Politics

Can a Woman Win the Election?

Don’t let the Warren-Sanders debacle make you lose sight of the pressing question of whether a woman can win the election.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images and Scott Olson/Getty Images.

Welcome to Day 4,742 of “Can a woman win the election,” coming to you daily, it feels like, since Hillary Clinton announced her first candidacy on Jan. 20, 2007. Today’s episode of CaWWtE features a rancorous debate over whether, in 2018, Bernie Sanders disagreed with Elizabeth Warren during a meeting in which she told him she believed a female candidate could win the election. The sourcing here is obscure, but the principals have issued statements: Sanders denies disagreeing with Warren that a woman could win the election. Warren affirms that he did in fact disagree with her. Everyone’s both confident and rather upset, giving the whole thing an ugly tinge of morality. Isn’t there a certain beauty to the clockwork? We all know how this will go: Supporters of each candidate will call the other a liar, Americans witnessing the mess will gently black out, and the big winner of it all (besides CNN) will be the one winner we could have been confident in all along: the unbelievable endurance of that simple question, can a woman win the election?

Well? networks will ask, sinking us all further into a glue trap that didn’t even need bait to work. Can a woman win the election?

You could say we’ve covered this before. (Can a woman win the election?) In 2019, the New York Times tackled it on Jan. 5, Feb. 11, May 5, July 4, July 12, and Aug. 15. (Can a woman win the election?) It’s almost a ritual by now, because we know what the question elicits: exercises in projection where everyone reflexively honors their neighbors’ hypothetical misogyny. People just aren’t sure if a woman can win the election, so they’re not going to support one trying to do so, just in case.

That’s the argument. We know the lyrics; we can practically sing along. Can a woman win the election? A carpenter who thought Warren was “terrific” isn’t going to take a risk by voting for her: “Usually in the primary I vote for whoever I like the most, but this one I will put in electability,” he said.

One nice thing about the question is that it seems polite. It regrets that it has to be asked. Nor, of course, does it really doubt a woman’s skill! No one denies that a woman (any woman, really) can beat Trump in a debate—if “beating” him means marshaling arguments and facts or speaking coherently. But then, those aren’t the rules in an election, are they? Trump loomed like a Frankenstein monster behind Clinton and barked “No puppet! No puppet!” and yet, some people can still declare that performance a “win.” Because he did, in fact, win the election, and as a result we still don’t know if a woman can, in fact, win the election.

Elections make words slide around until they lose meaning. Take Can a woman win the election: a sly, mean, ego-saving little canard that knifes both its subject and its verb in order to spare the real actor here. Because what it really asks is: Will a majority of the American people vote for a man who laundered money for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and then ordered its leader killed and then made up “imminent threats” to four American embassies to justify it over a champion of consumer rights because the latter is a woman? Indeed, the question isn’t “Can a woman win the election?” It’s “Can Americans overcome a documented habit of finding stupid and greedy men more qualified than women with expertise and experience?” But I digress.

What really seems to matter is what the “electability” naysayers like our carpenter above think. To be clear, his is a vote of no confidence in the American public, rather than a vote against the woman, he’s not sexist or anything. But you have to admit, he has a point: Even though Clinton won more votes than any white presidential candidate in history, she did not win. Which forces us to ask: Can a woman win the election?

Support This Work

Help us cover the central question: “Who counts?” Your Slate Plus membership will fund our work on voting, immigration, gerrymandering, and more through 2020.