Now that our last viable female candidate has dropped out of the presidential race, it’s tempting to look on the bright side and remark on the number of firsts we’ve accomplished this year.
There were six female candidates, four who were viable contenders. The very presence of this many women on the debate stage visibly challenged what it means to be a viable presidential candidate and collectively elevated what we’ve historically named "women’s issues" — reproductive rights, education, child care — as centrally important to the office of the president. At the same time, their presence solidified the notion that women have equal expertise in traditionally male domains like foreign policy, economic security and the military.
Still, I’m tired of celebrating incremental milestones. At the end of the day, I don't want to put a positive spin on it. The four female senators running for president collectively held an array of nuanced and detailed policy positions that span the diversity of perspectives across the Democratic party. Yet once again, we ended up with two white guys in their late 70s vying for the Democratic nomination, neither of whom, in my estimation, articulated their positions with the level of detail and depth as any of these female candidates who had many, many plans.
As the founder and President of IGNITE, the largest and most diverse young women's political leadership organization in the country, I've had to grapple with the fact that many young women in this country may not prioritize electing a female president. And so I'm left questioning why did this happen, and what can we do to make sure it never happens again?
First of all, we have to start young. Little girls and boys are surprised and even outraged when they learn we’ve never had a woman president. Then this fact becomes the wallpaper of their lives: presidents are just boys; boys are what leadership looks like. Fast forward to voting age: When we see a woman run for president she doesn’t seem like a leader. She seems too angry (or too calm), too inexperienced (or too ambitious), etc. This metaphorical wallpaper is why we question the electability of extremely qualified women or consider the veracity of media outlets questioning their electability. We’ve got to address this when children are young and teach them to actively question and discuss the assumptions we make about gender roles and leadership. The girls in the STEM movement have done an effective job of this: It’s time we employ the same methods with regard to politics.
Second, we need to make sure that girls and young women are educated as to the history of women’s rights — where we’ve been, what we’ve achieved, what remains undone. We are living in an age of unprecedented climate shift around women and power. Movements like MeToo and Times Up have created real and permanent changes around sexual assault and harassment. Social media campaigns like Ban Bossy have checked our language around girls and women. While the climate is shifting, I worry that the next generation of women can erroneously perceive the work is done, perceive they are making active choices for candidates they prefer, or think are more ‘electable’, while the very framework they use to consider presidential candidates is so tainted by their earliest expectations.
This is why male candidates become more acceptable — an ambitious young visionary, a cantankerous but passionate revolutionary — when women in those same lanes are shrill and angry, bossy and opportunistic.
I can already hear the outcry from women: I know my mind. I picked the candidate who best represents my views, who I think can win. You cannot treat young women or men as a monolithic group when they are not. And that’s all fair — all of it.
But here’s the thing: We’re in an era where tribalism is taking hold hard, across and within both political parties. This kind of tribalism is sustained by core, deep-seated beliefs around identity and belonging. Without a pervasive effort to help young people unpack the core beliefs, we develop around gender and leadership from our earliest age — or develop different core beliefs altogether — we’ll always be celebrating the incremental changes we see on the debate stage but not in the White House.
Anne Moses is the president and founder of IGNITE. She has more than 25 years' experience in social justice and political organizations across the non-profit, political, and academic sectors with a focus on women and girls. In 2010, Anne founded IGNITE, a nationally recognized 501c3 that is building a movement of women who are ready and eager to become the next generation of political leaders.