Madam President? 5 candidates on what it will take to shatter the Most Stubborn Glass Ceiling.


The female lawmakers running for president. From far left: Senator Amy Klobuchar, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris.Sittings Editor: Tonne Goodman.Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, August 2019

ELIZABETH WARREN practically leaps off the armchair in her Washington, D.C., condo when it hits her. "I got here today courtesy of three bags of M&Ms and a very cooperative toddler," she says. By here she means the candidacy for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. I've just sat down with the Massachusetts senator, on taupe-colored furniture that looks plucked from a corporate-apartment catalog, to talk about the 2020 election. I mention in passing that I need to make the 4 p.m. Acela back to New York to relieve my babysitter. This reminds Warren of a lengthy story, told with expressive hand waving and a recitation of "Wheels on the Bus," from her years as a working mom. She was about to start Rutgers Law School and desperately needed day care for her daughter Amelia. The only acceptable option she could find in the Newark area required that children be "dependably potty trained." Amelia wasn't even two at the time, but Warren spent all weekend luring her to the kiddie toilet with a rainbow of M&Ms. On Monday, Warren says, "I looked at the form . . . at Amelia, at the form, back at Amelia . . . and 'Yep! Dependably potty trained, all right!' "

It's an indelibly female story from a candidate who—like most of the other women running for president—would rather not talk about her gender on the campaign trail. Warren doesn't lace her speeches with promises to make history or shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling. The steamy spring afternoon we meet in D.C., she is wearing her usual uniform of black tank top and black slacks, more proletariat rab-ble-rouser than solid-white suffragette.

And yet her gender is a subject she and the other female candidates can't escape. (The day before, I'd heard an MSNBC pundit declare that Warren was not a "connectable female"— which led to a panel debate titled "Can a woman beat Trump? Some Democrats wonder if it's worth the risk.") Perhaps that's because they have so little else in common. The six women running for the Democratic nomination come from different backgrounds. They range in age from 70 (Warren) to 38 (Representative Tulsi Gabbard). They are lawyers and senators, professors and soldiers and even an author and spiritual adviser to Oprah Winfrey (Marianne Williamson). They disagree on campaign tactics and policies. I spoke to Senator Amy Klobuchar just after she came out against Warren's plan to cancel most student debt and make tuition at public colleges free. (And don't even get the other women started on Gabbard's foreign-policy positions.)

But they also form an unlikely sisterhood in the inspiring, baffling, often infuriating contest to defeat President Trump.While each has so far trailed the leading male candidates—Warren and Senator Kamala Harris poll closest to the top of this group—collectively they have smashed our stubborn assumptions about powerful women and permanently changed our notion of what a presidential election looks like. For the first time, multiple women stand on the presidential-debate stages, their presence signaling to millions of Americans that the era of a dozen men—and maybe a lone woman—arguing the issues is over. (When Governor Jay Inslee touted his record on women's rights in the first debate in Miami, Klobuchar chimed in with, "I just want to say, there's three women up here that have fought pretty hard for a woman's right to choose.")

These candidates have also, inevitably, reminded us of the hurdles, bordering on bulwarks, that women at the highest level of American politics still face. To many of us, watching the 2020 race unfold has felt less like a celebration of rah-rah feminism and more like a daily, live-tweeted, televised pelting by the patriarchy. Indeed, we cannot assess any of these candidates without also assessing our own biases. Debates about who is "electable" (or not) have become a smokescreen for lingering discomfort with what we have still, after 243 years as a republic, never seen: the election of a woman president.

Even as I write that line I am reminded of a story of mine that was never published. Anticipating (like the rest of the world) that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election, I prepared a piece for the New York Times, with my Times colleague Patrick Healy, about Hillary's hard-earned victory. The story had been edited, fact-checked, and laid out under the headline MADAM PRESIDENT—the kind of six-column spread that readers keep in their basements for generations. When Election Night went a different direction, the newsroom changed course, and the historic November 9, 2016, edition of the Times declared, TRUMP TRIUMPHS, with a photo of Trump casting his ballot in a blue tie with Jared Kushner at his side. The other story remains frozen in the amber of my inbox, a relic of an alternate political reality. When I look back on it now, nearly three years later, it's not that I thought this election would be easier for a female candidate, but I didn't think that it would be this hard.

