They ‘Would Love to See a Woman in Office,’ but It’s Not Priority No. 1

They ‘Would Love to See a Woman in Office,’ but It’s Not Priority No. 1

WINTERSET, Iowa — Almost exactly three years ago, Leila Schlenker marveled at the crowds at the Women’s March in Des Moines, which drew more than 26,000 people to the grounds of the state capitol and reminded her of the large social protests of the 1960s.

Her daughter, now a mother herself, used to roll her eyes when her mom would talk about the importance of fighting for issues like abortion rights and equal pay. But Ms. Schlenker has seen how the current political moment has convinced her daughter that her rights could be taken away, and that sexism remains a force in both of their lives. And she’s watched in horror as the Trump administration has worked to roll back funding for clinics specializing in reproductive health care, the field she worked in for more than a quarter century.

Yet, as she sat in the front row of a crowded banquet hall on Monday morning, waiting for Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind., to take the stage, Ms. Schlenker, 66, made clear that there was at least one area of her life where gender was not a determining factor.

“I would love to see a woman in office,” she said. “But I still like Pete.”

In the final weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the two leading female candidates remaining in the Democratic primary are embracing their gender as an asset, decisively pushing back against concerns that a woman can’t be elected president. Those sensitive conversations burst into public view this past week at the Democratic debate, in a nationally televised discussion about sexism and experience between Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Since Donald J. Trump took office, women have emerged as the backbone of the Democratic Party, leading protests, creating new political organizations and running for office. A record number of women are serving in Congress, and the #MeToo movement has raised awareness of sexual assault and gender bias. Saturday marks the fourth annual Women’s March, with events taking place around the country and the world.

Yet, the sisterhood may stop before the White House. In interviews with nearly two dozen female voters in Iowa this week, the symbolism of breaking what Hillary Clinton called “that highest, hardest glass ceiling” in politics seemed to be less resonant than ever before, particularly for older voters, who were subsumed by anxiety about defeating Mr. Trump.

Some voters who backed either Ms. Warren or Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota bristled at the idea that they might support them because they are women, even as many acknowledged a greater awareness of the sexism women candidates face. All the marches, protests and public discussion of gender gaps, double binds and sexual harassment seem to have led some voters to a perhaps surprising conclusion: This is not our time.

Becky Kakac, 68, said she would like to see a woman president in her lifetime and would love to support a female candidate — just not now.

“I’m not sure this is our year. We have to win the country and that is one of the reasons I’m leaning toward Joe Biden,” Ms. Kakac said. “That was one of the problems with the Hillary candidacy, thinking that a woman president would be elected after our first African-American president. That was a little too much to ask.”

Women make up 54 percent of registered voters and nearly 51 percent of the country. They are far from a monolithic voting bloc, even if the “women’s vote” is sometimes treated as such by pundits and operatives. Several studies of the 2008 primary found that while black voters overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama because of their racial identity, Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy didn’t benefit as much from solidarity among women voters. And in 2016, a majority of white women backed Mr. Trump instead.

In the 2020 primary, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris made explicit appeals to women; neither was able to motivate a groundswell of support from female voters, and both have since dropped out. Support for Representative Tulsi Gabbard, who is still in the race but hasn’t qualified for a party debate since November, skews male.

“There’s this internalized bias with women,” said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, a super PAC focused on African-American Democrats. “The number of women that you heard say and still hear say, ‘We wouldn’t vote for Hillary Clinton because she is a woman.’ We’ve even heard this about Warren.”

Moderate female voters point to Mrs. Clinton’s defeat to explain why they hesitate to back another woman, saying the stakes are too high to take another risk. At the same time, the gains made over the last few years may have inadvertently minimized, for some voters, how historic it would be for a woman to win the White House.

As she waited with her daughter and mother to get their photo taken with Ms. Warren, Cyndi Boertje, 56, said that while she’d love to see a female president, she didn’t think it would be quite as transformational for the country as when Mr. Obama won the presidency.

“We’ve had more women in higher things,” said Ms. Boertje, who’s deciding between Ms. Warren and Mr. Buttigieg and like most women interviewed at campaign events in Iowa is white. “We’ve got Nancy Pelosi as speaker. To me, at least, people are used to seeing women in leadership.”

