The lesson the Barack Obama era should have taught us is the foundational faultiness of specious claims to a post-racial America. For those who refused to see how entrenched racism remained even after Obama’s ascent, Trump emerged a more profane object lesson in the failures of marching away from clarity about who America has been and is perfectly willing to be again with regard to racial matters. The lesson we continue to struggle with, however, is the faultiness of a belief that we are post-feminist or, more to the point, that we are post-patriarchal. This is exceedingly apparent as we watch the Democratic left stumble and fumble over whether and how gender should matter in the current presidential election.
On Tuesday night, I watched the final presidential debate before the Iowa caucuses. It happened during a week where Bernie Sanders was accused of telling Elizabeth Warren in a private meeting in 2018 that he didn’t believe a woman could win the presidency. We have no way of verifying who said what to whom. Warren says he said it. Sanders denies it. But what their conflict in the press and on stage the night of the debate points to is a continuing challenge on the radical left, among both white people and people of color, to fully understand how patriarchy works and what their responsibility is as progressives in combating it.
Yes, we have seen a sea change in gender conversation in this country. The 2010s brought us the legalization of gay marriage and a robust conversation about queer, trans and gender nonbinary identities. Given the persisting high rates of murder of trans people and the routine and quotidian misgendering of folks by people who insist that maintaining the integrity of English grammar matters more than referring to people by their proper pronouns, we have a long way to go before we can be self-congratulatory. But the fact that my gender studies students now know the difference between cisgender and transgender identities on the first day of class when a decade ago they didn’t is a testament to an important cultural shift. It seems then that gender conversations and struggles are ubiquitous. And it is precisely this set of social circumstances that have obscured the enduring operation of the patriarchy when it comes to the issue of women ascending to the highest levels of leadership.
Many on the progressive left, for instance, argue that representation is not enough. Electing a woman to the presidency, giving her the “vagina vote,” as it was called in 2016, does not ensure that she will actually do a good job representing women’s issues. This is, of course, correct. Women voters and women politicians often take positions that are antithetical to women’s collective and individual well-being. But are we really prepared to say that gender is now merely incidental to leadership? That’s a post-patriarchal dream, but nowhere near being a reality, and it is as specious as any claims to a post-racial America. Given that we are in serious danger of having Roe v. Wade overturned, a decision that affects reproductive freedoms across gender categories, arguing that gender is merely incidental to the election and to Warren’s candidacy is faulty.
But as we watch – and I with growing dread – the winnowing down of the Democratic field potentially to three white men, Sanders, Biden and Buttigieg, we are faced again with the problem of gender. I have, thus far, been disappointed watching progressive white feminists and feminists of color alike continue to argue for a socialist revolution on the grounds that gender would be covered. They make this same case about race, and that, too, is dubious.
Sanders is the most progressive and revolutionary candidate on the merits, these folks argue, so the fact that Warren is a woman – and similarly progressive – can’t matter. The insistence that an elderly white man’s socialist revolution will better address my 21st-century black feminist gender concerns is textbook white liberal paternalism. How will Sanders white masculinity affect and inform how he governs? This is a question that we should get to ask. Being progressive doesn’t mean that one’s race or gender ceases to matter in one’s leadership style and prerogatives, especially not in a world where gender and race are always presumed to matter for how women and people of color will govern.
For these voters, class — and Bernie’s strident advocacy for working-class folks and socialist values — trumps more menial concerns of women’s equality. The language of “women’s equality” seems to be from a 20th–century playbook, and of course, our gender analysis is far too sophisticated now to attend to such concerns. Meanwhile, we have not managed to elect a woman to the presidency in 244 years of being a nation-state. To claim now that Warren’s gender is incidental is also to make the claim that the gender of the 44 men who have been president is also incidental. Of course that’s absurd.
There are two other broad strands of argument on the left from those who insist that they aren’t compelled to proffer the vagina vote. There are those on the black left, who have convinced themselves that there’s no reason to vote for a white woman, because white women are simply water-carriers for a white-supremacist project. As a black feminist, I stand in a long tradition of black women thinkers who have critiqued white women’s gender and racial politics and have called them out for their collusion with white supremacy. And as a regular black chick, I have more than a few stories of white women who inspire my resentment. But a patriarchal analysis reminds us that gender still matters, and it still determines access to structural leadership. In a world where white women voters skewed toward Trump and will likely skew toward him again, it’s fine to distrust white women. It’s not fine to shunt gender to the side when an actual progressive female candidate is running for office.