I figured the women now running for president would be propelled by the success of the newly elected women in Congress, of seemingly impossible Democratic victories across the country, of the power of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Instagram feed and a newly potent era of political activism. These women could also run without the history (I refuse to say baggage) that Hillary carried with her. I still wonder how much of voters' hesitancy about Hillary was based on sexism (my guess is a lot) and how much was discomfort with a political family that had weathered so many scandals (real and imagined) and loomed so large for decades. But whatever the answer, the women running in 2020 would surely enjoy a clean slate. Whatever skeletons were in their closets couldn't possibly match those of the Trump White House. Harris allegedly flip-flopped on private insurance? Klobuchar ate a salad with a plastic comb and then snapped at a staffer to clean it? Warren had to apologize to the Cherokee Nation for claiming Native American heritage? Yes, well, Trump heaped praise on the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, (briefly) declared he'd gladly accept dirt on an opponent from a foreign power, and watched as both his personal lawyer and campaign chairman embarked on lengthy prison sentences. Finally, I thought, voters would no longer tell me (as they so often did when I asked why they didn't support Hillary) that they would love to vote for a woman for president, just not thatwoman. There was no way that Harris, Gillibrand, Warren, Klobuchar, Gabbard, and Williamson could all be that woman . . . could they?


The 5 women running for President represent 40 years of experience in the Congress. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz, Vogue, August 2019.

Rather than being propelled, these women have seemed stuck in a sort of political purgatory, firmly, frustratingly sandwiched between Hillary's loss and the country's (eventual?) realization that a woman can be president. Studies conducted early this year by Northeastern University and FiveThirtyEight, respectively, found that the female candidates have received more negative coverage in the news media than their male rivals, and have had a harder time breaking through in cable TV and viral moments (unless you count Trump evoking the massacre at Wounded Knee to mock Warren). Depending on the day, these women have been eclipsed by a man who can speak Norwegian (Pete Buttigieg) or who played in a punk band (Beto O'Rourke) or who picked up $700,000 on a Wednesday night in Hollywood (Joe Biden). As I was reporting this story, David Axelrod, the former Obama adviser, praised Buttigieg's taco-eating ability. ("He can eat tacos without apparently dropping any on his white shirt," Axelrod tweeted). I tried to imagine a woman candidate (or any woman) being praised for eating, well, anything.

None of these candidates want to dwell on sexism and double standards—and even asking those questions feels a little sexist when you realize that the men in the race get to spend their time talking about issues, policy, their plan to defeat Trump, Irish modernist literature. Of course I still ask. What about the time a Boston radio reporter described Warren during her Massachusetts senate campaign as "a strand of pearls short of looking like the head of the P.T.A."? Warren tells me that after that one she enlisted her husband, the Harvard law professor Bruce Mann, to be a sort of taste tester. He'll scan news stories and then yell upstairs—"Clear!"—if they are safe for his wife to read.

On the topic of uneven media coverage, Klobuchar gives a flash of that cutting politesse known as Minnesota nice: "The public wants a leader to have an optimistic economic agenda, and they're not really going to relate to you complaining that you didn't get as fair press coverage as some guy who got up on a counter." (She's talking to you, Beto.) The Minnesota senator also says that the women in the race have so much elected experience (a combined 40 years in Congress) that they inevitably get tougher questions than male candidates with lighter résumés. "We've all been asked those questions because we've done the job," Klobuchar says. "People who have less of that experience—there are no questions to ask. So they get the personal questions." She pauses. "I'm happy to talk about my first pet." (A turtle that ate raw hamburger, in case you were wondering.)

No matter how far we've come, the reality is that "the idea of a woman in a leadership position is still seen as 'Oh, I don't know if we can go there,' " says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. That sentiment—echoed in endless debates on cable news—eventually can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, says Jennifer Lawless, a professor at the University of Virginia and an expert on women in politics. "It could signal to voters that these women won't be as credible to take on Donald Trump."It's a concern the candidates say they hear over and over again. Kirsten Gillibrand likes to point out that a woman did technically beat Trump. "We must all remember that Hillary won the popular vote," the New York senator says. "She was genuinely seen as the most qualified candidate."

But Clinton's defeat has, for the most part, been more of an albatross—a sign of See? We told you the country wasn't ready. Walsh says many voters she talks to are still "shell-shocked" by the 2016 election. At a CNN town hall in Manchester, New Hampshire, a college student asked Warren (who has age and hair coloring and not much else in common with Clinton) how she'd avoid getting "Hillaryed." "What has happened is that this becomes the narrative if you turn on CNN or MSNBC every night," says Lawless. "They're asking, 'Can a woman do this?' and every time you hear that question, there's a possibility that the answer is no."

