Ever since Elizabeth Warren ended her presidential primary run, there’s been a deluge of articles analyzing what went wrong with her campaign. After all, on paper at least, Warren was the ideal Democratic candidate for 2020: brilliant, capable, experienced, compassionate, and female. She had real policies for fixing many of the problems that plague hard working Americans. She had a plan for everything. And after the near-miss in 2016, America seemed ready to put a smart, capable, qualified woman in the White House.
Political analysts looked everywhere for the reason Warren never placed higher than third in any primary — why she didn’t even win her home state of Massachusetts. Some argued she was doomed out of the gate by the mishandling of her claim of Native American ancestry and by allowing Trump to bait her into taking a DNA test. Others argued it was her public feud with Bernie Sanders over whether or not he told her that a woman couldn’t be elected president. One analysis laid the blame squarely at the feet of her chief campaign strategist Joe Rospars for softening her edges and trying to hide her image as a fighter, arguably her most compelling quality.
But most pundits came to the conclusion that, just like in 2016, the true reason for Elizabeth Warren’s failure was that we just don’t like women. Call it sexism, misogyny, testimonial injustice, or a double standard, the only logical explanation for why, in a campaign that began with a historically diverse field of candidates, the putative Democratic nominee for president in 2020 is an old white man.
But it wasn’t sexism that sank Warren’s campaign. Or Amy Klobuchar’s. Or even Hillary Clinton’s. It was invisibility. Elizabeth Warren’s problem isn’t that she’s a woman per se; it’s that she’s a middle-aged woman. And in our society, middle-aged women are simply invisible.
There wasn’t a particular event, or point of policy, or debate blunder that ended Warren’s campaign. In fact her debate performances were strong, and her policies were sound and coherent. Her campaign ended one voter at a time, each time someone thought “she reminds me of my third grade teacher.” Nothing more needed to be said after that realization.
None of the qualities that we associate with older women are positive: middle-aged women are annoying, nagging, uncool. They aren’t commanding enough. Or they’re too domineering. We don’t like their high pitched voices. Or their deep voices. They wear pant suits. Or they wear dresses. And sensible shoes. And most damning of all: they are not sexy.
None of these things, I would argue, are reasons that a person shouldn’t be president. If their policies are sound and their judgment is good, there is no reason that a sensible-shoe wearing person with a high pitched voice should not be president. After all, we have endured much worse. But in a woman, any one of these things spells doom. “She reminds me of my piano teacher” is all it takes.
For men, there’s not the same kind of automatic disqualification. Bernie may remind you of your grandpa. Joe Biden may remind you of your [creepy] uncle. Mayor Pete might remind you of that cute kid who lived down the street. But that’s never where the discussion ends. What difference does it make who he reminds you of? It doesn’t mean he can’t be president. But somehow “she reminds me of my grandma” is a completely different matter. Why is it that invoking the specter of an older woman is automatically the end of the line? Maybe it’s because in this country we’ve never had the example of an older woman being in a position of power. I don’t know. But obviously your grandmother isn’t going to be president.
Every older woman knows exactly what I’m talking about: it wasn’t the day we first got called “Ma’am” that we began to feel old; it was the day we realized we were invisible. Because once a woman reaches a certain age, she’s no longer viewed through the lens of desirability, and she simply vanishes from society’s consciousness.
She becomes a prop, possibly even an inspiration, in the lives of other people: her husband, her children and grandchildren, young women trying to overturn our patriarchal system, little girls formulating their world-view, or men seeking the presidency. But the middle-aged woman is never the star of the show.
In Hollywood, everyone knows that roles for women past a certain age are hard to come by, and those that do exist are supporting roles in someone else’s story. There are shockingly few stories where the lead character is a middle-aged woman; only those which are specifically targeted at other middle-aged women, a la “Book Club,” or women seeking revenge or picking up the pieces of their broken lives (think “First Wives Club or “Grace and Frankie“). But for general audiences, stories of middle-aged women hold no appeal.
In the music industry too it’s youth –and sexuality– that sells. That’s why Jennifer Lopez is still out there shaking her money-maker. She knows that once she can’t do that any more her appeal will vanish. And at age 50 she’s coming perilously close to the point where people don’t want to think of her in that way any more. Witness the outcry over her Superbowl show. Few people complained before that it was inappropriate for children to be exposed to “such blatant sexuality” during the family-oriented half time show. Puh leeze. It’s because J Lo’s well manicured toes are pressed right up against the line where she’s expected to sit down and accept her invisibility. Well, God bless her, she’s not ready to do that yet.
Remember the show Survivor? The middle-aged woman was always the first person voted off the island. She was always presumed to be the weakest member of the tribe. Everyone assumed she added no value to the team. In fact, she may have had strong survival skills and was no doubt the hardest-working person around. (I promise you, she worked way harder than the pretty girl or the hunky guy — because by the time a woman has raised a family and made it to middle age, she knows how to work damned hard!) But the qualities that older women bring are not valued by our society. There’s just something in our evolutionary brain that tells us that once a woman is past her childbearing usefulness, she’s disposable.
Middle aged women are a non-factor in any gathering. She may well be the smartest person in the room, but she’s not the one people are paying attention to. Everyone loves our cookies and our pies; they gladly sit down to our wonderful Thanksgiving dinner. And doesn’t everyone love those videos where Granny dances in the kitchen (so cute!). But nobody, except other middle aged women, has any interest in listening to what we have to say. Sure, everyone loves their mom, but let’s face it: no one actually wants to hang out with her.
And the disappointing truth in this is that many women (young and old) also seem to have internalized the bias against older women. How else to explain the fact that we didn’t throw 100% of our support behind any one of the five women in the primary fight? Why didn’t we rally behind Elizabeth Warren or even Amy Klobuchar? Because we said –consciously or not– “she reminds me of my grandma” and we immediately looked for another candidate to support. As justification, we find excuses for our failure to support female candidates: “She was in the pocket of Wall Street” (or “she’s anti-Wall Street”) or “I didn’t like Warren’s support for Medicare for All” (or was it her opposition to Medicare for All? Because the truth is most voters couldn’t tell you with any precision where Warren stood on most of the issues.) Women made plenty of excuses for not supporting Hillary in 2016. She “wasn’t authentic.” “She should never have stood by Bill after the Monica Lewinsky thing.” “She voted for the war.” Yet we make plenty of allowances for supporting less-than-perfect male candidates.
For some reason, we older women seem to be content to stand aside and let the beautiful younger generation shine. We take the supporting roles in their lives. Do we even believe that a woman could lead the free world?
I don’t know if our society will ever evolve beyond the point where women have value only as long as they have youth. Until we do women will never make it to the pinnacle of success, and we’re certainly never going to be able to break that oval glass ceiling.
As for now, it’s goodbye Elizabeth Warren. The tribe has spoken.