written by Valerie Morales
American women are outliers in presidential elections. Misogyny, antipathy, and distrust recalibrate ambition and desire. Kirsten Gillibrand was the latest victim led to slaughter. Sadly, she won’t be the last .
The fundamental Gillibrand problem was she represented a feminist idea of equality. But, she lacked a constituency and she oxygenated a trope: women get men fired from their jobs.
Gillibrand could never explain away her insistence that Al Franken resign after sexual assault allegations. It was the right thing to demand his accountability but her rigidity and dismissiveness on the subject gave her a Clintonian look and a tsk tsk she puts men in jeopardy. It introduced the idea that Gillibrand has sympathy for women but withholds empathy from men, that she lacks balance and mercy.
An advocate, Kirsten Gillibrand was dedicated to women and children inequities but the press never anointed her as someone to pay attention to, giving that nod to Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. She was largely ignored. Her message that women and children’s equality are political concerns rather than institutionalized cancers rarely elicited a whisper. She railed against anti-abortion policies but so did other women. She wasn’t unique.
Fact: Women are not voting because they get the short end of the stick. That is their birthright, something they work around with modest results. Like men, women vote their pocketbooks. Or, they vote against someone. Or, they are relieved a plan is in place. Such as, end of life care for their parents, or college tuition loan forgiveness for their children. Women voters are practical and selfish, less interested in changing inequality than they are troubled about finances and quality of life. Climate change is a deep concern.
Gillibrand struggled to articulate a broad based message and then no one was listening because she just didn’t have much to say that hadn’t been said before. She was regurgitating everything we know.
Though it’s not fair, the likeability question was always circling around her. She didn’t play well on television. Her face didn’t warm up under the lights nor did she come off as an ass kicker. Just an interrupter and complainer. Another blonde. She was treading water and in such a large field of candidates she just couldn’t stand out.
Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, the A-list women candidates in a reality tv world, represent the kind of grit that skates north of women’s equality and traffics in everyday problems and hassles. Warren is an advocate for the underclass, women and men. She has a plan for everything. Her energy is her talent. Harris plays the prosecutor on television and in the Senate. She is out for justice and to rid evil from the ordinary world. Though she has significant negatives her opponents like to grab on to, it keeps her in the center of things, always on the defensive which is her strength, though her numbers have begun to wane. The embrace of Warren and Harris by Democrats left Gillibrand isolated. She couldn’t fight their way.
You run for president because you have a why. It’s not good enough to just hate Donald Trump’s everything. You need a plan to bridge the gaps that Trump’s divisions has exaggerated. Gillibrand was eloquent as the feminist candidate but when comments on Twitter almost always trend towards I hate feminists because they hate men, it’s an unflinching reminder that Gillibrand was always going to be boxed into that Hillary Clinton corner of contempt.
Transactionally, women don’t pay back the sisterhood debt. They search for flaws and inconsistencies. They reject each other in favor of men. There is a reason prosecutors want to stack the jury with women, and defense attorneys want to stack the jury with men. Women are harder on the accused. Men allow for situational hypocrisy, complexities, and made a mistake.
I don’t mean to say family leave isn’t important. And that LGBT rights don’t matter. And women do need a seat at the table. And reproductive rights are a human right. But elections don’t hover around the twin arcs of morality and female fealty. At the end of the day, the question centers on leadership. Where will you take us?
The convenience of feminism was a Gillibrand paralysis. She offered no apologies for weak men (Al Franken, Bill Clinton) and the consequence was a vaulting into, and not out of, the feminist stereotype . Her message felt like it was crafted during the Women’s March two years ago. The march was not social change. It was an event.
Kirsten Gillibrand was trying to fix something that was broken. It felt as if she was the only who cared. Sexism is economical and political but it has a spiritual cost. It ruins the soul. That is what Gillibrand could never express. Not that inequality existed. But that it raped and pillaged and too many victims are devastated but mocked. She focused on the perpetrators and not the survivors. Worse, Gillibrand herself didn’t come off as a survivor.
What are women to take from her failure? That equality and gender freedom, while great motivators , lead you nowhere? That political structures serve the god of false equivalency, so good luck with those change the world dreams?
Poet Audre Lorde’s eloquently spoke of women in shackles. Kristin Gillibrand’s failure is a real life truth of how those shackles aren’t ready to come off.
And so here we are, just where we started. Women and inequality as imperfect companions.
Her defunct campaign has many saying Kirsten Gillibrand crashed and burned. It’s partly true. She did crash. She ran on a cause that made her seem redundant and irrelevant. But it was not a burn. Not hardly. White privilege rents failure in the short term. Kirsten Gillibrand can return to the life she had. She can write about how it wasn’t her turn and then she can run for governor.
In the Senate, she will continue to dog the misogynists, particularly the president. She will assert her privilege. Someone will remind her she ran for president one day. Maybe she will tell them how it all fell apart.