Is America ready for a woman president? That might seem a strange question given that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly three million in 2016. But during that campaign it was often impossible to separate the impact of gender from the impact of her being 'Hillary Clinton', the liberal bugaboo with nearly 30 years of public service baggage from Whitewater to Benghazi, to missing email servers.
Refreshingly, the 2020 Democratic field already includes multiple women capable of securing the nomination, and while their gender could be an important factor, it's unlikely to be deterministic. Focusing just on the four female Democratic senators who are likely to contest the Iowa Caucuses in just under 12 months, while they all share both a gender and legal training, they are impressively diverse on almost every other dimension.
At nearly 70, Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts is the oldest of the quartet by a decade and came to politics late in life via a high-profile academic career. Her public persona emphasises her hardscrabble roots in Oklahoma where her father was a janitor. She credits her circuitous rise to a Harvard professorship to the fortuitous intersection of hard work and opportunity, and while Republicans will undoubtedly label her a socialist, she identifies more as a communitarian, with 'hard-working American families' as her core constituency.
Warren's on the left of the party, and by instinct she's a combative and uncompromising picket-line agitator – not a policy triangulator. If Warren has political kryptonite, it's likely to be her long-standing claim to Native American heritage that's turned out to be family lore rather than genealogical fact.
In contrast to the late blooming Warren, Senator Kamala Harris from California has been an overachieving heat-seeking missile her entire life – to the point that her presidential announcement on Martin Luther King Day had long seemed inevitable. Despite her undoubted African-American bona fides, she shares President Obama's chameleon-like quality. Her parents were international graduate students at Berkeley (dad from Jamaica and mum from India), and her high school years were spent in Montreal, so she seems at ease from the slums of Oakland to the billionaire mansions of Silicon Valley.
Harris is to the political right of Warren, but her message is more personal than policy. Rather than having
a vision, as a successful African-American second-generation female immigrant, she
is the vision. What she lacks in Obama's natural empathy, she makes up for with a prosecutor's mindset that confidently discerns good from evil. If Harris has a weakness with the Democratic base, it's her consistent defence of the law enforcement community in California.
On the other side of the country is Senator Kirsten Gillibrand from New York, who grew up stuffing political campaign envelopes for her grandmother. Her 2009 appointment to Hillary Clinton's old Senate seat after only two years in the House was described as 'the random product of a mad science experiment'. Yet, she's held that seat in three subsequent elections.
Gillibrand won her rural congressional seat as a right-wing 'Blue Dog' Democrat with an 'A' rating from the NRA, but she's moved left as a senator, championing issues like gay rights and sexual assault in the military. She's also a ruthless political operator. She won her long-shot 2006 congressional campaign after the convenient leak of a 911 domestic abuse call from the wife of her opponent, and one of her aides has characterised Gillibrand's approach to politics as 'Option 1 is light and sunshine, and Option 2 is cut your nuts off'.
But her opportunism could also be her Achilles' heel. When she led calls for the resignation of her erstwhile Senate squash partner – Senator Al Franken – over groping allegations, many Democrats saw her eagerness to throw him overboard as transparently self-serving. She'll also face accusations that she not only inherited Clinton's seat, but also her fundraising links to Goldman Sachs and her soulless and robotic approach to politics. In 2013, the New Yorker magazine branded her 'strong vanilla', which may well be too bland to stand out in what is already a crowded field.
Finally, there is Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, who announced her candidacy in a Minneapolis blizzard. She and Kamala Harris share a lot of backstory, with both coming from broken homes, excelling in their education, and then using stints as tough district attorneys to launch political careers. But what clearly sets Klobuchar apart are her Mid-Western roots. Her unique selling point is that, unlike the bicoastal liberal elites, she can carry the flyover states – the loss of which wrecked Clinton's electoral college map.
In policy terms, she's a pragmatic centrist who understands that it takes 60 votes to get big stuff done in the Senate. She doesn't shy away from bipartisanship and has been one of Congress's most productive legislators by working across the aisle with moderate Republicans. Yet, as she's put her head above the parapet, the incoming fire has commenced, with recent reports that her 'Minnesota Nice' persona is only for public consumption, and that behind the mask she's a nasty piece of work who's abusive to her staff.
Even if no man was in this race, the ethnic, geographic, and character diversity of these four women would still make for a fascinating primary battle. Of course, in an ideal world, gender and race would be irrelevant, and the Democratic primary would just be an extended policy debate to thrash out a winning platform. It's clear, even at this early stage in the process, that every candidate will need to respond to the 'democratic socialist' agenda being championed by a woman who isn't even old enough to run for president; freshman 29-year-old congresswoman and social-media phenomenon, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Ocasio-Cortez won her place in Congress in spite of her party and she's already a powerful change agent backed by a fervent army of Twitter and Instagram followers. So, every candidate will need to carefully navigate the 'Green New Deal', 'Medicare for All', and 'Free College' litmus-test minefield that Ocasio-Cortez and the progressive wing of the party are sowing in front of them. But even if the primary is dominated by bracing policy debates, there's still an additional and unique challenge faced by the women in the race, and that is how they should respond to the backlash and righteous anger that many women in America feel because of what's happened over the last three years.
The confluence of the rise of Trump, the #MeToo movement, the Kavanaugh hearings, and myriad other issues have stirred a political awakening among American women. For many, the matrix has finally dissolved to reveal the full extent of the entitled patriarchy that protected predatory monsters like Harvey Weinstein. Indeed, you can make the broader argument that a common element in the populist movements that have come to power around the world, from Brazil to Poland, has been the disturbing renaissance of shameless chauvinism.
The organised resistance in the US to this type of female subjugation started with the countrywide 'Women's March' right after Trump's inauguration. The anger that many women felt then drew them into the formal political process, resulting in a record number of women being elected to congress in the 2018 midterms.
Throughout the country, there are many stories like that of New Jersey politician John Carman. In 2017 he made a joke about whether the women marching in Washington DC would be 'home in time to make dinner'. He was then promptly challenged and defeated by one of those marchers who was appalled by his condescension. Women's anger has clearly generated increased political engagement, but there's still the perilous question of how explicit female candidates should be in embracing that anger for political purposes.
One of the defining images of the 2016 presidential campaign was the second debate, during which Trump stalked Clinton around the stage, looming over her as she spoke. Instead of turning and confronting him, Clinton stuck to the playbook that in politics (as in many other aspects of life), female anger is counterproductive and disqualifying. Instead, you need to be calm and rational regardless of the provocation. This was also the attitude adopted by Christine Blasey Ford during the Kavanaugh hearings, which was in sharp contrast to the candidate himself who felt empowered to rage against the proceedings.
The counterpoint to this mantra of repress and control is once again Ocasio-Cortez, who is a young, articulate, passionate, non-white woman, who is clearly furious about the injustices she sees around her, and who you suspect would never stand for Trump pawing the ground in menace behind her.
So, the specific challenge for each of the female candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination is whether to ignore their gender as Clinton did, or instead weaponise the anger that many women currently feel as a legitimate and powerful force for political change. Channelling white working-class male anger clearly helped propel Trump to the presidency, and throughout American history women's righteous anger has regularly driven social change, from the abolition of slavery to universal suffrage to improved working conditions in factories.
Andrew Breitbart, the founder of Breitbart News, observed that 'politics is downstream from culture' and it's clear that in this cultural moment there are a lot of fired-up and engaged women in America. It's early days for the 2020 campaign, but maybe it's not too early to hope that we will mark the centennial of women's suffrage in the US in the most fitting of ways: by putting a woman – and maybe even an angry woman – in the Oval Office.