Stephanie Schriock shudders when she remembers how critics reacted to Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 campaign announcement, sharply questioning whether she was likable enough to become president.
It’s not a question Schriock thinks even the most cantankerous male candidates face.
“Elizabeth Warren spent the first week of her presidential campaign battling back whether she was likable enough,” said Schriock, president of EMILY’s List, a group that supports Democratic women in favor of abortion rights. “Now, I worked in the Senate, and I have seen Senator [Bernie] Sanders. And I’m just going to tell you, he’s not that likable.”
Schriock’s frustration with perceived double standards for women candidates is shared by many influential Democrats, who argue that their party’s half-dozen female presidential candidates have been repeatedly hindered by unfair treatment in the early stages of the campaign. In interviews, a group of leading Democrats sought to sound the alarm about what they regard as embedded sexism in the 2020 primary — both from their own voters and in some media coverage — that has resulted in a tilted playing field.
“I feel frustrated because I don’t feel that the women candidates are getting the same kind of coverage,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
Some female candidates receive short-lived attention when they roll out a sweeping set of policy proposals, the Washington Democrat added, “Whereas candidates do something like get on a countertop and that gets covered for days.”
She was referring to Beto O’Rourke, whose penchant for standing on tabletops while campaigning has made headlines. Jayapal, Schriock and other Democrats interviewed emphasized that they didn’t mean to direct their criticism at male candidates, most of whom they described as talented and qualified.
But they did want to take aim at the broader cultural dynamics that they think have tipped the scales in favor of these men — even as a record-number of serious female candidates compete for the nomination.
Polls, for instance, have shown another white male candidate, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, rising despite starting the race as an afterthought, while Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden lead most surveys of the race. A mid-April national poll from Morning Consult found Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York all receiving less than 10 percent of the vote.
That’s led to palpable frustration in a party that during President Donald Trump’s tenure has largely been defined by the energy and anger of grassroots women.
“There’s still a lot of sexism there,” Kathy Sullivan, the former chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said in an interview last month. “That is one thing still, that if you’re a female candidate, you do have to dance in heels and backwards, unlike the men.”
Jess McIntosh, a Democratic strategist who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, added: “It’s not like the media is misogynistic and everyone else is just fine. We code leadership in men and women differently. We’re conditioned to see leadership in all kinds of men.”
“The idea that a 37-year-old mayor of the fourth-largest town in [Indiana] could be taken seriously as a frontrunner, obviously that’s not the case if that was a woman,” she added, referring to Buttigieg. “No chance that would happen.”
Buttigieg’s supporters point out that as an openly gay man, his candidacy is also historic. For his part, O’Rourke has acknowledged the “privileges” he experiences as a white man.
Leading Democrats also said that even if the start of the race had been disappointing, they remained cautiously optimistic looking ahead, and many are adamant that a woman can make the Democratic presidential ticket in 2020.
But without a doubt, debate about the double standards female candidates face is at the forefront of the Democratic primary. It has shadowed reports about how Klobuchar treated her staff, why Warren’s early poll numbers have been underwhelming, and why some donors have remained angry at Gillibrand for asking that former Sen. Al Franken resign over accusations of sexual misconduct.
Warren was even asked during a CNN town hall Monday if she worried she would be “Hillary’d” on the campaign trail.
“I am optimistic that we’re making progress,” said Guy Cecil, the chairman of the Democratic super PAC Priorities USA. “I would just like it to be made faster.”
One dynamic that especially bothered many Democratic leaders is the constant refrain of questions over whether a woman can defeat Trump, after Clinton failed to do so. They say those questions miss how Trump beat a field of mostly men in the GOP primary, as well as how winners in some of the most competitive 2018 midterm contests were women.
“That shows an enormous amount of internal bias,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “Trump beat, what, 16 men and a couple of women?”
The Democratic leaders interviewed were often harshest about media coverage of the candidates, especially on cable TV.
Some early data on the 2020 primary in a study released last month from Storybench, which tracks digital media, found that leading media outlets had described male candidates like O’Rourke and Sanders more positively than their female rivals.
But of equal concern, Democratic leaders say, is that the double standard also extends to the Democratic base, even among progressive women. For instance, Jayapal recalled recently when a woman approached her to express deep concern over whether Warren could defeat Trump.
“There are a lot of people, including many women, who say, ‘God I love some of these women candidates, but there’s just not a chance a woman can win.’ We’ve seen that,’” Jayapal said. “That troubles me tremendously.”
But many Democratic operatives stressed that there was also reason for optimism in a moment when voters and activists are more sensitive to potentially sexist actions.
“One example that screams out to me is Beto O’Rourke, who I personally like very much,” said Patti Solis Doyle, who managed Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
“The idea that he was joking about his wife raising the kids and sometimes he helps — that’s … a kind of sexist comment that’s generations old,” she said. “But what was extremely optimistic for me is it was called out immediately and he immediately apologized.”
The “Me Too” movement has also created an environment in which women feel more confident speaking out against sexual harassment — and their claims are taken more seriously, many Democrats said.
That newfound dynamic was on display when former Nevada Assemblywoman Lucy Flores said Biden made her feel uncomfortable after touching her in a way that she felt was inappropriate.
In a different time, Nebraska Democratic Party Chairwoman Jane Kleeb said, “people would have told her to grow up, get a backbone, shrug it off, all of those kinds of statements. But people didn’t dismiss her, and I think that’s an important shift in the party.”
Still, Schriock says the progress isn’t happening fast enough.
“This is really hard,” Schriock said. “And the truth is, we’ve never had a woman president. Twenty states in this country haven’t ever had a woman governor. We are still as a society trying to understand what executive leadership by a female looks like. And I’m going to tell you, it’s going to look different. It’s going to be awesome, but it’s going to look different. And it’s just going to take some time for our culture to grasp that.”