While who wins the White House this November is anyone’s guess, there will be a woman on the presidential ticket — just not at the top. After a fiercely fought campaign that saw women leading at various points, none were able to shatter the glass ceiling to make it to the nomination.
How do female voters feel about how politicians try to appeal to them? Fake, dishonest, neglected, ineffective and suspicious were just some of the words dozens of female voters used when asked this question via a reporter’s informal survey. But in a seeming contrast, this group of women remain hopeful they will see a female president in their lifetimes.
Perhaps they do have something to be hopeful about –– the sheer number of women who ran for president this cycle demonstrates progress toward an eventual female U.S. president, said Kelly Dittmar, scholar at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics.
“Every woman that has run for president in U.S. history has worked to chip away at our conceptions of what a president looks like, how they behave, what their priorities are, what their expertise and experiences are,” Dittmar said.
Having a record-breaking six women running for the same party’s nomination is an important milestone because next time it will seem odd to people if no women compete, Dittmar added.
Still, there seems to be a distinction between what might be possible and how women feel about the political gender barrier, at least according to several dozen women asked to discuss their feelings for this story. The informal survey was conducted via Google Forms and shared by word of mouth in mid April. It was emailed to 12 women across the U.S. and in the end collected the sentiments of 68 registered voters, women ranging in age from 21 to 86. They reside across the United States, representing 12 states and all regions. They work as management consultants, artists, physicians and stay-at-home parents, among other professions.
Just five used positive words when describing how they feel politicians speak to prospective female voters. The rest offered words signifying negative feelings.
Respondents were asked to rank how hopeful they were that they will live to see the U.S. elect its first female president on a scale from one (not hopeful at all) to 10 (extremely hopeful). The average response was 7.5 and only seven women selected a number smaller than five.
Many survey respondents expressed frustration over how the party’s most diverse slate of candidates ever resulted in the all-but-certain nomination of former Vice President Joe Biden, a 77-year-old white man.
“I’m really disheartened,” wrote Rachael Uris, 36, a writer from Boulder, Colo. “This was largely driven by covert sexism.”
Others referenced the specific candidacies of women they would prefer as the nominee.
“I mostly am upset because I feel Elizabeth Warren was the most qualified candidate in the race and that her gender played a critical role in the country’s inability to make her the nominee,” said USC senior Riva Cooper, 22.
Cooper voted for Warren in the California primary, after feeling torn because while she felt most aligned with her, she knew it was likely the senator would suspend her campaign. This was the second presidential election cycle where she had the chance to cast a vote –– she chose Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 California primary shortly after turning 18, and voted for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the general election.
“I believed in Warren throughout the campaign, but as Super Tuesday neared it became increasingly apparent that it would be challenging for her to take [the] lead,” Cooper said in a follow-up interview. “I ultimately decided to vote for Warren because I believe our democratic system works best if constituents vote for the person they want to be president.”
This argument, that voters should support the candidate they believe in most instead of strategically for who they think will win, was heavily pushed by the Warren campaign in the days leading up to Super Tuesday.
Warren told voters at a rally in Michigan on Super Tuesday to “cast a vote that will make you proud, cast a vote from your heart, and cast a vote for a person who you think will make the best president.”
This message was likely in response to Sanders voters attempting to poach her voters by arguing that a Warren vote was clearing the path for Biden to take the nomination. That was just one of many electability arguments made throughout the campaign.
Gender is rarely the sole factor in a candidate’s success or defeat, but it influenced various aspects of the primary race, said Dittmar. She said the women in the race were running “dual campaigns” –– convincing voters that they were electable in addition to the traditional campaign message of why they were the best candidate for president.
Dittmar said she believes Sen. Kamala Harris and Warren each had to spend a lopsided amount of time on their campaigns and even on debate stages, reassuring voters that they were electable.
This additional burden cost their campaigns time, energy and resources that their white male counterparts did not have to spend, she said. Concerns over female candidates’ electability became more amplified this cycle due to Democratic voters’ top priority of beating President Trump, according to Dittmar.
During his final debate with Sanders on March 15, Biden declared he would be selecting a woman as a running mate. This remark became the top headline from the debate and excited some voters who began speculating about his potential pick.
“If I’m elected president, my Cabinet, my administration will look like the country, and I commit that I will, in fact...pick a woman to be vice president,” Biden said at the CNN debate.
Pepper Herman, 86, from Wayne, Penn. wrote in her survey that she was “thrilled” by Biden’s decision to select a woman and suggested Harris, while admitting her dream pick would be Michelle Obama. Other respondents floated Warren, Stacey Abrams, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
While many women responded that they were excited by Biden’s decision, others saw it as the candidate simply pandering to female voters.
“It is sad that he is making that choice to get votes and not that he believes a woman would do a great job,” wrote Carol Rathmann, 72, a nonprofit executive director residing in Petaluma, Calif.
Some responded they wished Biden had simply announced a woman as his choice instead of telegraphing his intention to select a woman for the role.
“Of course I am happy… but I find it interesting that he announced that rather than the actual name of the person,” responded Grace Kahle, 22, a USC senior. “This made me feel like Biden just wanted to announce he will have a female by his side to appeal to female voters.”
