Kirsten Gillibrand dropped out the 2020 race because of Democratic sexism. America should take a look at itself
Gillibrand ran on a platform of policies specifically tailored for women. Even Trump, who joked this morning that she was 'the candidate I was really afraid of', knew Democrats wouldn't care about that
As of today, the Democratic primary got a fraction lighter with New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand dropping out of the crowded race after failing to muster up enough support to qualify for the next round of debates.
You’d be forgiven for feeling relieved. In reality, the competition is between the three frontrunners: Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, with Kamala Harris stepping on their heels. The endless revolving door of less popular candidates who are essentially running on vanity and have no chance of winning only detracts from the issues we want to hear about from viable candidates. The next debate will have 10 participants on stage, giving the future Democratic presidential candidate precious little time to further detail their policies.
Of all the candidates remaining, however, Gillibrand’s exit is particularly significant – and betrays a worrying anti-feminist undercurrent within the Democratic Party.
While Warren and, to some extent, Harris have hinted at feminist ideology, the true MeToo candidate was Gillibrand, and her determination to run on what is one of the most crucial issues of inequality of our time has likely been the downfall of her presidential bid.
Gillibrand was largely unknown until December 2017, when she became the first Democrat to call for the resignation of Senator Al Franken after sexual misconduct allegations were made against him. She had also become the first high-profile Democrat in recent years to address the Bill Clinton affair through a post-MeToo lens, and affirm that he should indeed have been called on to resign for his behaviour. Both positions predictably caused ire among establishment Democrats, and have been blamed for her inability to secure the kinds of large donations which her counterparts have raised.
Gillibrand has been passionate about addressing sexual assault and misconduct since long before it had a hashtag. In her 2014 book Off the Sidelines: Raise Your Voice, Change the World, she detailed some of her nauseating experiences of sexism and misogyny from male members of Congress, including unwanted touching and seemingly endless comments about her appearance.
She has championed reforms to protect victims of sexual assault and harassment within the military and inside Congress – and introduced two bills to address these issues, both of which Congress ultimately failed to pass.
She is also a champion of equal rights for women – and in particular mothers – in society and work. Her Family Bill of Rights unveiled in May has been a cornerstone of her campaign, and includes proposals to invest in maternal and child health, paid family leave, affordable childcare and targeting the shortage of reproductive health providers in rural areas. She has promised to only appoint Supreme Court judges who will commit to protecting women’s rights to abortion.
Rather than acting as a quota-filling woman in a sea of men, Gillibrand was a woman actually running on women's issues, and that – it seems – is not what Democratic voters want. Even Trump knows this: he addressed her exit by mocking her campaign with a sarcastic comment about how she was the one he was "really afraid of". Given the number of sexual assault and harassment allegations that the president and his appointees have fielded, he should have indeed been very afraid if there was any chance of a candidate centering these issues winning the presidency. But in today's America, that was never going to happen.
Gillibrand's campaign has been mired in sexist dog whistles since its inception. In the first press conference after announcing her candidacy, a male reporter referred to her as "nice", and asked about her "likeability", a question also repeatedly posed to Hillary Clinton in the run-up to the 2016 election, and to Warren throughout this primary – yet notably absent in the conversation around male candidates.
Her condemnation of Franken in particular has been controversial among Democrats, with many placing the blame of his resignation on her, rather than on his actions. Her ability to think independently of her husband’s has also been called into question, with some doubting her commitment to being tough on Wall Street given her marriage to a venture capitalist and banker – despite the fact that her Family Bill would be paid for with a financial transactions tax.
And it’s not just Gillibrand who’s been the subject of sexist narratives throughout the primary. In a profile of Elizabeth Warren, The New York Times went to pains to describe how gleaming her kitchen countertops were, and how she baked peach cobbler for her students. It was eerily reminiscent of the infamous 1992 Clinton interview in which the then-potential first lady (and hugely successful lawyer) was asked about her best chocolate chip cookie recipe. The same piece also mentioned Warren’s outfit in the first paragraph.
Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown revealed in January that he had "been peppered with calls from the national media” about the fact that decades ago he dated Kamala Harris, and opponents have consistently implied that her success is largely down to him. Persistent criticism of fellow primary candidate Amy Klobuchar has focussed on the fact that she’s a “tough boss” – something which makes men (including Trump) seem more electable, yet counts as a strike against women, who are expected to be nurturing and docile. Even Klobuchar’s own staffers have pointed out the sexist undertones of this kind of criticism.
With every poll, it's looking more and more likely that Joe Biden will win the Democratic race. His centrist policies, establishment roots and links to the Obama administration paint a frustratingly familiar picture of Democrats' inability to learn from the mistakes of the 2016 election and put forward a radical candidate who can take on Trump's populist, “outsider” rhetoric.
But even more worryingly, it shows that the MeToo movement and all it stands for has yet to permeate the highest level of politics. If Biden wins the primary, the face-off in the election next year will be between a white man in his 70s who has been accused of sexual assault by 17 different women, and a white man in his 70s who has been accused of inappropriate behaviour by eight.
Against this backdrop, Gillibrand’s presence in the primary mattered more than ever, and her exit is a grave loss for advocates of fighting against sexual abuse of women. Here’s hoping Warren can take up the mantel and save us from yet another male president who does not understand that women’s bodies don’t belong to him.