Gail Collins: Scoring some wins for women in politics

(Patrick Semansky | AP) Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., pauses for a photo Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, after a Democratic presidential primary debate hosted by CNN and the Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa.

We’ve spent a remarkable amount of time this week discussing whether there’s sexism in politics.


OK, no need to be cynical. Let’s look on the positive side first. If you are around Elizabeth Warren’s age of 70, you’ve had the incredible luck to live through a period of history in which American women’s rights and opportunities have been transformed. There are still people alive who were born when women couldn’t vote. Now we’ve got Nancy Pelosi giving a herd of male leaders their marching orders in Congress.

This doesn’t mean all the battles are won. We’ve got only nine female governors, and a lot of people of both sexes really don’t believe the country will elect any female president.

How you look at this depends a lot on why you think Hillary Clinton lost. Yes, she did get 2.8 million more votes than Donald Trump. But we can’t spend the day bewailing the existence of the Electoral College.

Back to the question. Why do you think she lost?


“Failure to campaign in Wisconsin.”

“She won! She won! She won! She ——”

Sorry about that sharp elbow, but I told you we weren’t going there. Next you’re going to be moaning about Al Gore.

“Al Gore won!”

That’s it. Unless you have a special interest in the election of Benjamin Harrison.

“Grover Cleveland was robbed!”

You understand we need to move on here, right? Personally, I’ve always suspected that Clinton lost — to the degree that she lost — not so much because of her gender as because people just wanted a change. She’d been a starring player in two eight-year administrations. It was pretty clear what we were going to get in another Clinton presidency, and it wasn’t going to be anything dramatically new.

(This is what happens when you get a little bit bored with life and decide you want to juice things up. You spend $50,000 on a new sports car and then drive it into a restaurant takeout window. Or far worse, you elect Donald Trump.)

The whole can-a-woman-be-president issue came up during this week’s debate. Warren had one of her best moments when she pointed out that the male candidates with whom she shared the stage had collectively lost 10 elections, while the women hadn’t lost a single one.

And besides, she added, she was the only person onstage who had defeated an incumbent Republican in the past 30 years. Bernie Sanders — who contributed seven of those losses — quickly volunteered that he had beaten a Republican incumbent in 1990. Which Warren, despite her career as a primary-school teacher, claimed was not within the past 30 years.

Joe Biden didn’t point out that he beat a Republican incumbent to win his Senate seat in 1972. This is worth mentioning since some people worry that one of the Democrats’ leading candidates seems to kind of be living in the past.

About Joe Biden. This is his third run for president. Who among us could forget 2008, when he came in fifth in Iowa and dropped out? Or 1988, when he — OK, you did forget 1988. Totally understand.

Biden hasn’t had any super disasters in the debates. Well, there was the time in October when he said: “I would eliminate the capital gains tax — I would raise the capital gains tax to the highest rate, of 39.5%.” And that time in November when he spoke out against violence against women, adding that “we have to just change the culture ... and keep punching at it and punching at it.” Details, details.

This last performance was pretty clean and Biden got fairly good reviews, many of which boiled down to how he’d gotten through the evening “without taking major damage.”

Can we all agree that no female candidate could ever get away with stuff like that and then win praise for not saying anything stranger?

When it comes to gender bias, in the past Biden agreed that Clinton faced it to an “unfair” degree. Then he added, “That’s not going to happen with me.”

His campaign later claimed that his statement did not, um, mean what it sort of sounded like it meant.

So, about sexism in politics. Absolutely there, especially at the highest levels. But dissolving rapidly in places where women are proving what terrific vote-getters they are. We have 26 women in the Senate now — nearly half the all-of-American-history total. Seventeen are Democrats.

This little detail gives us an opportunity to recall the days when the Republican Party was progressive enough to have serious arguments about whether a woman could win the presidency. Remember the glorious Sen. Margaret Chase Smith? She ran for the nomination in 1964, when she was 66. A columnist for the Los Angeles Times argued that she was too old and added that when women hit the ideal age for running in their late 40s or early 50s, they are utterly unfit for office, since they are undergoing the “physical changes and emotional distress” of menopause.

So you have to admit things have been getting better. For women, that is. We’ve still got Donald Trump. Sorry, nation.

Gail Collins

Gail Collins is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.