We'll Be Talking About Kirsten Gillibrand's Campaign For Years To Come

Photo: Larry Marano/Shutterstock.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand ended her candidacy for president on Wednesday, after falling short of the requirement needed to make the stage in September's Democratic primary debate. The sixth candidate and first woman to drop out of the 2020 presidential race, Gillibrand may not have reached her desired poll numbers. But with her relentless focus on motherhood and issues that primarily affect women, she set a precedent for what a woman-centric campaign looks like — and that's an impact likely to last beyond the year 2020. Unlike Hillary Clinton in 2016, Gillibrand wore being a woman on her sleeve, and even though she has gracefully bowed out to focus on the Herculean task of winning back the Senate for Democrats in 2020, her campaign holds many future lessons for those like it.
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In some ways, Gillibrand's entire campaign can be read as a course-correction of the careful calibrations of Clinton's, particularly the pink, stereotypically feminine branding seen on her swag, social media, and more. "She is someone who is embracing a very explicitly feminist and women and family-oriented campaign," Kate Manne, a feminist philosopher and author of Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, tells Refinery29. "It's interesting because, I think, often the advice Hillary was given on the campaign trail was to present a masculine style, and it didn't play well when it came from a woman."
Staffers of Gillibrand's campaign framed embracing the unconventional pink as an attempt to "take it back." "So much of what is considered feminine is regarded as weak or fluffy, over-the-top, unnecessary. Pink has long been associated with that," Sara Rodriguez, 27, Gillibrand's content director and the designer of much of the branding, tells Refinery29. "I think her goal there was, 'We’re going to take this pink and we’re going to wield it as a symbol of empowerment, specifically because it's been used as a symbol of weakness before."
With this in-your-face aesthetic, Gillibrand not only refused to take the, as Manne calls it, "assimilationist" approach of Clinton, but in doing so started a conversation about just how stereotypically "female" a candidate is allowed to be. In years to come, it will serve as either a mirror to hold up for future candidates or an extreme to run away from, but either way, political strategists will likely be talking about it.
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Rebekah Bolser, 22, a digital communication strategist with Quinn Media Group who lives in Hamilton, OH, says that as a political communications professional, she has become "obsessed with Gillibrand’s brand," specifically with how she contrasts statements like "Brave Wins" with a feminine aesthetic.
"Painting the word 'Brave' in bright pink speaks volumes about the type of leader she is," Bolser says. "Centering the concept of brave in a campaign for a woman candidate for the highest office in the land very intentionally pushed to redefine what it means to be a leader and to make women candidates the norm in our culture."
The tepid response to these gutsy overtures suggests the public may not be ready for overt femininity in a presidential campaign. It also leaves questions about just how far female candidates — obviously not all of them typically "feminine" either — can test the waters of untraditional candidacy. There's no "right" answer here, but Gillibrand's run did provide a semblance of a response: Throw it out there and see how far it goes.
Branding and messaging aside, Gillibrand was also the first candidate to center women to the extent that she has in terms of issues, although it is arguable that this worked to her detriment as well because the electorate wasn't ready. The noisiest example of this is the contempt she's sparked, and is still sparking, after she called on former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken to resign when sexual harassment allegations against him came out in 2017. Her campaign has suggested that prominent Democratic donors turned against her as a result of her call for his resignation, significantly slowing down her momentum.
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Gillibrand also became the first candidate to vow to only nominate judges and justices who recognize Roe v. Wade as settled law, which the other Democratic candidates quickly followed. The Washington Post commented, "no one else is talking about reproductive rights nearly as much or as forcefully as Gillibrand." Shortly after Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed into law a ban on abortions once a "fetal heartbeat" is detected, she showed up on the steps of the Georgia statehouse to advocate for patients and released a comprehensive reproductive rights agenda. In August, she traveled to Missouri to speak out against its proposed eight-week abortion ban, which was recently struck down by a judge.
During her campaign, she also continued to advocate for her hallmark policy: the FAMILY Act, which would create the first federal paid family leave policy in the United States, something every other Democrat running for president has backed. Paid family leave advocates say they worry that her exit could leave a gap when it comes to discussing this issue on a national stage. "We hope the remaining candidates will use the opportunity of her leaving the race to affirm their support of paid family and medical leave," Ellen Bravo, the co-director of Family Values @ Work, tells Refinery29.
In the fallout of the 2016 election, much of the electorate seems jaded about the role of gender in politics. According to a recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, only 5% of female Democratic voters said that gender equality was a top priority when voting. Covering Gillibrand on the campaign trail, it became obvious that the majority of Democratic voters are looking for a candidate to match up with Trump, gender and historic candidacies be damned. (A new poll shows that several Democratic candidates, including Sens. Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, could potentially win against him.) It's easy to forget amid this bleak landscape what a revolutionary act it is for a woman to run for president, much less become the nominee.
The five women left in the race — Warren, Harris, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Marianne Williamson — all have different interpretations of what it means to run as a woman, addressing the role of gender in the race, and issues that affect women, to varying degrees. This is good. There is no one way to be, or run for office as, a woman. But by centering women and bringing femininely coded imagery to the presidential race, Gillibrand went into uncharted territory. She went there so that future female candidates could feel more confident doing so. Or, who knows? Maybe she, herself, will do it all again one day.
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