When she opened Saturday Night Live last night, Elizabeth Warren pointed out that she’s not dead, she’s merely in the Senate.
Still, Moira Donegan says the Democrats would be more viable for the presidency if:
… if the media and the electorate were less blinded by cynicism, sexism and fear and more willing to see Warren for who she was – the most capable, competent and kindest candidate in the race.
As a woman, the Massachusetts senator always faced an uphill battle of double standards and misogynist resentment. She had to be competent but not condescending, cheery but not pandering, maternal but not frumpy, smart but not haughty. As she rose in the polls last summer and fall, she came under the kind of scrutiny that male frontrunners are not subjected to, and faced skepticism about her claims and character that male candidates do not face.
As she rose in the polls last summer and fall, she came under the kind of scrutiny that male frontrunners are not subjected to.
This is the fate of a lot of women who come close to attaining power, and empirical data backs up the phenomenon: writing in the Washington Post, the Cornell philosopher Kate Manne cited a 2010 Harvard study that found that women are viewed more negatively simply by seeking office. “Voters view male and female politicians as equally power-seeking, but respond to them quite differently,” Manne writes. “Men who seek power were viewed as stronger and tougher, while power-seeking women provoked feelings of disgust and contempt.”
As a result, all of Warren’s virtues were recast as vices in the public eye. Her impressive credentials and superlative intellect became out-of-touch elitism. Her joyousness and enthusiasm were cast as somehow both insincerely pandering and cringingly over-earnest. This kind of transformation of neutral or positive character traits into negative ones is not something that happens to men in similar positions. Sanders can aestheticize his practiced cantankerousness for laughs and sympathy without anyone asking if its a put-on. Biden can use slang from the 1930s without anyone ever questioning whether the ostentatious folksiness of his “no malarkey” messaging might be just a tad affected. But for Warren, every smile was interpreted as a sign of concealed hatred, of secret, nefarious motives.
Her policy efforts, too, were cast as a repudiation of her principles rather than as steps toward realizing them. Her attempt to transform Medicare for All from a symbolic rallying cry into a substantive, workable and affordable policy change that can be made in our time brought, paradoxically, accusations that she was less serious about the policy for trying to make it a reality. Her plans to break up tech monopolies, repair the damage to black wealth done by historic redlining policies and reshape massive federal spending projects to make them environmentally sustainable were all cast as signs of duplicity and lack of commitment to her stated values. Meanwhile, male candidates who did not have substantive plans to implement such policies were believed, largely uncritically, when they told the public that they would put them in place.
In this race, men’s statements – about who they are, what they value, what they would do as president – have largely been taken at face value, even when male candidates have made false or exaggerated claims or contradicted themselves. But Elizabeth Warren was never given the benefit of the doubt. Her flaws and missteps were magnified, and interpreted in ways disproportionate to their significance, while comparatively greater mistakes by male rivals were all but ignored. When she referred to her father as having worked as a janitor, a days–long news cycle asked why, if he was really a janitor, her brother had once referred to him as a “maintenance man”. That these are effectively the same did not matter: the irrelevant non-story was interpreted as a sign of her constitutional untrustworthiness.
Warren was said to be not really running for president, but running as a spoiler; not really happy to meet voters, but shamelessly pretending with her long selfie lines; not really committed to economic inequality, but merely devoting her life to it as some sort of long con. None of these accusations made much logical sense, but that didn’t matter, because they were backed up by the force of feeling – a very strong feeling, held by many men and women alike, that a woman seeking power and status just can’t be trusted.
The epistemic philosopher Miranda Fricker calls this tendency to disbelieve women, and to believe powerful men, “testimonial injustice”: the harm done to speakers when prejudiced listeners discount their credibility. Women face testimonial injustice in particular when they challenge or contradict men, as cultural tropes that depict women as conniving, scheming, and selfish can be mustered to make her seem less credible, him more believable. Fricker doesn’t apply her concept of testimonial injustice to gender conflict exclusively, but it is an obstacle that many women recount in their own experiences of gendered injustice: the sense that they cannot be believed, that they cannot achieve equal credibility and moral footing with men in the minds of their peers, that they will always be assumed to be either stupid or dishonest. Branded as dishonest even as she told the truth, duplicitous even as she kept her promises, Warren faced testimonial injustice on a huge scale, and it ultimately doomed her campaign.