What might change if we told girls—and ourselves—the truth about how sexist America is? I had the thought after watching Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator who’s running for president, answer a young woman’s question during a recent televised town hall in New England.
“Some people have voiced you getting ‘Hillaried’ in the election,” college student Ellie Taylor said. “So what lessons have you learned from 2016 that will help you to kind of navigate these situations when you might be criticized for something that’s partially motivated by sexism?”
Sen. Warren gave a long, sunny answer that involved telling little girls on the campaign trail “I’m running for president, because that’s what girls do” and having them pinky-swear with her that they understood. She promised she’d hammer home her message about equal opportunity every day. She made a “Nevertheless, she persisted” reference.
It was all very uplifting. Who can resist the image of a sitting U.S. senator crouching down and doing pinky swears? But it was also a frustrating and ultimately inadequate answer in Trump’s America—the sexist and racist country in which Warren is, in fact, unmistakably “getting Hillaried.” When she’s not getting less media coverage and smaller donations than the half of the field that happens to consist of white men—at least two of whom have objectively far fewer credentials and ideas than she does—she’s regularly accused of being boringly wonkish and uninspiring.
The issue was on full display at the She The People forum Wednesday, where Democratic candidates including Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Kamala Harris discussed why women of color should vote for them. According to Politico, Warren “won the crowd with her detailed ideas, garnering cheers whenever she dropped the line, ‘I have a plan.’” Still, the event organizers and moderators lamented that Warren’s ambitious policy plans were overshadowed by media coverage of Pete Buttigeig’s ability to mourn Notre Dame in French.
When faced with a valid concern like Ellie Taylor’s, where’s the line between being inspiring and misleading young women and girls about the obstacles women face in America—including as presidential candidates?
There’s a great American tradition of raising girls to believe they’re equal with equal chances as boys to achieve their dreams. We want to believe that today’s girls won’t face the same barriers we faced when they’re adults; we want to believe that, if they think they have equal chances, they will make equal chances manifest for themselves. We want to avoid telling them that many of their fellow countrymen think they deserve less power, less money, and fewer opportunities.
But there are risks in defaulting to inspiration and assumptions of equality rather than telling the truth. For one thing, progress is slow. It is overwhelmingly likely that today’s girls will inherit a world in which women continue to be systematically discriminated against. The World Economic Forum estimates it will take 217 years for disparities in women and men’s pay and employment opportunities to end.
Women and girls are also up against the great American lie of meritocracy, which can do damage to anyone’s estimation of their abilities. If girls have equal opportunities to boys, why has there never been a woman president? Why is Congress only 23% women? Why are women only 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs and why did that number drop 25% last year? Why did women get only 2.2% of $130 billion in venture capital funding in 2018? Why are the numbers for all of these kinds of representation staggeringly worse for women of color?
The only logical conclusion is that there must be something fundamentally lacking, ill-fitting, wrong about women. Maybe we’re not up to it, or just not interested, or not likeable enough—and men like James Damore and Jordan Peterson give voice to the theory that women are underrepresented in positions of power because we’re inherently inferior. We truly can’t explain women’s absence from seats of power if we’re pretending everyone got where they are by their own virtue.
Plus, women have a lot to gain by being forthright. One of the most striking things about the #MeToo movement was hearing woman after woman say “I thought I was the only one,” or “I thought it was because of something I did.” Knowing that you live and work within a corrupt system is certainly disturbing. But it’s the first step toward recognizing that discrimination you face is not your fault—and fighting for justice. One of the gifts the #MeToo movement gave women is the knowledge that none of us are alone.
What should we do instead, in life and on the campaign trail? Teach girls strategies, not platitudes—tools for building power, not false empowerment. Teach girls about Aminatou Sow’s and Ann Friedman’s shine theory. Teach girls about the amplification tactic that women in the Obama White House used in meetings to make sure their fellow women’s ideas were heard and actually credited to them. Teach girls about inclusion riders and asking coworkers how much they make and why they should avoid working for any company that demands to know their previous salaries during compensation negotiations. In short, equip girls with the knowledge they will need to thrive within a sexist world and fight for the structural changes it will take to really change it in the future.
Many of Elizabeth Warren’s proposed policies would make those structural changes to bring about gender equality, but as ever, the rub is in getting elected in the first place. So in the run-up to 2020, what’s the strategy for fighting the fear that women can’t win? It starts with acknowledging that women at the presidential level are going to have to overcome obstacles of electability, real and perceived. Acknowledge the problem in order to actively recruit people to begin solving it. As Kate Manne, a philosopher who studies misogyny, recently put it: “Electability isn’t a static social fact. It’s a social fact we’re constructing. Part of what will make someone unelectable is people give up on them in a way that would be premature, rather than going to the mat for them. If you’re really worried that an otherwise excellent candidate won’t be elected, isn’t that a reason to fight if there’s a decent chance that people can be brought around and convinced?”
There’s no way to prevent sexism on the campaign trail. But candidates shouldn’t brush off concerns from voters that the playing field isn’t level. Instead, they should acknowledge it and ask for help combating that bias instead. “If you’re really worried,” Warren could have said, “go to the mat for me.”
At She The People, asked the inevitable electability question once again, Warren got closer: “Are we gonna show up for people we didn’t actually believe in because we are too afraid to do anything else? That’s not who we are.”
No matter what tactics Warren and the other female candidates pursue, brushing off the sexism question won’t help anyone but the white patriarchs who are currently burning the world to the ground.
Walking the line between being inspirational and honest is hard. Maybe no one’s done it better than Hillary Clinton the day after she lost. Before she finished her concession speech, she took a moment to directly address one of her most important constituencies.
“To all the little girls watching,” she said, “Never doubt that you are valuable, and powerful, and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world.”
She didn’t promise those little girls they would receive those chances and opportunities. She told those girls they deserve them. Even in America, you can’t argue with that.