Women are watching: Candidates must put our issues front and center

Earlier this month, the qualifying candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination gathered in Florida to take the debate stage for the first time. The lineup included several female participants, a landmark in our nation’s history. Throughout the night, the presidential hopefuls attempted to distinguish themselves for a national audience, wading through more than two dozen contenders.

As we saw in both debates, there is no shortage of crises, both foreign and domestic, for candidates to spotlight, but all candidates would do well to commit to prioritizing the needs and concerns of women — in particular women of color — who have proved over the last two years that they are a political force.

From the Women’s March to #MeToo and a historic midterm election that swept in the most diverse, female Congress in history, women are making their voices heard, claiming their power, running for office in record numbers, and electing candidates who reflect their experiences and their values.

Presidential candidates have taken note, putting forth proposals to provide child care, eliminate the wage gap, establish a national paid family and medical leave program, address the maternal health crisis and protect women’s access to reproductive health care. Some of these proposals were discussed during the debates, but often in the context of being prompted by the moderators. 

But candidates can’t and shouldn’t wait for debate moderators and other members of the media to bring up critical issues affecting women and families. A new analysis from TIME’S UP found that out of the 4,000 questions in 123 primary debates held from 1996–2016, moderators only asked four substantive questions on paid leave, two on equal pay, and zero questions on policies to address sexual harassment.

In addition to crafting proposals around these issues, candidates must actively hit the campaign trail prepared to talk about how they will create a fairer, more just country where women can thrive and pursue their dreams. They must speak out against efforts to undermine access to health care and abortion services and must call out half measures on policies like paid family and medical leave that would disproportionately harm women, marginalized communities like immigrants, LGBTQ people and people of color.

As candidates talk about income inequality — an issue discussed during both Democratic debates — they cannot ignore the gender and racial biases that fuel our country’s wealth and income gaps by disempowering half the population and penalizing women for the childbearing and caregiving work they do.

We need strong candidates who will shape the terms of the debate. Women are listening hard for who will prioritize the struggles they and their families confront every day and who will speak to their lived experience with authenticity and passion. They want to know who will put forth the policies that rebalance our society and root out the systemic biases that make it possible for the rich and powerful to keep getting more, while the rest of us get less and the chasm widens. 

Certainly, corruption, corporate greed and policies that tip the scales in favor of the wealthy and powerful — like the new tax law — have a profound effect on the ability of working people to make ends meet. But so also do the persistence of sexual harassment, loopholes that allow businesses to deny pregnant women reasonable accommodations at work, a lack of supportive workplace policies that enable women to provide and seek care, and attacks on women’s reproductive rights and autonomy.

And while Trump’s outright pandering to right-wing extremists during his stump speeches and throughout his presidency made clear that he would pursue policies that favor those in power, all candidates during this cycle should unequivocally commit to dismantling this system of oppression.

Everyone deserves to be safe, healthy and free to pursue their dreams and provide for their families. This will only be possible when systemic, discriminatory barriers are dismantled. That is why we are demanding candidates dedicate themselves to a nation with institutions, systems and laws designed to serve all of us — not just the rich and already powerful. To an America in which equality is real, not just rhetorical; an America where we can all be secure and respected and live with dignity.

Women are ready to fight and win this future. And all 2020 hopefuls — both those who are crisscrossing the country to campaign as well as the current occupant of the White House — should know we are watching.

Debra L. Ness is president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to achieve equality for all women. Follow her on Twitter @DebraLNess