Which Candidate Will Feminist Democrats Rally Around?
Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris are the female frontrunners — for now
For millions of voters, the 2020 United States presidential election will feel like one of the most important of their lifetime. The current administration has cast our nation into a dark and tumultuous abyss, and every day, it seems like there is a new assault on our collective humanity. It is time for a major change, and it is shameful that we have never had a woman in the highest office, despite being a majority female population.
With six women running, there are more women registered with the Federal Election Commission as candidates for a single-party nomination than at any point in history. Even with the crowded, mostly male candidate pool, I am excited about the possibilities, and I’m starting to believe that a woman can actually pull out a win against Trump if she gains the Democratic nomination.
In a recent CNN-conducted Iowa Caucus poll, the top five Democratic candidates are former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and California Sen. Kamala Harris. Warren and Harris have consistently been the two highest-ranking women running, with New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand close behind. Many voters are already rallying behind their favorite candidates, making financial contributions and speaking out on social media and at rallies in support of their platforms and campaign promises.
The “meritocracy” argument, usually used to discredit women and people of color, almost always favors White, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian men.
I’ve noticed that when it comes to feminists and women’s rights activists, the support for Warren and Harris has been especially strong. Even more fascinating is that a lot of Black women are showing early support for Warren, while a lot of White women are showing early support for Harris, a biracial Black and South Asian woman. As an intersectional Black feminist woman and activist, I am interested how these allegiances will play out when the primaries roll around — who will feminist Democratic women rally behind as their 2020 presidential candidate?
The “best” or “most qualified” person should have the job, but we know that it’s never that simple. The “meritocracy” argument, usually used to discredit women and people of color, almost always favors White, cisgender, heterosexual, Christian men. In 2016, for example, Donald Trump, a wildly polarizing businessman with no prior political experience, was elected the 45th president, much to the surprise of millions of voters who were sure that the U.S. would finally have its first female president in Hillary Rodham Clinton. While she had her flaws, the former U.S. senator, secretary of state, Yale-educated lawyer, and first lady was arguably the most experienced person to ever run for president. And, despite having a detailed, viable, progressive platform, Clinton lost to a colossal bigot with an indecent lack of knowledge of the U.S. Constitution or understanding of how the country actually functions. We simply can’t afford to let such a travesty happen again.
Consistently ranking among the top Democratic candidates, Warren and Harris have fairly similar platforms. Harris, the first Black attorney general of California and only the second Black woman senator, is considered a more centrist liberal while Warren, the first woman elected to represent Massachusetts as senator, has been consistently moving to the left with her ideas for a better America. They agree that the U.S. needs economic justice for working- and middle-class families, that the climate crisis is dire, and they argue for criminal justice reform and gender equality. When it comes to health care, they each want to see a single-payer option, but for now, Harris is co-sponsoring Warren’s Consumer Health Insurance Protection Act, an effort to strengthen the Affordable Care Act. They each say they’ll fight for LGBTQ and immigrant rights and protections, prioritize racial justice, and work to protect the reproductive rights currently being threatened under the current administration. With so many ideological similarities, how should one decide who to support?
A radical woman candidate can pierce through and get people to the polls who weren’t thinking about it before.
When it comes to platforms, both Warren, whose background is in law and economics, and Harris, a former attorney and prosecutor, have presented detailed action plans to support their platform positions. The glaring difference is that while Harris’ plans for things like higher educational support and criminal justice reform are progressive, Warren’s plans are about three steps to the left of Harris.
“For me, a radical woman candidate can pierce through and get people to the polls who weren’t thinking about it before,” says Leslie MacFadyen, a 43 year-old Black woman from Charlotte, North Carolina. MacFadyen, an organizer and co-founder of Safety Pin Box, says Warren is the front-runner in her mind; she likes her focus on reproductive justice and student debt cancellation which she believes are key issues for Black women voters.
“We want to hear a woman talk about fighting,” says Elisa Camahort Page, a 55-year-old White woman from San Jose, California, who is a writer, consultant, and co-founder of BlogHer.com. Harris, Warren, and Gillibrand are her top candidates, and she likes that all of the women speak aggressively about fighting for women’s rights. Harris is at the top of her list, though. “I’m from California and [Harris] has been a political figure here for a long time. I find her incredibly dynamic. She’s so smart. She’s so incisive. I feel like she would do great in debates.”
