When will America be ready?

Sen Elizabeth Warren, who dropped out of the 2020 Democratic presidential race, represents a missed opportunity for America to elect a woman president. PHOTO: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER

As my daughter and I drove to the polling booth last week to vote at the Democratic Primaries in the United States, I asked: "So, who are you voting for"? "Who do you think? The smartest and most capable candidate, and the only woman left in the race—Elizabeth Warren," came her prompt response. I was taken aback. Just as it was unusual to remain undecided about one's choice this late, it was also unusual to be so confident. This is simply because the 2020 US election is like no other that many of us have encountered in our lifetime. And Democrats must choose the right candidate to contest Trump.    

Without belabouring the point, let me just say that the American institutions are in shambles, the rule of law has become skewed toward the rich and the powerful, and the bar for corruption and nepotism has reached an all-time low. Pundits say that history will be harsh on this presidency—but as we approached the polling location, I wondered: do I have time to wait for history to pronounce its judgment? I decided to vote with my head and not my heart and chose the most "viable" candidate who can hopefully beat Donald Trump in the election. Joe Biden.

However, my daughter's choice made me pause for a moment. How could I not vote for Warren? As a woman from a country where I grew up fighting for women's rights and freedom at every step, my decision sounded like a betrayal to women's causes. This is what the Trump presidency has done to so many of us women. We have been cowed down—we still have the fight left in us, but all the resistance has been congealed into a single objective. We cannot have four more years of a president who demeans women each day. In some ways, he has succeeded in lowering our standards to the extent that we are no longer glued to our ideologies. We are fixated on a single objective: winning the presidency in 2020.

Hence, I put a damper on my emotions, held back my tears and voted for the male candidate who I thought was most likely to beat Donald Trump. The truth is, I am still reeling from the blow that Hillary Clinton's loss has dealt the country. We all supported a woman—she was smart, educated and ostensibly electable. She won the popular votes but the electoral system betrayed her. There is no doubt in my mind that gender was part of the reason she lost the presidency.

Emotions aside, the deeper issue is: why is America not yet ready for a woman president? The rest of the world has moved ahead in this regard. Even my native country, Bangladesh, has had women prime ministers for almost two decades. Ironically, Asian males (in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh), accused by the United States of denying women their rights, have been comfortable voting for a female head of state! In contrast, Warren was haunted by the invisible spectre of American sexism, which is the worst kind of sexism because it is so subtle that some people don't believe it exists at all. No one dared say she is not suited to be the president because of her gender, but there were covert references to whether she was too aggressive and preachy or if the troops would look up to her as their Commander in Chief.

Interestingly, a journalist even asked her about her glowing complexion even at 70, and she unabashedly answered that she used Pond's moisturizer. A simple, old-fashioned beauty tip, offered so willingly by the woman who had a plan for everything, including health care, equal wages, planned parenthood, paid maternity leave and education for our kids. Pundits who think candidates should be grilled only on their policies may sneer at this exchange. But identity politics exists in the US. Young women like my daughter are perturbed by the uneven treatment meted to women seeking high office. They saw Elizabeth Warren as one of them since she walked a risky tightrope between being a woman and defying male chauvinism. And she made it look easy.

When Warren's critics couldn't fault her policy plan, her personal life was scrutinised as no other candidate. She was never forgiven for her claims of Native American ancestry and her decision to take a DNA test—which revealed a minute indigenous heritage and which ignored issues of cultural history that many Native Americans believe defines them. The nickname that Trump mockingly gave her, Pocahontas, stuck until the end. Meanwhile, the president himself flooded the nation with well-orchestrated lies about his tax returns, his sex scandals and, more recently, about the spread of coronavirus in the country. Sometimes I wish that the Warren-doubting pundits would come out of the closet and talk plainly about why they don't want a woman president. At least that would make the debate more real. And people like me could stop wondering if sexism exists only in our heads.

Despite her exit, Warren's campaign taught us many facts about being a woman. We struggled with whether or not it was okay for Joe Biden to massage women's shoulders uninvited, or should we forgive Mike Bloomberg for telling a pregnant woman to "kill" her unborn child so that she wouldn't have to take maternity leave. We tolerated Sanders' supporters sending Warren snake emojis and bullying her female campaign employees. We ignored all these provocations and even frontal attacks because we rationalised that they matter little when fighting a president who is accused of sexual assault and who publicly belittles women at every opportunity. We fell into the trap of the endless debates about being "electable", and rightly or wrongly, decided it was not worth taking the risk this time. I rationalised: "I'm ready for a female president, but the country isn't." As if I was not part of the country! 

Elizabeth Warren's good-bye speech was full of compassion and hope: "We have shown that a woman can stand up, hold her ground, and stay true to herself… the fight may take a new form, but I will be in that fight, and I want you in this fight with me. We will persist!" As I listened, I blamed myself for not having the courage to fight her battle with her—a woman of integrity who spent a career trying to do the right thing and now did the right thing again: unite the party to help overturn the Trump administration.

The day Warren dropped out, the media gushed forth with praise for her—the well-deserved praise they never gave her when she was running for president. It made me wonder: Do people admire powerful women only when they are not seeking power? I don't know the answer. What I know is that I did not give the most able candidate my vote because I doubted that a woman could defeat Trump. It's a cross that I will bear for a long time!


Milia Ali is a Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.


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