The general perception of Elizabeth Warren’s campaign strategy was that she ran as a wonk, as the policy person whose plans were so detailed that they might possibly be enough to fix this mess. Those who were sent to study her campaign more closely narrowed in on something a little more specific about her: Elizabeth Warren had plans, yes, but she was campaigning as a teacher. That’s what Dahlia Lithwick saw on the trail way back in June, when the polls were still going Warren’s way, and what Rebecca Traister has always observed in the senator who was previously a professor and before that had taught children with special needs. It made a certain amount of sense as a strategy: Educating voters everywhere (and Warren went everywhere, even to the deepest-red pockets) about the purpose of government and its potential might be the only way to claw some back, grueling though it may be.
But as I watched her campaign, I saw something else, too. She wasn’t just running as a teacher or a wonk. Elizabeth Warren was running as a woman. She was unapologetic about it. It went beyond embracing her identity as a teacher, though an identity as a teacher is surely gendered itself. Her stump speech included her own personal story of being alone with her children in Texas, with no idea how she was going to take care of them and also have a career. (She only managed to have one because her aunt came to watch the kids while Warren went to law school.) Later on in the campaign, she expanded her story further backward, to include her experience being let go from her first teaching job—a job she loved—because she was visibly pregnant. It wasn’t necessarily a winning narrative for her—the press jumped all over it, suggesting she was lying about the discrimination and picking her story apart for discrepancies. But it did resonate with one group of voters—women who in turn shared their own stories of discrimination in their pregnancies.
Warren was teaching here too. She was trying to explain to people what, exactly, it is like to be a woman in America, still, today. Her lessons were not just drawn from her own life, either. Warren launched her campaign in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the site of 1912’s Bread and Roses strike, led by seamstresses. She told those seamstresses’ stories, and she told other stories of other working-class women, black women, who led labor movements decades ago. In Atlanta, she spoke of the washerwomen who went on strike in 1881; in New York she spoke of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy. At one of her last appearances before Super Tuesday in L.A., she told the story of 1990’s Justice for Janitors strike, an effort led by immigrant women.* I was not surprised to see attendees describe it as a “lecture” on Twitter afterward—Warren’s events were closer to lectures than rallies. She was trying to teach people their own history, a project she understood as essential for building a better future.
The lectures didn’t get as much attention as the eviscerations she performed on other candidates, but in those, too, Warren was successful partly because of how unapologetic she was about being not only a woman, but being on women’s side. (She has no interest, quite obviously, in being a “cool girl.”) She is the reason why Michael Bloomberg could not hide behind the idea that his abuse of women was merely a “joke” that some people took the wrong way—she opened that night by stating plainly that calling women “horse-faced lesbians” isn’t funny. In the next debate, after another tussle with Bloomberg, she got into the on-camera debate that has since led to Chris Matthews quitting his job—in that exchange, she simply and relentlessly pointed out the problem of believing a man who clearly has an incentive to lie over a woman who does not. As it became painfully clear that Warren would not do well on Super Tuesday, supporters tried to make sure she would get credit, at least, for kneecapping these two powerful men.
Warren’s campaign had real, meaningful flaws. She had trouble expanding her base beyond college-educated white voters. Though she tried to continuously center racial justice as a piece of every issue, she didn’t win over black voters. Her terrible decision to take a DNA test to “claim” tribal heritage was always a problem. There was never any guarantee she would succeed, nor should there have been.
Her exit from the race will leave, as the two front-runners, two white men in their late 70s. It will once again re-up that queen of all questions, can a woman win the election, which exists in many women’s souls like a wound whose scab never has time to heal before it is repunctured, the kind of wound you know will leave a scar if it ever does smooth over.
We will compare her to Hillary Clinton. Everyone did. On most terms, Warren should have been the opposite of the last Democratic nominee: Neither her success nor her baggage were tied to her husband’s career; she was ethically scrupulous and hostile to the donor class. If Hillary was performing the role as the first woman nominee, it felt as if Warren was simply a woman who was running for president. Yet the same script somehow applied to both—too calculating, too prepared, too unlikable.
We can look at Warren’s performance—how she changed the terms of the race, even without changing the delegate count—and reassure ourselves that more women attempting to run can only be a good thing: It can only clear the path for more women, for different sorts of women, for different strategies, for more learning. These are all true facts, for another day. But today, the way that I feel is that Elizabeth Warren ran as a woman, and she lost.
Correction, March 5, 2020: This piece erroneously referred to the 1990 Janitors for Justice strike. It’s known as the Justice for Janitors strike.