IN HER 2014 BOOK Off the Sidelines, Gillibrand declared that she feared the women's movement was dead. She lights up when I remind her of this. "I did! I said it was dead." We have met up for a late lunch at a farm-to-table restaurant in Manhattan made to look like a rural barn: A-frame roof, vintage sconces, plenty of reclaimed wood. Of all of the female candidates, Gillibrand has been the most outspoken about her identity as a woman and as a mom. She used of some of her little air time in the first debate to pitch her plan to help working parents of young children. She's appeared with Gloria Steinem and practically moved into The Wing, the rose-hued, female-focused co–working space. As we mull whether to share a cheese plate, she asks if I am still breastfeeding ("Listeria is real!" she tells me) and drapes a heavy navy shawl over her shoulders ("I'm always cold"). Will White House thermostats be set several degrees warmer if (when?) a woman occupies the Oval Office?

It's hard to say whether Gillibrand's unabashed embrace of her gender and motherhood has had an impact on her struggle to break through in polls. Her candidacy, which once seemed so promising, now hovers under 1 percent at the time of publication—behind Gabbard and about tied with Williamson. There are those Democrats who still resent Gillibrand's 2017 push for Senator Al Franken's resignation after allegations of sexual harassment. ("I would not have applied that pressure at that time before we knew more," Buttigieg told MSNBC.) Others offer only vague refrains that Gillibrand's centrist policies, her promise to win in purple districts, and even her New York Senate seat, remind them too much of Hillary. (Comparisons to Tracy Flick dominated Twitter on her debate night in Miami.) Then there are some who say the 52-year-old senator "isn't ready"—an argument that reminds so many women of the Catch-22 of aging. We are too young, too inexperienced, not ready, right up until the moment when we are past our prime (an argument that has been made about Warren). Male candidates, meanwhile, can be fresh-faced (Buttigieg, 37), energetic (Beto, 46), and then elder statesmen (Biden, 76, and Bernie Sanders, 77). In June, Biden answered a woman's question related to his support for the 1994 crime bill with "You make a really good point, kiddo. . . ." At that moment, I was reminded of the vanishingly small window—blink and you miss it—when a woman is neither kiddo nor washed up, but just that perfect age to run for president.

Democrats are reluctant to give President Trump credit for much of anything, but they will happily point out that he has motivated a wave of women to march and tell their #MeToo stories and run for office. The 127 women now in the 116th Congress make up 23 percent of all members. This is progress for sure, but still sort of a bummer when you remember we're more than half the U.S. population. Gillibrand and Klobuchar both praise House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's unique ability to rattle the president. Then there is Ocasio-Cortez, who has become such a force that backing her Green New Deal is practically a litmus test for candidates who want to appeal to the liberal base. Ocasio-Cortez hasn't endorsed anyone in 2020, but she did hand Warren social-media gold when the two women sat down to critique the Game of Thrones finale, declaring themselves #TeamSansa. "I think the reason all of these women ran is because they weren't going to accept a nation where Trump's views of the world would prevail," Gillibrand says.

Harris sees this play out at her campaign events. Attendees tell her that they'd never waited in line for a political event before, but are so appalled by the Trump administration that here they are, bundled up outside a high school gym in Keene, New Hampshire. Every candidate, every election year, uses the cliché that "this is the most important election of our lifetimes," but maybe this one actually is? "The morning after that night in November 2016, people woke up realizing they could not take anything for granted," Harris says. "People woke up assuming the right thing won't happen unless they're active."

I've reached the California senator, a former prosecutor and state attorney general, by phone the morning after she's participated in a CNN town hall. She has a quirk of saying she'll study a controversial issue or that she wants to have a "conversation" or a "discussion" about say, reparations for black Americans or Warren's free-college plan. Trump has nicknamed Harris "nasty," but the rest of the political universe landed on less colorful adjectives: cautious, unknowable. (IS KAMALA HARRIS TOO CAUTIOUS? LET'S HAVE THAT CONVERSATION, read a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle.)

I ask Harris if she thought we were getting it all wrong: Was it just that a woman (and a woman of color, in particular) has such a razor-thin margin of error that she has to be careful, particularly compared to the off-the-cuff men in the race? All she would say was this: "I grew up in a profession when I was acutely aware that with a swipe of my pen, someone could be deprived of liberty. I take my words seriously. Maybe some people aren't used to having power, so they don't take it seriously."

In this group, Harris is perhaps the most wary about being pigeonholed by gender. "If someone says, 'Talk to us about women's issues,' I look at them and smile and say, 'I am so glad you want to talk about the economy' or 'I am so glad you want to talk about national security.' " Harris puts a stinging little intonation on the word so.

