Can a woman be elected president in 2020?
Hell, a woman can’t even be named best director at the Oscars in 2020.
The nominees for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced on Monday morning, and arguably the most egregious blind spot on this year’s roster (there were many) was the omission of Greta Gerwig, the maestro behind the dazzling new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” which was released on Christmas Day to sold-out audiences and universal acclaim—including from Anthony Lane in the New Yorker, who wrote that Gerwig’s sophomore project “may just be the best film yet made by an American woman.”
And yet somehow the Academy couldn’t find room for Gerwig among its five honorees for direction, despite nominating “Little Women” for best picture and five other categories, including Gerwig for adapted screenplay.
It makes one wonder: If the director of a near-flawless treatment of one of America’s most beloved novels can’t get nominated for best director, what woman can?
Indeed, in the entire history of the Oscars, only five female directors have ever pulled off such a feat: Lina Wertmüller in 1977, Jane Campion in 1994, Sofia Coppola in 2004, Kathryn Bigelow in 2010, and Gerwig in 2018, for “Lady Bird.” Notably, the only victor in that group, Bigelow, won for a gritty, testosterone-driven war film, “The Hurt Locker,” that contained virtually no women at all.
The message here is clear enough: Women are rewarded for excellence, but only when playing by men’s rules in a man’s arena. This has been the case more or less since time immemorial, and it will continue to be wherever men are calling the shots, which the Academy—68 percent of which is male—still most assuredly does.
I offer this all-too-obvious assessment as a prelude to the even larger gender controversy of the week: Elizabeth Warren’s claim that Bernie Sanders expressed doubts in a one-on-one meeting in 2018 that any woman could defeat Donald Trump in the election on November 3.
Sanders has received a fair amount of grief for this alleged assertion (which he strenuously denies having made), particularly during Tuesday’s Democratic debate, when a moderator baldly took Warren’s side in the dispute. What has gotten lost in the kerfuffle—at least among those arguing the loudest—is the apparently less-than-self-evident fact that, if Warren’s account of their meeting is accurate, Sanders’s only substantive point was that a plurality of Americans are too sexist to vote for a woman for commander-in-chief—an argument many women have been making for decades, often for good reason. If Sanders is a monster for agreeing with this sentiment, what does that say about the sentiment?
In truth, we can never know for sure whether sexism—specifically, bias against female leaders—is the primary reason a woman has not yet become commander-in-chief, nor whether such a bias will prevent the likes of Warren or Amy Klobuchar from being elected this time around. The matrix of considerations that factor into any individual voter’s thinking in the ballot box is often too intricate to be reduced to any one thing, nor do out-and-out misogynists tend to volunteer their prejudices to a pollster or anyone else (outside of a locker room, that is).
That said, social science, common sense and the entirety of world history would very strongly suggest that implicit sexism in the public square is still very much a thing and will continue to dog every female candidate for high office from now until the end of time. To deny this is to deny a reality that is staring us directly in the face.
This doesn’t mean the Democratic Party shouldn’t nominate a woman for president in 2020, or in any other year. (Personally, I’d be thrilled not to vote for a man in a general election ever again.) It just means that doing so invites complications that a male nominee has the luxury not to worry about—namely, the latent (if not blatant) perception among millions of Americans that a woman is simply not suited to command the largest military on the face of the Earth, however brilliant or savvy she might be.
It’s not fair and it’s not rational, and it certainly shouldn’t be passively accepted without a fight—as both Warren and Klobuchar seem to understand. But it’s most assuredly a real phenomenon in this most patriarchal of nations, and blaming Bernie Sanders for pointing it out—if that is, indeed, what he did—is a profoundly silly and counterproductive use of Democratic voters’ time.
If the best revenge is to live a good life, then the best way to counter endemic sexism in the American body politic is to be the strongest presidential candidate one can possibly be. Women have always been held to an impossible standard in any field traditionally dominated by men—politics chief among them—and until human nature evolves beyond the lizard brain mentality that presumes men are meant to lead while women are meant to follow, female leaders-to-be have little choice but to continue proving themselves worthy. It’s only a matter of time before the message finally breaks through. Until it does, we’ll always have “Little Women.”