Leah McElrath, a 55-year-old White woman from Houston, Texas is excited by and sees the value in both candidates, but leans more toward Harris. “If I am being totally honest, I would have to admit that Harris comes across more as an idealized version of a candidate, whereas Warren comes across more as this woman fighting the fight of her life on our behalf. And that speaks to me.”
Identity also matters, and not only does the race and gender of a candidate factor into one’s support, where they stand on issues related to race and gender are even more important. I need to know where candidates stand on health care, education, criminal justice reform, and racial and gender justice and equity, and I can’t gloss over matters that directly affect the lives of Black girls and women. I consider myself part of the so-called radical left and while I don’t think any candidate will have a radical enough platform for my liking, I am willing to throw my support behind someone who shows a sincere willingness to listen to systematically marginalized, disenfranchised groups and develop plans to address our biggest issues.
I can’t bring myself to vote for a sista simply because she is a sista.
Loryn Wilson Carter, a 35-year-old Black woman living in Washington, D.C., is currently supporting Warren, who she says is focused on issues that matter to her as a Black woman. “She has given us policy ideas that match my values and what I care about as somebody who wants to buy a house and have children one day. A lot of [Black women] are worried about health care, criminal justice reform, maternal health care, student loan debt, and access to safety nets.” McElrath, a freelance writer, is drawn to Harris’ appeal and what her presidency would mean for our future. “Her strength of will and charisma are off the charts. Plus, the awareness of the impact a Black woman running for and possibly winning the presidency will have on all of America’s children lifts her up as a candidate in my view.”
Harris has been a problematic candidate for many voters, particularly when it comes to her track record as a prosecutor, DA, and attorney general. This has been disappointing, because I want nothing more than to be excited about a Black female candidate. But I can’t bring myself to vote for a sista simply because she is a sista; even if I like a few of the things she says, her career record speaks loudly about her core values, and she stands by her record. “That background of hers is understandably nerve-racking for Black and Brown people,” admits Camahort Page. With reparations for mass incarceration on the minds of many voters, Harris’ prosecutorial record, and her continued defense of it, makes her less appealing. Wilson Carter, who is originally from California, says her main issue with Harris is that “she’s put a lot of people in jail” and that she hasn’t addressed the concerns that Black women have about her record. Camahort Page notes, however, that her record may “make her appealing to a big swath of Democrats who are more moderate and center, who see it as meaning she is strong.” Electability is important, and while we may get carried away with idealistic hopes for a near-perfect candidate, we have to consider who will garner the most support from Democratic voters when it comes to the main event.
Even with a record number of women running, will the Democratic party nominate a woman to run against Trump? “I believe it’s totally possible if we make it possible,” says Camahort Page. “If I have to vote for an old White guy to be the [Democratic nominee] for president, I will ultimately do it, but I’ll be disappointed if that’s what we have to do.” McElrath agrees that we absolutely can have a woman as the Democratic candidate. “I think people who believe we need a White man at the top of the ticket are operating out of understandable fear, but I don’t think we can win operating out of fear.”
As a Black woman, I am ready for a woman to lead, as I’ve already experienced a Black president. For women of color, Black women in particular, the uphill battle to prove one’s worthiness as both a woman and as a non-White person can be especially daunting. But we shouldn’t be discouraged, and I’m ready to support Warren or Harris, if either becomes the nominee, because it would mean we’ve been given another chance to get it right. “If there’s any lesson to take from Donald Trump’s campaign it is that the road to the White House has changed,” says MacFadyen. “For me it’s about looking at what’s been the traditional path to the presidency and building a different ladder. Whatever they tell you to do, do something else. It’s got to be something robust and different.”
“Justice is my number one issue,” says Camahort Page. “Every subtopic — the environment, education, jobs, on and on, every problem I have with how things are going on in this country is a subset of how we do not have justice. We do not have equity. If you address systemic injustices, you’re going to be able to do more to improve health care and education.” Perhaps what we need to address is a change in leadership that reflects the issues and interests of the majority of citizens: girls and women.
I’m not entirely sure who I will be voting for in the Democratic primary. Like many others, I’m a bit cynical when it comes to U.S. politics. At the same time, I have no choice but to hold on to radical optimism and hope that voters come through and select the best nominee to not only represent the party, but to lead the nation. Let’s hope we can rally behind an intelligent, strong, accomplished woman who will make history, fight for our human and civil rights, and set our country back on a path to progress.
Correction: an earlier version of this story