Dittmar said she, too, is concerned Biden might feel he checked a box by making this statement and encouraged him to apply a gender and intersectional lens to all aspects of his campaign, including messaging, policy agenda, and the organization itself.
“What I worry about is a concern that he and or his campaign might feel like they have addressed concerns from ‘the women's community’ by bringing a woman onto the ticket or saying I’m going to select the black woman [for] the Supreme Court,” Dittmar said. “Those are important but you have to go beyond that and explain to voters and different communities of women voters how you're going to bring the entirety of their concerns and priorities to your agenda and into your administration.”
The survey for this story was conducted before an allegation of sexual assault was leveled at Biden, something that has further enflamed tensions for many female voters.
Many have lauded the female candidates in the race for regularly speaking to different communities of women in their campaign speeches, on the debate stages, and in the policy plans they proposed. Warren in particular brought up issues that impact women disproportionately, such as universal childcare and the wage gap.
At her 100th event in Iowa, a town hall in Davenport on Jan. 5, Warren spoke about being fired because she was pregnant, connecting her personal experience with the discrimination many pregnant women still face. Along with her core campaign message of ending corruption in Washington, she used her campaign trail appearances to regularly bring up domestic violence and its disproportionate impact on women of color, her commitment to protecting Roe v. Wade, and the 2017 Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration.
Dittmar suggested Biden should incorporate gender into his policy agenda the way Warren and other female candidates did to make clear to voters it is a value of his campaign.
Since his announcement to select a female vice president, Biden, whose campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story, has virtually hosted a number of “Women for Biden,” events. One starred Clinton, just after announcing her endorsement.
“I am thrilled to be part of your campaign, to not only endorse you but to help highlight a lot of these issues that are at stake in this presidential election,” Clinton said during the town hall about the impact of the coronavirus on women.
Biden making a women’s agenda a significant, comprehensive part of his campaign’s platform is even more necessary now, given that the economic impact of the coronavirus has fallen disproportionately on women, Lauren Leader, co-founder and CEO of women’s civic group All In Together, said in a phone interview.
“The vast majority of the industries that have been hardest hit in the COVID economic crisis are industries that are overwhelmingly dominated by women –– the service industry, hospitality, etcetera,” Leader said. “Focusing on women as part of the economic recovery as a driver of the overall agenda for rebuilding the country has never been more important.”
The women who participated in the survey differed slightly in their responses based on their age.
Women in their 20s — five of them USC students — were much more likely to indicate that they were very hopeful than any other age group. Conversely, women in their 70s and 80s were more likely to mark that they were neutral than any other age group, which might reflect the simple fact they had seen more defeats than victories for female candidates.
Respondents listed a wide variety of political issues as most important to them, with climate change and healthcare as the most common issues. Other high ranking issues included reproductive rights and education.
These nuances among women surveyed reflect the diversity of the female electorate, which, according to USC Political Science Professor Jane Junn, cannot be understood as a political monolith.
Women are the most important element of the American electorate because they make up almost 54 percent of voters, which is a function of the fact that there is a slightly larger portion of women than men in the U.S. and that women are more likely to register and turn out to vote than men, Junn said in a phone interview.
But a candidate cannot simply use a one size fits all message to woo the female voting bloc.
“Winning the plurality of women across the demographic divides is the critical factor for either candidate in this race,” Leader said.
Dittmar of Rutgers also emphasized the strategic importance of candidates recognizing and speaking to the diversity among women voters.
“[Politicians] need to be thoughtful about which groups of women they're trying to reach out to, with what sorts of messages and priorities, because not all women, and not even all Democratic women, share the same experiences, concerns, or priorities in any election year,” Dittmar said.
A number of women suggested in the survey that while the possibility of a female president or vice president felt exciting, they would not support a female candidate just because of her gender.
“Despite having great female contenders in the race, I still wanted Bernie and his political views were more important to me than gender,” wrote Michelle Perro, 63, a physician from Fairfax, Calif. Perro was hoping Sanders would choose either Warren or Harris to fill his ticket if he prevailed.
This sentiment aligns with Junn’s own observations of the effects a candidate’s gender can have on voters.
“There are probably some people who are more likely to consider or think twice about voting for someone if they match their own demographic trait, but I think it's more often the case that voters are concerned about positions on issues and a party than they are about the candidate’s gender,” Junn said.
She added that thanks to Clinton’s popular vote victory in 2016, it won’t be long before a woman is president.
“I think it will happen pretty soon,” Junn said.
Having six women in the race demonstrated to voters that there is not one singular way to run as a woman candidate for president, Dittmar said.
“This time we saw women running in diverse ways, bringing different experiences and different positions and priorities,” Dittmar said. “That expands our notions of what it looks like for a woman to run for president.”
Leader, whose group All In Together is holding virtual town halls and other events to encourage civic participation among women over the next few months, said she thinks the U.S. will see another Republican woman running for president soon.
“I think this is not going to be exclusively in the domain of Democrats,” Leader said. “There are some women on the right, women like Nikki Haley and others, who we should be keeping an eye on.”
Consider one of the most memorable statements made by Warren during the Iowa debate on Jan. 14, a pointed remark about herself that also served to compliment another woman seeking the presidency, Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are women: Amy and me,” she said.
The audience responded with loud cheers.