As the only millennial woman in the race, Gabbard has her own perspective. On the phone from Hawaii, she tells me she finds it offensive that Democrats assumed she'd support Clinton over Sanders in the 2016 primary, "believing that I have no ability to see beyond my own gender and consider the issues." For Gabbard, having multiple women in the 2020 race is less revolutionary than overdue—obvious, even. "I've heard from girls eight, nine, ten years old, and for them this is what an election should look like. It's not a shocker."

One of the upsides to running in 2020 is that nothing much is a shocker anymore. Porn stars and Russian hackers? The president of the United States, in a span of a couple of days, picking fights with Meghan Markle and Bette Midler? Maybe I am being overly optimistic, but I see something liberating—particularly for female candidates—in Trump's subverting of traditional political norms . . . because women presidents aren't the norm either. Thanks to Trump and a news cycle that is suffering from acute attention-deficit disorder (Avenatti who?), women candidates, perhaps, don't have to worry so much about being perfect, about biting their tongue and saying what they think voters want to hear. That's not to say voters are ready to embrace them live-streaming an appointment with their dental hygienist or showing up on the debate stage without makeup, but every woman in the race appears to have blissfully cast aside Hillary's (often painful but also understandable) abundance of caution. They do not tweet by committee or adhere to a media strategy that essentially ignores us. Harris is cautious, yes, but not so much that she doesn't speak her mind. In a blistering critique of Biden's civil rights record in the first debate, Harris took apart the early front runner with military precision. Even MSNBC's Joe Scarborough had to concede, "It's interesting, over these two nights after we've been looking at polls showing two old white men in first place, the winner of both nights were women."

Harris's criticism of Biden's past opposition to school busing signalled that unlike Hillary, who fastidiously protected her lead, Harris wouldn't hold back against Trump on the debate stage. There are other stark differences: Whereas Hillary disappeared off the campaign trail for days to collect big checks from donors, Warren has banned private fundraisers altogether, a move that made her own team worry that she'll be at a financial disadvantage. (In the first three months of 2019, Warren raised more than $6 million, putting her in fifth place, according to federal filings released in April.) And yes, all of these candidates plan to spend a lot of time in Wisconsin. In fact, if there is any candidate who risks being Hillaryed, it is not a woman but Biden, whose skimpy campaign schedule, ample fundraising, connection to '90s-era policies, and do- no-harm approach to the press give me flashbacks to 2016, when Hillary's press corps used to joke that "spontaneity is embargoed until 4 p.m."

THE CANDIDATES I SPEAK TO agree that 2020 is less about the symbolism of having a woman president (though that would be nice) than it is about substance—how her life experience would influence policy- and decision-making. Klobuchar, for example, tells me she first decided to run for office in Minnesota in 1995, when a hospital discharged her 24 hours after giving birth to her daughter, Abigail, who had esophageal problems. She showed up to the state capitol with a half-dozen pregnant friends to support a bill mandating a 48-hour postpartum hospital stay. "We outnumbered the insurance lobbyists two to one," she remembers, "and when the legislators said, 'When should this bill take effect?' all the pregnant women said, 'Now!' " The bill later helped influence a federal law, part of the Newborns' and Mothers' Health Protection Act of 1996.

As I reported this story, Alabama passed a law that would effectively ban access to abortion. The Democratic candidates were all quick to rebuke the measure and affirm their support for Roe v. Wade. Warren, within two days, rolled out a four-pronged approach to protect abortion rights regardless of who sits on the Supreme Court. "The notion is that women just focus differently," Warren says. "It is different to have someone in the White House who has been there, who has struggled to get child care, who has been pregnant." That idea stays with me: A president who knows what it is like to be pregnant. Or who knows what it is like to not want to be pregnant.

The fury over abortion rights came just as Biden entered the race and immediately enjoyed front-runner status. In his campaign-kickoff speech in Philadelphia, the former vice president declared that he would reject anger in the Democratic Party, offering a sunnier, unifying vision. That sentiment, delivered amid real fears about a rollback of abortion rights in Alabama, Georgia, and other states, riled several of Biden's female opponents.

"I certainly disagree," Gillibrand says when I call to ask her about Biden's speech. "I believe that righteous anger is part of who we are as Americans and who we are as women. Righteous anger means standing up for what we believe in, and fighting against hateful rhetoric and misogyny and anti-Semitism and racism and bigotry."

Like many women, Gillibrand is a preternatural multitasker—and practically still out of breath when she takes my call. It is one of those perfect spring Sundays in New York, 68 degrees, zero humidity, and she's just finished the AIDS Walk in Central Park. After we discuss righteous anger and misogyny, Gillibrand tells me her husband, Jonathan, and their sons, Theodore and Henry, are meeting her while she campaigns in Iowa to shop for an RV to drive around this summer. "The nice thing about an RV is you have a fridge filled with food!"

