Six female candidates have more chance of avoiding sexist stereotyping than poor, isolated Hillary Clinton, says Guardian columnist Emma Brockes
It was a strange experience, watching the US Democratic candidates debate this week, and not having ones eye drawn to the traditional solitary female on stage. For the first time, more than one woman is standing in the race and in Wednesdays debate there were three in the line-up; in the follow-up debate tonight, a further three and whats wild is how wild it was. A broad spectrum of backgrounds and experience! No one woman carrying the symbolic weight of representing all women! It even took the burden off analysing what they were wearing.
At the centre of the stage was Elizabeth Warren, the frontrunner whose popularity has surged over the past few months and a woman who often carries an air of being the only grownup in the room. Unlike Bill de Blasio, who spent much of the debate shouting from stage left like a man trying to order lunch in a crowded deli, Warren was calm, measured, disinclined to interrupt. Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota, was spirited and amused. Tulsi Gabbard, the congresswoman from Hawaii, was slick and, to my mind, unconvincing, although plenty of people thought she won the debate. To watch these women perform was to be reminded, whatever one thought of her policies, of how lonely a figure Hillary Clinton had been.
Still, the playing field is a way off being levelled. Watching the exchanges I found myself maintaining in my head the split screen of, on the one hand, reacting to each womans performance on its own merits, while trying to read how, to the large numbers of people for whom the idea of a female president is still triggering, that particular kind of woman plays out.
Warren is a curious figure in this regard. The biggest trap for female political candidates in the US is the angry woman trope one that Clinton, when expressing herself with any more gusto than a leaking tap, repeatedly fell into. If any of the three women on stage on Wednesday night had gone off like De Blasio or, on past performance, like yelling Bernie or spluttering Trump they would have appeared at best unreliable, at worst unhinged. (Plenty of people mocked De Blasios performance, but with a wry affection it is hard to imagine being extended to any female counterpart.)
Warren gives the impression of being relatively soft-spoken by nature, neither swaggering nor threatening. Nor is she, as in the case of Clinton, being stage-managed out of a natural aggression into something more palatable to misogynists. The particular trap lying in wait for her is the charge of arrogance, a politer word for uppity when applied to women in political life. Barack Obama suffered this too how dare an African American be so well qualified. Warren, as a nerdy Harvard law professor and policy wonk who unfortunately does actually know things, suffers a relatability hit among enemies of women running for office.
At the root of all this framing is the image gap where a tradition of female power should be. What does female political leadership look like in the absence of historical precedent? Maybe its like supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the most powerful women in the US. Ginsburg has always carried that power lightly and insisted on non-confrontation as the best strategy for victory, while at the same time never, ever backing down. One can see Warren fitting into this mode, if she can survive what a quick glance at Republican Twitter revealed to be accusations of mousiness not commander-in-chief material you see, if we are to model our idea of that role on the sham strength of male bluster.
On the other hand, and notwithstanding her dangerously sharp intellect, Warrens demeanour still navigates successfully away from scary in a way that may counter the fear she is too leftwing being one of the few candidates to argue for both the abolition of private healthcare and cancellation of student debt. She is not strident, in the way Kamala Harriss brand of confidence may come over, or too conventionally attractive, which may undermine Gabbard. As for Marianne Williams, the sixth woman in the race, who knows? But her presence as a wacky outsider is a welcome variant.
The final word in the debate was Warrens. She spoke of her background in the lower middle class, growing up in a family with no money for college, where her bleak prospects were alleviated by a $50-a-term community college, heavily subsidised by the state. A little slice of government that created some opportunity for a girl, is how she described it and, my god, astonishingly in this format, it was genuinely moving. It didnt feel rehearsed or massaged like Beto ORourkes hokey act or, looking back, message-tested to humanise like Clintons. For a moment, it felt like the real thing.
Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist
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