Mrs. Clinton made her history-making potential a major theme of her 2016 bid, eagerly highlighting pleas from her older female supporters that they’d like to see a woman elected president during their lifetime.

That’s been pushed aside this year, as voters prioritize defeating Mr. Trump over representation, said Jennifer Lawless, a professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on women in politics.

“The novelty of this has worn off,” she said. “Since Hillary Clinton became the nominee we’ve really turned a corner in terms of the way that we talk about sexism and gender roles.”

Ms. Shropshire said the idea of making history with a female president has never come up in the focus groups she regularly holds with black women voters, though activists and political operatives raise it at forums and events.

“People are not looking for a historic candidate,” she said. “They’re looking for someone who can not just beat Trump but end Trumpism.”

For Ms. Warren and Ms. Klobuchar, that dynamic means casting their gender as an electoral strength, rather than a chance to make history. At the debate, Ms. Warren pointed out that the male candidates onstage had collectively lost 10 elections.

“The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women,” she said. “Amy and me.”

In an election cycle that saw more women run for president than ever before, a long-held goal for women’s organizations, these groups face an unusual challenge: they’re unwilling to throw their full weight behind one contender.

Shaunna Thomas, co-executive director of UltraViolet, a women’s rights advocacy group, described endorsing one woman over another as “somewhat fraught,” saying her group was more focused on pushing all of the candidates, male and female, to give more attention to issues like gender equity, abortion and sexism.

“The sole reason for our existence is not just putting women into positions of power,” she said. “Though we think that is part of how we will achieve gender equality and justice in this country, it’s not the only way.”

In spring 2013, as Mrs. Clinton prepared her second presidential bid, Emily’s List, the largest national organization devoted to electing female candidates, debuted a nationwide effort it called the “Madam President campaign.” This year, the group is playing a quieter role in the Democratic primary.

“This isn’t about electing a first,” said Stephanie Schriock, its president. “This is about electing a person who can put this country back together, and I think Elizabeth and Amy are situated to do this really well.”

Early-state polling shows Ms. Warren with an edge among female voters but Mr. Biden with more backing over all. Nationally Mr. Biden leads among female voters, a reflection of his strength in the race.

At events for Ms. Warren and Ms. Klobuchar in recent months, female voters were grappling with contradictory ideas. They thought the women were better equipped to run the country but worried the country was too sexist to elect them.

Chatting with fellow volunteers for Ms. Warren after a campaign event on Sunday, Diane Lemker, 65, bemoaned what she saw as unfair political projection by others.

“‘I don’t know if people over there are ready for a woman, so we can’t vote for a woman.’ Oh my gosh!” she said. “With my support of her, I am not only affirming that women are capable, but I am also actively rejecting the undercurrent of misogyny.”

Some frustrated supporters of Ms. Warren argue the concerns about electability have become a self-defeating prophecy for women.

“It’s just disheartening to think we could have come together, and now maybe people think women are getting too much power, or too much strength in the numbers, that they’re getting a little bit afraid,” said Erin Smith, 19, as she waited with friends for Ms. Warren to address a crowd in Marshalltown, Iowa.

Aileen Bell, 21, agreed, saying gender was part of what drew her to Ms. Warren.

“If I’m going to choose between an old white man and a woman, and we’ve never had a woman in the White House, I feel much more drawn to the woman on the stage,” said Ms. Bell, a student who attended the first Women’s March. “If we don’t run women, then we’re never going to have a woman in the White House.”

As she campaigned in Iowa over the weekend, Ms. Klobuchar argued that the sexism faced by women candidates makes them tougher opponents against Mr. Trump.

“Any woman in politics right now, when you get to these highest levels, you have to be resilient,” she told a group of voters gathered in a hotel ballroom in Perry, Iowa, on Sunday evening. “You have to be so tough that you are definitely tough enough to beat Donald Trump.”

After listening to the remarks, Monica Peitz, 65, said those comments were not the most convincing part of Ms. Klobuchar’s pitch. Mrs. Clinton, she said, had already been the first woman nominated by a major party, satisfying her appetite for making history.

Ms. Peitz added: “More than a woman, I like that Amy’s from the Midwest.”


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