Why couldn’t Kirsten Gillibrand’s presidential campaign ever get going? For months, this has been the main question plaguing the candidacy of the high-profile senator whose pet issues seemed popular and whose anti-Trump voting record is unimpeachable. On paper, Gillibrand should have done better. And in a kind of bitter irony, that expectation became the very narrative that plagued her campaign on the trail. In June, the Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere wrote a piece aptly titled “This Isn’t Going According to Plan for Kirsten Gillibrand.” In the piece he listed the personae of the major candidates and noted that with Gillibrand, “rather than being identified as the champion of women, or the crusader for reproductive rights or gay rights, she’s becoming known as the one who can’t break through.”
Gillibrand told Dovere that she is used to being underestimated, and that this comes with the territory of being a woman in politics. But Gillibrand isn’t just a woman in politics. She’s a woman in politics who has staked her career on elevating and helping women. Her platform was centered on issues like paid family leave, reproductive rights, and fighting sexual harassment and assault. And yet, she never even caught on among women. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising in the first field with multiple viable female candidates. Running for president is a long shot for everyone, and it’s frankly a relief when any one of the candidates drops out of this overcrowded race. And yet, I can’t stop wondering if we should attempt to glean something more from her lackluster performance, if not quite as much about Gillibrand as about ourselves.
One thing that stood out throughout her campaign was the way she refused to disguise or mask her femininity. Not only is she unmistakably blond, her voice consistently described as girlish, but she also showed up to both debates in brightly colored sheath dresses (no blazers) wearing sparkly earrings and (probably) fake eyelashes. It’s as if she had simply acknowledged that the jig was up. “Yep, I am a woman!” her self-presentation seemed to say. “A very feminine one! And I’m running on woman-centered issues! Is there a problem?” The first time I saw her debate in May, I mentally applauded her for daring not to blend in with the other business-lunch women onstage. Then I thought, ruefully and self-critically: “But is it worth it?” (The eyelashes, at least, looked very uncomfortable.)
It is impossible to know if Gillibrand’s overtly feminine self-presentation, paired with her unapologetic stances on women’s rights, was ultimately what held her back. In Dovere’s candidate rundown, he noted that “Buttigieg is a smart young man, and Beto O’Rourke is an inspiring young man.” It’s harder to imagine Gillibrand (all of six years Beto’s elder) being anointed a similar sort of wunderkind. FiveThirtyEight helpfully noted that all women have to grapple with “voters’ biases against women candidates,” before acknowledging her other major trouble: the conflict she seems to have caused within the Democratic Party over her call for Al Franken’s resignation. And as has been noted again and again, we really don’t have any idea what it takes for a woman to win the presidency. There’s no template for Gillibrand to meet—or fail. No measurable evidence that a neutral blazer would have seen her through to the primaries.
And yet I am perplexed by my own unenthusiastic reaction to her campaign, as much as it overlaps with the public consensus. As the warmer media reception to Jay Inslee proved, climate change is enough to be a single-issue platform. Why not women’s rights? Part of this maybe has to do with the stuntlike nature of Inslee’s campaign—he was always pretty clear about his expectations around his candidacy, in a way that felt righteous and endearing. Inslee was also seen as selfless—it’s easier to think of climate change as a universal issue, not a personal one (however many times one can say women’s rights are human rights). More of my confusion: I always took Gillibrand’s run for president more seriously than Inslee’s; at the same time I docked her campaign for never quite distinguishing her agenda from the other candidates’, many of whom took similar aggressive stances on family leave and reproductive freedom. I evaluated her, in other words, as I would the real contender I’d expected she would be. But I had to try to reconcile her obvious seriousness with shallower reactions on my part: I was annoyed that her debate performance felt a bit cloying—she seemed to be constantly interrupting other candidates and blowing through her allotted speaking time. Did she do it more than others? Did that matter more than the fact that I felt she did?
Gillibrand has also been less able to temper the impression of her ambition (anyone running for president has it in spades) with the requisite humble origin story. Elizabeth Warren’s own measurable drive is in some ways countered by her hardscrabble Oklahoman roots, lifting herself up by her bootstraps to become a law professor while raising two kids. Gillibrand spent 15 years as a Manhattan attorney, married a venture capitalist, and ran for Congress in the district where her grandmother had been a political powerhouse.
She got to the Senate when New York Gov. David Paterson appointed her to Hillary Clinton’s seat after Caroline Kennedy turned him down. Her straight path to power makes it easy to forget she also won her special election in 2010 at the young age of 43, and she’s one of two sitting senators to have given birth while in office (then-Rep. Gillibrand had her second son in 2008).
These triumphs earned her coverage in glossy magazines, including a 2010 Vogue profile now-ominously titled “In Hillary’s Footsteps.” As befits a Vogue profile, she looks extraordinary and reveals, with some prompting, that, while balancing the demanding schedule of a senator, she also managed to lose 40 pounds of post-pregnancy weight. That same year, Harry Reid called her the “hottest” member of the Senate. (Gillibrand responded with her standard, measured disapproval, and it seems likely the experience played a part in her choice to focus on gender issues.) Her star rose meteorically and—here I admit my own slight resentment—she made it all look almost easy. She managed to pivot from being an upstate congresswoman with an A rating from the NRA to a lean-left senator in a span of less than 10 years while raising two kids. Why isn’t that seen as more of a credit?
Then there is her—and Democrats’—ever-complicated relationship with the Clintons. Gillibrand cited Hillary as her inspiration for getting into politics, claimed her Senate seat, and maintained a close relationship for years. Then in 2017 she said she thought Bill Clinton should have resigned during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. This cost Gillibrand, in her relationship with her mentor certainly, and in donors. The upside was tougher to discern—sure, people were relitigating Clinton’s history with women at the time, but Gillibrand’s willingness to take such an aggressive stance, and against her mentor’s husband, seemed so unforced. And yet she was accused of #MeToo posturing. Was it really so crazy to think she was willing to say this simply because she believed it?
The bold statement on Clinton is also consistent with her now-notorious role in the resignation of Franken, another popular and powerful Democratic man. It’s easy to forget that Gillibrand was only 20 minutes ahead of the other female senators who also somewhat immediately called for their colleague to resign from the Senate. But she has carried the bulk of the blame, in part because she has not backed down on her position while others have wavered.
So ultimately, here’s what I think really happened: Kirsten Gillibrand was hurt by sexism, yes. But in singularly attaching herself to a political disaster of an issue—a moral, legal, procedural morass we are still fighting over nearly every aspect of how to think about—she refused to let us work around it. Sexual assault and harassment are issues of crucial importance, and there are few things that the nation has discussed more since the election of Donald Trump. They’re just nowhere near enough—as yet—to determine a president.
Support our 2020 coverage
Slate is covering the election issues that matter to you. Support our work with a Slate Plus membership. You’ll also get a suite of great benefits.Join Slate Plus