A day before the sixth Democratic presidential debate, CNN reported that, in a private meeting in December 2018, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) allegedly told Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) that a woman couldn’t win the presidency. Sanders denied this vehemently on Monday (January 14), and Warren responded by saying he did say what the CNN story reported.
This rift between the two most progressive candidates left in the race is bringing up a discussion we have been having since at least 2008, when Hillary Clinton first announced her candidacy for president: Can a woman win the American presidency?
To start, let’s make one thing clear: No matter what went down between the two senators in December, a woman very much can win an election to lead a country. Just look at Sri Lanka, Argentina, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Norway, Canada, Haiti, or any of the nearly 60 countries that have had a woman leader, per CNN. And, as Sanders himself told CNN, “after all, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump by 3 million votes in 2016.”
Furthermore, according to a report from the Upshot out of the New York Times, when women run for political office, they are just as likely as men to be elected. The reason we’re so far away from gender parity — in which there are as many women and men — in elected office is due in part to the fact that women don’t run as frequently as men do. There's a variety of reasons behind why this is, including everything from girls not being encouraged to think about politics as a viable career in the same way that boys are, to women not being recruited in the same ways as their male counterparts, according to POLITICO. That's changing — 2018 saw twice as many women candidates than 2016 — but it's changing at a slow pace.
So the problem certainly isn’t necessarily that a woman can’t win the presidency, but it might be that voters don’t think a woman can win.
According to research out of LeanIn.Org from August 2019, a majority of voters think it will be harder for a woman to win a presidential election because Americans aren't ready. In fact, only 16 percent of voters believe most Americans are “very ready” or “extremely ready” for a woman president. This, despite the fact that they actually are ready: a majority of voters said they are “very” or “extremely” ready for a woman president. So perhaps they just don't realize other voters are ready, too. Overall, just 12 percent of voters are “not at all ready” for a woman president; 10 percent are “slightly ready;” and 77 percent of voters are “moderately,” “very,” or “extremely” ready for a woman president. Democrats are more ready than Republicans for a woman president; Black women are more ready than white men; younger voters are more ready than older voters.
The poll shows that there are plenty of reasons voters think it will be harder for a woman to win beyond believing that other voters aren’t ready for a woman president: Women candidates face specific kinds of sexism that their male counterparts often avoid; respondents don’t believe a woman can beat Trump; there hasn’t ever been a woman president; Clinton lost the last election; and some even said the women running aren’t qualified or skilled enough.
No matter why voters believe it will be harder for a woman to win, organizations like the Center for American Women in Politics and EMILY's List are fighting against that rhetoric to elect more women to office. And Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), who endorsed Warren's campaign, told BuzzFeed News reporter Addy Baird on Tuesday (Jan. 14): "In 2017, we held up signs that said, 'Today we march, tomorrow we run.' People didn't believe us and now we're serving in a Congress with an unprecedented number of women. The thing is, women are underestimated all the time."