that voters might have about the woman against whom the attack was launched.”
“Those who withhold support from women and/or foster doubt about women’s capacity for success, rooted in dated notions of what is possible, only interfere in the project of women’s political progress,” Kelly Ditmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, wrote in a post on Tuesday. “So when it comes to the non-believers, don’t believe them.”
Igor Bobic contributed reporting.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.