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Blowing up the status quo: Elizabeth Warren changed the game

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Shirley Chisolm, the first black candidate for president, ran in 1972 with the slogan “Unbossed and Unbought” but the same could be said for Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) who ended her campaign for president after disappointing losses on Super Tuesday. Warren may not be the Democratic nominee for president, but her campaign has permanently and irrevocably changed the playing field for women candidates for years to come. 

She refused to bow to the standard expectations that women be polite, warm, kind, pretty, smiling, not too aggressive but aggressive enough and in doing so, she singlehandedly reset the standards for every woman who ever runs again. 

From her commitment to addressing the needs of every concerned citizen through her mountain of detailed policy plants to her debate performance in Las Vegas when she eviscerated not just Mike Bloomberg but a century (or more) of gender norms, Warren changed the political game for women, permanently. And for that, we should all be grateful.

An avalanche of data that shows women continue to face subtle and unsubtle bias when they try to break high and hard glass ceilings in politics so it’s certainly reasonable to wonder how much of that bias factored into her failure to win. Women candidates face impossible standards of femininity and double binds.  

They are expected to be overqualified but unambitious and they have been consistently overlooked by still mostly male-dominated media. In August I highlighted the data on this for an article in the Hill. The point clearly struck a nerve.  

Many women had already recognized what the data showed: women candidates received less coverage overall and the coverage they received was more negative than that of the men.

This trend continues. In the week before the Nevada debate, the networks cut away from Warren’s speech after the New Hampshire primary and then, she was left off a major poll WSJ/ NBC poll. People noticed. The hashtag #WheresWarren trended on Twitter. 

Warren could have accepted the double standards and tried to move past them or ignored them which has been the MO for women running in the past, especially for women of Warren’s generation.

Throughout her political career and perhaps especially in 2016, Hillary Clinton faced an egregious, relentless, blatant level of highly gendered negativity from her opponents and from the press.  

Indeed, Clinton faced that sexism at every step of her career — even Barack Obama famously played on the gendered likeability trap calling her “likable enough” in 2008. But Clinton never tried to take on sexism head-on while she was running.  

She accepted it as unavoidable and mostly ignored it. She was willing to own the possibility of being the historic first woman president but not the fight to call out everyday sexism on the campaign trail. In her recent interview with Howard Stern Clinton acknowledged that she had faced sexism for so long she just assumed it was part of the deal. 

Warren has accepted no such deal. She showed a willingness to blow up, expose, upend and destroy every sexist double standard she faced even as those same double standards were harming her prospects. She exposed the electability bias by calling out Bernie Sanders for supposedly saying a woman couldn’t win — triggering a week-long news cycle about it. In an interview before the Nevada debate, she called out the sexism she faced on the campaign trail. But in the Nevada debate, she did something transformative.  

She brought an explosive, take no prisoners grit, intensity, focus and yes anger that made her impossible to ignore. In fact, she managed to garner the most airtime of any candidate on the stage. Her performance seemed to mark not only her own liberation but the liberation of women everywhere, finally free to bring their righteous rage to the table. It may not have won her the nomination, but it reset norms for all the women who will most certainly follow her

Warren was of course not the only woman who ran for president this cycle. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) was the first black woman since Shirley Chisolm to run resetting norms with her presence, short-lived though it was. Amy Klobuchar’s campaign also contributed to rewriting the norms about women running but Warren is the one who really rewrote the rules.  

Yes, she pioneered selfie as a strategy and refused to hold high dollar fundraisers. But perhaps just as revolutionary: she wore sneakers on the campaign trail. She didn’t let handlers coif and style her into some vision of what a woman candidate is “supposed to” be. But most of all, Warren’s righteous anger, her willingness to take no prisoners, to fight back and fight relentlessly against chauvinism and for women has never been seen before. It will most certainly be seen again.

Women have made significant strides toward greater political representation in recent years and won elected office in historic numbers that are certainly changing politics in myriad ways. In 2019 I ran for local office in my town of Harrison, N.Y. and won. I’m now the lone woman in elected leadership in my Town. Thanks to the women before me, from Chisolm to Warren, I will not let the male majority steamroll me, try as they may. 

The fact is, for all the gains women have made in politics, any woman who has run for office at any level can give you a long list of biases they faced. As a single mom, I was often questioned about who was watching my kids (men are never asked this). 

Women are expected to be warm, kind, smart but not too smart, authoritative but not a know it all, assertive but not aggressive. Claire Freidman recently captured this perfectly for the New Yorker in a column called the Electable Female Candidate: “She is everything to everyone. She would be pleased to be the president, but she is not ambitious enough to run.” Exactly.

Warren flipped to the proverbial bird to outdated norms and blew right past them. Of course in the process, she lost the race to be president. But her relentless challenge of the status quo is a win for women already. Her example will liberate countless women candidates who follow to make the most radical choice of all: to be who they are. And for that, Warren, and women everywhere, won.

Lauren Leader is the co-founder and CEO of All In Together, a non-partisan, non- profit dedicated to women’s civic education. She is also the sole elected councilwoman in Harrison, N.Y.

Tags American women in politics Amy Klobuchar Barack Obama Bernie Sanders Bullying Elizabeth Warren Feminism Gender role Gender studies glass ceiling Hillary Clinton

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