September 28, 2023

White Feminism Rising

By: Joshua Howell


It is telling that, of the female candidates who have exited the Democratic primary thus far, none has caused quite the same stir as Elizabeth Warren. Not Kirsten Gillibrand. Not Kamala Harris. Not Amy Klobuchar. Not (bless her heart) Marianne Williamson. Then again, it is also telling that, of the many columns published last week lamenting the demise of Warren’s campaign, most were written by white women.

Of course, one shouldn’t dismiss the sentiments expressed therein. In the New York Times, Sarah Smarsh wrote a moving essay about how she was “burning with fury and grief” over Warren’s exit. She went on to display genuine frustration that Warren placed fourth in Nevada “in spite of thoroughly winning a Las Vegas candidates’ debate.” Her passion is no doubt sincere, but when she casually forgets to mention — or is simply unaware of — a Politico report detailing how six women of color left Warren’s Nevada operation because they felt tokenized and not listened to, Smarsh’s jeremiad, that indefatigable fury of hers, appears to be burning white-hot.

Which isn’t to smear Smarsh as a racist. That would be ridiculous. But these are the types of oversights that happen when one’s coalition is primarily comprised of white voters.

It seems Warren had a plan for everything, except for how to woo voters of color, the king-and-queen makers in a Democratic Primary. The plans themselves may have been the problem. Warren was one of the most liberal candidates in the race while African Americans are some of the most conservative. Her plans for black America, while appealing to a narrow strain of black scholars and activists, often came across as patronizing, as yet another white politician insisting they knew what black people needed better than they did. At best, Warren’s plans showed a level of thoughtful seriousness typically unseen in elections. At worst, they were evidence of white saviorism, this time gussied up with an Oklahoman accent and a Harvard pedigree. People want politicians to listen to them during elections, not lecture them.

Warren isn’t even the last woman to drop out of the race. That honor will eventually go to Tulsi Gabbard, an Iraq War Veteran and the first American Samoan and Hindu member of Congress.

Poor Tulsi. When Warren suspended her campaign and spoke of “all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years,” the least she could have done is given Gabbard a shout out. When, during an interview with Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC host gave a list of female primary candidates that excluded Gabbard, Warren missed yet another opportunity to throw some credit her way.

Perhaps Warren was afraid Gabbard was encroaching on her brand of political persistence. Maybe, in the tumult of shuttering her campaign, it quietly slipped her mind. The humanity of her mistake aside, it was still a bad look, and it is undoubtedly part of a larger pattern of her campaign’s mishandling of race.

But the commentariat is a larger matter. The vast majority of the columns published last week — which are either about Warren specifically or female candidates more generally — do not mention Gabbard at all. In a satirical column for The Washington Post, for example, Alexandra Petri transports readers to America circa 2148, when we still have yet to elect a female president. Petri wrote: “First Hillary. Then Liz, Amy, Kamala and Kirsten. Then Alexandria. Then Fiona. Then Tiffany. Then Siri. Then Glorm (1 through 19).” It’s funny (as her commentary often is), but much of Petri’s poignancy is lost because she takes the time to invent names but does not include the one woman — a woman of color — who is still running in the race.

Let us be clear on this point: There is no chance that Gabbard will make a miraculous comeback, and some of that has to do with her controversial positions. (Her belief that abortions should be “safe, legal and rare” carries with it a judgement about the medical procedure’s moral acceptability, a judgement that may have turned off many liberal voters.) But Gabbard wasn’t the only candidate with controversial positions — if memory serves, Warren and Sanders wanted to obliterate private health insurance.

Besides, there is an instructive metaphor in all this: a woman of color persisting longer than a white woman despite slimmer odds. And for her troubles, what does she receive? Praise for how principled she is? Respect for her never-say-die attitude? A patronizing if well-intentioned pat on the back? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. At best, pundits mention her perfunctorily, a mere gesture to factual accuracy. At worst, they ignore her completely. The metaphor would be crude if it weren’t so familiar. Nevertheless, Gabbard persists.

We can only hope that Warren, her supporters, and the columnists who have drowned us in so much black ink will blanch at their mistakes. Four years from now, there will be another Democratic Primary, and we can rest assured that there will be more female candidates. When they begin their campaign, it will be important for them to realize that no candidate deserves the nomination without the support of — and doing good by — people of color.


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