How to Talk About Feminism in Politics When No One’s Asking

In Thursday’s Democratic Debate, ABC had ample—some would say excessive—time to explore issues that matter to the American people. America’s forever wars, their competing health care plans, gun violence, trade policy and immigration all received a thorough airing. (ICYMI: Here’s the transcript of the debate.)

But inexplicably, the four moderators couldn’t find a moment to ask a single question that touched on gender issues broadly defined—despite recent attempts by the Trump administration to defund Planned Parenthood and legalize LGBTQ discrimination, not to mention the election’s impact on the Supreme Court and the fate of Roe v. Wade.

If there hadn’t been three female presidential candidates on stage, women in America would have been invisible—but instead, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar elegantly demonstrated how to talk about feminism when no one’s asking.

(Gage Skidmore / Creative Commons)

#1: Talk About Feminist Issues

You’ve probably heard of Warren’s Aunt Bee. Last night in her opening statement, Warren again spoke of how, during her first big job after law school, “when childcare nearly brought me down, my Aunt Bee moved in to save us all.”

You might have also heard that Andrew Yang, polling at 2 percent, missed his son’s first day of school. Or that Beto, father of three, took a several-month long road trip to figure out his next move while Amy took care of the kids. But I digress. 

In America, good luck if you don’t have an Aunt Bee—because luck is what you’ll need. Women still do the lion’s share of America’s child care. We are one of only three nations without mandated paid maternity leave. Infant and child care costs more than college in many states. Our grossly inadequate family policies are key drivers of the gender pay gap.

Not a single question in the debates thus far has been directed to this critical issue, but that didn’t deter Warren. When a question about public education came up, she took it as an opportunity to talk about her plans to provide universal childcare from birth, universal pre-K and raise wages for the overwhelmingly female childcare workforce. Although several male candidates briefly mentioned universal pre-K, only Warren centered women in the discussion and elevated the issue to the priority it deserves.

#2: Apply a Gender Lens

You’ve probably heard the phrase “every issue is a woman’s issue.” It’s true, up to a point. But if you spend a lot of time in political circles, you’ll notice it’s often trotted out as way to dismiss feminist concerns, such as reproductive justice or sexual harassment, as secondary or niche. 

A more accurate perspective is that every issue is gendered—an approach that’s been institutionalized in many other nations under the rubric of gender mainstreaming.

The good news is that many of the candidates on stage, including some of the men, understand that getting policy right entails seeing it through an intersectional gender lens. In discussing veterans affairs, Cory Booker spoke about the travesty of women veterans waiting months for gynecological care through the VA. Asked about the racial divide, Beto O’Rourke decried the fact that “there’s a maternal mortality crisis three times as deadly for women of color.” Pete Buttigieg talked of his fear of coming out during an election, and being inspired by the trust his constituents showed in him.

Asked about criminal justice, Kamala Harris explained that her plan would “de-incarcerate women and children” and “keep families intact.” And during a powerful conversation about gun violence, Klobuchar zeroed in on its intersections with domestic violence.

In all these areas—the military, criminal justice, racial justice, politics, gun law reform—the default is assumed to be male and straight. But in calling those assumptions into question, each of these candidates charted a path to solutions that respond to the unique experience of the diverse individuals that make up America.

#3: Represent Women

At the end of the debate, a final soft-ball question for all candidates about personal resilience confirmed that not a single direct question about women’s issues would be asked. ABC’s moderators hadn’t given the women candidates much to work with—but necessity is the mother of invention, so they pivoted.

Together, their answers amounted to a powerful portrait of the devastating personal impacts of gender discrimination, the corrosive ways implicit race and gender bias interact to limit opportunities for women of color and the harm of policies that are ignorant to women’s unique experiences.

Warren talked about being fired from her first dream job as a public school teacher because she was “visibly pregnant.” Harris reflected on being dismissed and discounted every time she ran for office: it’s not your time, a black woman can’t do that, it’s never been done, she was repeatedly told. Klobuchar recounted the story of being kicked out of the hospital 24 hours after giving birth, while her infant daughter struggled for survival in the ICU—and how she turned around and, with a squad of moms at her side, ultimately changed the law.

Racism, xenophobia and debates about immigration and American values were key topics of focus in the debate—as well they should be. But the women on stage reminded everyone that gender remains a critical fault line in America, and proved yet again that it makes a substantive difference when women are at the tables of power.


Nancy L. Cohen is an editor-at-large for Ms. She is the author of four books, including Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America and Breakthrough: The Making of America’s First Woman President. She has appeared as a guest on MSNBC and her writing has been published in the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @nancylcohen.