The Elizabeth Warren-Bernie Sanders fight makes good fodder for campaign reporters still trudging through the Democratic primary. The candidates’ exchange during the last debate managed to enliven a dull-as-dishwater two hours during which — apart from the “Can a woman be elected president?” tiff — no one said anything new or remotely newsworthy.
But the passing coverage of the friendly-fire feud manages to gloss over one of the most consequential movements of our time: the changing role of women in the workplace and, importantly, in the home. While the browning of America has animated and frightened voters on the right, so have massive cultural shifts — not only the increasing acceptance of equal rights for gay, lesbian and transgender citizens, but also, fundamentally, the increasing power and status given to women. That has shaken ultraconservatives to the core.
They won’t admit it, of course. While religious fundamentalists such as Franklin Graham regularly denounce same-sex marriage, and white nationalists such as Pat Buchanan frequently lash out against the coming demographic wave, few conservatives since the heyday of Phyllis Schlafly admit their reluctance to allow equal power and influence to women. It’s too small-minded, too misogynistic, too antediluvian.
Schlafly was herself a fascinating study in cynicism. Best known for her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, she was an attorney who ran for elected office and held high-profile positions in conservative political organizations while jetting around the country arguing for a return to old-fashioned gender roles.
To see Republican misogyny, you need look no further than the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, where the vast majority of women who serve are Democrats, not Republicans. Of the 26 women currently serving in the Senate, 17 are Democrats. The 116th Congress ushered in a record number of women in the House — 102, nearly a quarter. Of those, 89 are Democrats. The person third in the line of succession to the presidency is one of those: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Take another look at the fight over abortion rights. If you believe that most of the anti-abortion crowd are sincerely concerned about the lives of children, then you’ll have to explain why the same voters oppose any sort of government assistance — housing, child care, nutrition — for poor children once they emerge from the womb. There’s a reason Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale vaulted to renewed popularity after the election of President Donald J. Trump. Many women understand that the far right is trying to limit women’s choices, not save infants.
Or just examine the far right’s allegiance to Trump, who was elected after dramatic revelations of his abuse of women: He was caught on tape bragging about groping women against their will. Those boasts not only failed to turn off his conservative supporters, but Trump’s behavior also electrified them. Trump fits their ideal of the take-charge alpha male.
It is certainly more than possible for a woman to be elected president of the United States. As Sanders has pointed out, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, garnering about 3 million more votes than Trump. If Warren were to win the nomination (Amy Klobuchar seems less likely to do so), Democrats would certainly unite behind her, and a strong anti-Trump sentiment could power her into the Oval Office. But that would only further inflame the ultraconservatives who pine for the old days when their values — and straight white men — ruled.
There is no doubt that the women’s movement has shaken up old systems and even created seismic shifts, shifts that a modern society has to reckon with. As just one example, birth rates are in decline across the Western world as women marry later and have fewer children. That has implications for families, for governments, for economies.
But there are no answers in sexism, no reasonable plans or policies in trying to turn back the clock to the time of Father Knows Best. Few thinking women (or men, for that matter) are interested in that. The drive to perfect the American promise of equality for all is ongoing, as it should be. Here’s to the election of a woman or man who will push us forward.