Welcome to Hindsight 2020, Refinery29's column reflecting on the women running for president and the lessons learned (or not!) from 2016.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that Wednesday’s Democratic presidential primary debate was almost three hours with no explicit mention of women’s rights in sight. That’s not to say that healthcare, immigration, and climate change aren’t wildly important issues, but the fact that women (and the LGBTQ+ community, for that matter) got practically no air time was downright depressing.
Thankfully, we didn’t go an entire debate without mentioning gender equality. One of the few standout moments was when Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris worked together to poke holes in Joe Biden’s record on issues that primarily affect women like abortion and women’s role in the workplace.
The exchange started with CNN moderator Dana Bash asking Gillibrand about fining companies that don’t pay women equally. Gillibrand pivoted to an op-ed Biden wrote in the 1980s. “I think we have to have a broader conversation about whether we value women and whether we want to make sure women have every opportunity in the workplace,” she said. “When the Senate was debating middle-class affordability for child care...[Joe Biden] voted against it, the only vote, but what he wrote in an op-ed was that he believed that women working outside the home would, quote, ‘create the deterioration of family.’ He also said that women who were working outside the home were, quote, ‘avoiding responsibility.’”
.@JoeBiden op-ed in 1981: Expanding the childcare tax credit and allowing more women to work would subsidize "the deterioration of the family."— Meredith Kelly (@meredithk27) August 1, 2019
Those are his words. He should explain to America: How does a mom working lead to the deterioration of the family? pic.twitter.com/RADnzTbofx
Biden responded by listing his involvement in legislation like the Violence Against Women Act and Lilly Ledbetter equal pay legislation, ending with the quip, “I don’t know what’s happened except that you’re now running for president.” Of course, the messy debate format also meant that we didn’t get to expand on that op-ed, which was a little more complex (and, quite frankly, confusing) than either candidate had time to unpack. It was about Biden’s opposition to high-earning couples taking advantage of a child-care tax credit made for lower-income families — but Biden vaguely argued that wealthy couples would use the tax credit to “forsake responsibility” for their own children and instead use it to chase their own selfish material desires.
After the initial skirmish between Gillibrand and Biden, Harris interjected — and Bash gave her the floor — to question the former vice president’s record on the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds from being used for abortions. “Listen, I mean talk about now running for president, you change your position on the Hyde Amendment, Vice President, where you made a decision for years to withhold resources to poor women to have access to reproductive healthcare, including women who were the victims of rape and incest,” she said.
And just as quickly as the opportunity to talk about women’s rights appeared, it evaporated in an instant, with the conversation turning to unions and then foreign policy in a matter of seconds.
Largely because of the format, Gillibrand and Harris' fleeting mentions of women’s inequality could’ve gone a lot further. Gillibrand didn't really answer the initial question about fining companies who don’t promote equal pay for employees, an issue that seems like it should be in her repertoire. While she's made many statements on equal pay and co-sponsored the Paycheck Fairness Act, her campaign has yet to put out an equal pay plan. And despite the Hyde Amendment being about abortion funding, no candidate on the stage actually said the word "abortion."
Of course, we also have to look at the reason the exchange even came up: It only happened because the candidates were asked the single women-centric question of the night — about equal pay — by the only female moderator. This speaks to the importance of diversifying the moderator field, which the Democratic National Committee (DNC) recently vowed to do.
Imperfections aside, I’d like to see more moments where female candidates come together — especially to further discussions around undercovered issues that impact women every day.
During previous debates, female candidates have by and large focused their energies on individually taking on male opponents. But imagine what they could do and what we’d be talking about as a nation if they were able to combine those efforts and amplify their power. Even if Gillibrand and Harris weren't necessarily trying to make the exchange into a larger feminist moment, the optics were still the same: Biden continued to fumble on women’s rights while two female candidates brought up several salient points on the subject in a debate that was sorely lacking it.
The strategy was a needed boost for Gillibrand: Her communications director Emmy Bengtson reported that during the debate, she received more than twice as many donations as she did during the first debate, and 75% of these donors were new. In contrast, Joe Biden’s debate performance has been deemed generally lackluster, with the biggest day-after talking point being that he misspoke in his closing statement and told people to “go to” his text line “Joe 30330” instead of his campaign website.
This is not to say that female politicians should never criticize each other and should only go after male candidates forever. (In fact, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard got a lot of attention last night by going after Harris' prosecutorial record.) But at this point in the race, with the first primary still six months away and 10 more presidential primary debates on the calendar through April 2020, it makes sense for women to team up and have the uncomfortable conversations that many of the male politicians have gotten to avoid for decades.
It’d be an understatement to say last night’s debate left much to be desired. The setup was chaotic, the answers were confusing, and the entire affair lacked energy. But Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand’s brief partnership onstage showed what can happen if women stick together. On a night that’ll go down as wildly unmemorable, it was one of the few highlights that gave me hope for what’s to come. What if, instead of fighting, the focus was on coming together and highlighting issues that many of these men aren’t — and making marginalized groups feel seen?
Why not let the men take each other down, all while helping ourselves rise?