It’s now a practically boring fact that women are running for political office in record numbers. And they're winning in record numbers too—there are now 127 women in Congress, including 47 women of color who helped decisively flip the House.
Still, we continue to hear about the "ambition gap" encouraging women to just “lean in”—as if more confidence is what's needed to pole-vault over centuries of structural sexism—even with five women in the Democratic primary for president. Women's lack of ambition is not the reason white men are leading in that race. Rather, it’s some dubious notion of who’s “electable” against Donald Trump. (Read: not a woman.)
That’s why watching South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who represents a population smaller than a New York City council district, outpoll Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren makes many of us want to eat glass; an entirely rational reaction to a datapoint that might discourage anyone without a Y chromosome. What the 2020 presidential primary is already making clear is that, as one of us wrote about Ivanka Trump, it’s time to ditch empowerment politics that places the onus entirely on women to succeed and allows men to feel like they're doing something for women without giving anything up.
Speaking of not giving anything up, the most recent Emerson poll shows Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke all ahead of the nearest women, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren.
While Biden and Sanders are well-established candidates with decades of public service and national name recognition, it’s galling to see previously obscure men with limited accomplishments like “Beto” and “Mayor Pete” leapfrog over women whose outsized accomplishments and respective résumés would put most people to shame. Smart girls are used to this, and the data backs us up.
A 2015 Vanderbilt University study found that a more qualified woman has an even shot against an average man, not a better one. But she’s a sure loser, like Hillary Clinton, when critics from Chuck Todd to Kellyanne Conway call her out for the sin of being “over-prepared,” and help clear a path to elect the most willfully ignorant and unqualified candidate in American history.
Voters require female candidates to be more prepared than men—and then punish them for it when they inevitably prove less “likable.” This is not just a Republican sickness. According to the same Emerson poll, 26 percent of Sanders supporters would vote for Trump over Warren in a general election.
The problem is that women need to be prepared to have any chance to succeed, while men get away with mediocrity. Take Stacey Abrams, who set herself up to run for governor by building the most extensive voter registration operation in Georgia. She got more votes than any past candidate in the state, with record African-American turnout surpassing even that of Barack Obama. A single, child-free, black woman of size successfully defied the script for who’s “electable,” only losing because of rapacious voter fraud and disenfranchisement.
Compare that to Buttigieg, who won reelection with roughly 8,500 votes, and is running for president after failed efforts to win higher office in his state while dismissing policy as “minutia.” The young—37-year-old—multilingual Harvard graduate and veteran has been getting treated more seriously and favorably than the senator and former Harvard professor who pumps out fresh policy each week after lifting herself out of poverty, revolutionizing bankruptcy law, and birthing and raising two children along the way—not to mention developing and leading a federal agency of her own invention before her star-making turn in the Senate.
Harris, meanwhile, is keeping pace with the men in small dollar fundraising with the added bonus of a law and order background to blunt her unabashed liberalism with general election voters, while still appealing to the core constituencies of the Democratic base: black voters and women. That’s on top of getting herself elected San Francisco district attorney, attorney general of California and then United States Senator (only the second black woman in history to do so), where she’s delighted Democrats by making Jeff Sessions and Brett Kavanaugh nearly cry. She’s trailing O’Rourke, who sailed into politics on family coattails and won fame for losing a Senate race (to one of the most disliked senators in the nation) before ditching his family for a road-trip and then deciding that the best way to reduce racial inequality in America was to run for president and hire people of color to work for him.
How are these people even in the same conversation?