THE DAY I MEET Senator Klobuchar for coffee in D.C., she and Harris have just eviscerated Attorney General William P. Barr over his handling of special counsel Robert Mueller's report, 24 hours earlier—and Klobuchar (a former prosecutor, like Harris) still seems pumped. For the first time since she declared her candidacy, cable-news pundits have begun to (temporarily) theorize that the Democrats need that type of polite, female ferocity on a debate stage against Trump.

Klobuchar shrugs when I ask if the political theater of the Barr hearings has brought in campaign donations. She doesn't know. But she is eager— invigorated, even—to dissect how she interrogates a witness. "I have a habit of asking straightforward questions, and one of the keys is not to pontificate, to ask quickly, but normally, and then let them kind of hang there," Klobuchar says.

It's impossible not to be reminded of her exchange with Justice Brett Kavanaugh last fall, the charged back-and-forth in which Klobuchar asked Kavanaugh if he'd ever been blackout drunk (and he peevishly replied, "Have you?"). Many women viewed the exchange as sexist. Klobuchar did not. "He was rude to other senators, so I really didn't see it that way," she says. "I just wanted to keep my own credibility and the credibility of our Senate and our justice system." Soon after, she again found herself in the midst of a debate over the sexist treatment of female politicians. Several tough news stories portrayed the Minnesota senator as an exacting boss who had mistreated her staff, "subjecting them to bouts of explosive rage and regular humiliation," BuzzFeed News reported. The stories led some women, including members of Klobuchar's own staff, to argue that the criticism was rooted in gendered stereotypes. Jennifer Palmieri, the communications director on Clinton's 2016 campaign, wrote in Politico that the same behavior by men would be considered "a badge of honor, not a mark of shame," and noted the tough treatment of staff by Bill Clinton, Senator Chuck Schumer, and Rahm Emanuel. "We still hold women in American politics to higher standards than men, which puts added pressure on female bosses," she wrote.

I want to dive into this with Klobuchar, but I've heard in advance that she would prefer not to discuss a topic that has already consumed so much of her early presidential campaign. So I save it for my penultimate question: Was the coverage of her managerial style sexist? "You guys can decide that. I'm doing my campaign," Klobuchar says, and then—Minnesota politely— signals to an aide that it is about time to wrap things up.

THE THING ABOUT ELECTABILITY is that no one is electable until they're elected. There was, of course, a time when the experts deemed a Catholic, a divorced actor, a black man, and a reality-TV star with a questionable business background unelectable.

Warren, in particular, has, in the months I worked on this story, gone through several election life cycles. She was declared politically dead after an ill-advised DNA test, and then, by sheer grit and the force of her ideas, pulled her way back into the race, calling for Trump's impeachment, boycotting Fox News, and introducing so many policy plans that, in a viral Twitter moment, she even promised to answer the comedian Ashley Nicole Black's plea to devise a plan to fix her love life. By the first debate, Warren stood assuredly at center stage, challenging her rivals to shift leftward on issues like health care and breaking up the big tech companies. Pundits agreed that Warren came off as the candidate (not just the woman) to beat. (Well, most of them did. Fox News's Howie Kurtz tweeted, "Okay, Elizabeth Warren is standing between two very tall guys. Shouldn't matter but looks odd." Old habits die hard.) For women candidates so often handicapped by their wonkiness, Warren has managed to own her intellect, adopting the slogan WARREN HAS A PLAN FOR THAT—as if policy prescriptions rather than Twitter insults could be a feasible way to take on Trump. As we go to press, Warren leads the other women in the race in most polls and is ahead of all the male candidates except Biden and (depending on the day) Sanders.

She and I have been talking in her D.C. living room for about 45 minutes when an aide pokes her head out of a study and says, "Senator, conference call. . . ." "Be there in five!" Warren responds. Five, then ten minutes, pass, and, after a couple more pleas from her aide, Warren finally springs up to walk me out. We are in the hall, headed toward the elevators, and she is still making her case for universal child care. ("We need to make this the same way we invest in roads and bridges.") I know she doesn't like to talk about the horse race, but I finally ask about her surge in the polls, about whether she thinks she can really win this thing, and Warren just swats the air as if she were shooing her golden retriever Bailey off the sofa. "You know, it is this moment in American history where the foundations of democracy are under attack and democracy is rebuilding, right from the ground up," Warren says. Then she pushes the down button, concerned that I make my train to relieve the babysitter.

Amy Kozick, Vogue, July 1, 2019

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July 3, 2019

Voices4America Post Script. This article is a joy to read, though it is dated at a time when Harris had not yet pulled up in the polls.

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