The second group judges candidates based on how they stack up on the merits with regard to progressive policy. So if you are a member of the radical anti-capitalist left, and Warren insists, as she did in Tuesday’s debate, in talking about how “to make markets work,” then on the merits you have to vote for Sanders the Socialist. Or so the argument goes. But because the analysis of gender here is ancillary, these folks never have to think about whether the first woman to win the presidency can do so as a socialist, given the ways that the concept of the “bleeding heart liberal” carries underneath it a misogynist edge about namby-pamby femme people. It is remarkable that Warren has fared as well as she has running as far to the left as she has. America carries big-stick energy around the world, a phallic project that places female leaders in the position of trying to replicate these behaviors in order to appear tough or reject them at the risk of appearing soft. (Hillary Clinton couldn’t crack this code, and Warren will have to figure it out if she manages to face Trump in the general.)
These voters also choose never to think about the ways that merit-based arguments of the same sort are deployed by corporate America or the halls of academia to wall women and racial minorities out of access to great jobs and organizational leadership opportunities. Anyone who has ever served on a committee charged with hiring candidates who bring some diversity to a place understands how things go when the white guy who meets all the criteria (because he has had structural access to all the privileges that would help him meet all the criteria) is up against a promising woman or person of color who is very good but falls down in a few categories. Or conversely she’s the best, but the standards as written and understood make hiring her seem like too much of a risk. Hiring committees often struggle with what feels to them like the fundamental unfairness of allowing a candidate’s diversity to put them over the top. Many (white) members of these committees see this as a sullying of (a mythic) meritocracy in a way that disadvantages white men. But first, they have to believe that the man in question received all his qualifications on the merits and not because of structural privileges. I expect people on the progressive and radical left, those who claim to understand how intersectionality works, to know better, but they aren’t acting like they do.
In fact, these same arguments have been made about Sanders, that he was being dismissed in 2016 because he is a white man, that identity has become “a weapon against the left.” What happens in a world in which white people begin to make dubious claims about how diversity initiatives disadvantage them and take away positions that they are qualified for and entitled to? You have a generation of white men who engage in grievance politics subjecting us all to their rage and their Trump. What happens if these same arguments undergird claims to the presidency on the left? Unfortunately, Sanders’ progressivism does not keep him or his supporters from making the same kinds of problematic merit-based claims to presidential employment that white men in every other industry make.
This same argument that pits diversity against merit is being martialed in disappointing ways on the Sander-supporting left. He is undoubtedly the most left candidate in this race. And if he wins the primary, I will line up with other left voters to support his candidacy.
But a refusal to see the ways in which the arguments about Sanders’ entitlement to the presidency on the merits of his progressivism disadvantages “diverse” candidates, as such arguments routinely do, is a level of intellectual disingenuousness that I find disheartening as a radical black feminist. And our refusal to tell the truth about how gender matters – that it matters at all – won’t just harm Warren’s presidential prospects. It will also make it more difficult for us to pursue the kind of policy agenda that this moment demands on pressing gender issues that are at stake. As pioneering socialist feminist Zillah Eisenstein argued recently, “my query for 2020 is whether voting for a white man … when there is a field of women who are as gifted as most of the men, and with Elizabeth Warren who has a formidable progressive agenda and is more gifted than most of the men, is not misogynist? Maybe a vote for Bernie once again normalizes and endorses male rule / leadership / presidencies even if he is a socialist.”
Wanting a woman to rise to the top of an almost all-male pack is not a position that needs defending. What should be defended is the uncritical desire to elect yet another man to a position that 44 men and zero women have held. That choice, to choose another man for President, should be held up to the strictest scrutiny and the highest standard. Gender alone is not a sufficient qualification to be President (though I can think of a few recent Presidents for which this seems to be the only qualification they had). But I am convinced that it should offer an edge in a situation where no cisgender women, trans people or gender nonbinary people have ever had a position. I think race should work similarly. The experiences one gains from being marginalized because of racism and sexism offer invaluable perspectives that often make candidates inclined to be more egalitarian and inclusive, precisely because they know intimately what exclusion feels like. We have another opportunity in this election to make clear that gender is not the stepchild of radical politics, and it is long past time that we take it.
Correction, Jan. 21
The original version of this story misstated the number of men who have been President. It has been 44 men, not 45 men.