Let’s be real: There were quite a few eye-rolly, forgettable, and just plain petty moments during last night’s fifth Democratic presidential primary debate, from Cory Booker asking Joe Biden whether he’s high to Tulsi Gabbard accusing Pete Buttigieg of attempting to invade Mexico. One of about a zillion debates during the never-ending 2020 season, the whole affair will likely end up a footnote in history.
But hold up and take off the cynical lens for a bit. Because there was also something game-changing about the debate that we as a nation have somehow started to take for granted, but that nevertheless changed the entire conversation.
First, and most obviously: four out of the 10 candidates on stage were women. Women’s rights advocate Barbara Lee, president of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, points out in her analysis that in the over 170 Democratic and Republican presidential primary debates broadcast since families gathered around the radio for the first one in 1948, only five women ever participated — until everything changed this year, when six women were onstage for the first 2020 debate in June.
The gap in representation extends to moderators, whose job it is to select questions and enforce rules. According to a report from Time’s Up, between 1996 and 2016, almost half of primary debates had no women moderators and three-quarters included no people of color. But this time around, we saw a powerhouse panel of four women moderating the debate — Rachel Maddow, Kristen Welker, Ashley Parker, and Andrea Mitchell — for only the third time in U.S. history.
In the past, this blatant lack of representation has resulted in a disproportionate focus on what Lee calls “macro” topics like foreign policy and the economy, with little attention paid to how these topics affect women-identifying people. And, as advocates have been reminding us again and again this election season, it has resulted in little to no discussion of the crisis of women losing abortion rights in states like Georgia (where this debate took place), the growing scourge of maternal mortality, the lack of affordable childcare, institutions that protect sexual assault perpetrators, widespread workplace discrimination against pregnant women, and other issues that are swept to the side despite the fact that many of them affect over half the population. According to Lee's analysis, only 4% of 2019 debate questions before last night were about issues that primarily affect women.
But, as we witnessed on Wednesday night, simply including women representing different ideologies and viewpoints on the stage — and seasoned women journalists in the moderator seats — can shift the discourse.
For starters, the moderators clearly made an effort to balance questions about foreign policy and impeachment with questions about paid family leave, reproductive rights, and more. Paid family leave had its time in the spotlight thanks to a question from Parker, with both Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris going into detail about their plans — Harris’ being the most generous yet, promising to provide families with six months of paid time off. Welker asked Warren whether there is room for anti-abortion politicians like Louisiana’s recently reelected Gov. John Bel Edwards in the Democratic Party, which gave Warren an opportunity to pivot and discuss the disparity between rich and poor women when it comes to abortion access. Bernie Sanders contributed to the discussion with an ally moment: "This is a time in American history when the men of this country must stand with the women."
Harris also got a moment in the spotlight when she asked whether the Democratic Party is truly showing up for Black women. "There are plenty of people who applauded Black women for the success of the 2018 election," she said. "When Black women are three to four times more likely to die in connection to childbirth in America, when Black women make 61 cents on the dollar. The question is, where have you been, and what are you gonna do?"
Then there were less-serious, but nevertheless powerful, episodes, like when Klobuchar reminded the audience that her exes have donated $17,000 to her Senate campaign, which one commentator noted was very “big dick energy” of her. Patriarchal imagery aside, it’s hard to argue with that.
Despite some thrilling victories, last night should be just a start — and by no means the exception. As policy expert Vicki Shabo pointed out, it shouldn’t be solely up to women moderators and candidates to discuss these crucial issues.
"It was terrific to finally see paid family leave, child care, harassment, and the intersectional challenges facing women in terms of pay, care, work, and dignity come up, and to see several candidates address the importance of understanding and addressing the intersectional challenges facing women of color," Shabo, a senior fellow at New America, told Refinery29 the night of the debate. But if this debate turns out to be the only one where these issues are discussed, she wrote in a Medium post, "the networks and the moderators will have set the issues back, reinforcing misperceptions that these are side issues rather than core to health, economic security, equity, safety, and dignity."
Instead, she wrote, "Candidates must be pushed — and embrace the chance to discuss — their personal relationship to gender inequity. ... It’s time for the main stage on these issues, and it cannot just be up to the women moderators to get them there."
Finally, it’s starkly obvious that all of this progress is happening against the steady drumbeat of a media culture that hasn’t fully addressed sexual violence. Following sexual abuse allegations against Matt Lauer, earlier this week, the organization UltraViolet organized four of the Democratic candidates — Warren, Sanders, Harris, and Booker — to call out NBC News and MSNBC, the debate’s hosts, for having created a culture that "enabled abusers and silenced survivors." In a letter to Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, they wrote, "Comcast should have and needs to do more to shift the work culture and pursue significant structural changes in order to prevent future harassment and abuse at NBC and MSNBC."
We have a long way to go until gender justice is truly served. Still, it’s hard to ignore how normal it feels to see so many women on the stage, moderating the debate, and discussing issues that have long been marginalized — when it's still anything but. Let’s hope it becomes the new normal.