I’ll confess that I was always something of a teacher’s pet. And my favorite teachers were always women. Specifically, smart women who challenged me, who held me to high standards, and who were rigorous with their teaching and thinking. To give just one example, Mrs. White loudly announced at the start of our junior trigonometry class that she was the Queen of C-2 (the classroom we were assigned to), and we were not to forget it. Trig was tough, and so was she. But from the moment she uttered those words, this young, gay 11th grader was swooning.
So I was heartbroken, like so many others, to see Elizabeth Warren’s campaign end. The flood of postmortems, in The New York Times, The Nation, the Atlantic, and Medium, has come swiftly, decrying with tears and anger that what happened to Warren was the patriarchy’s fault: Gendered double standards put Warren in an impossible position and ultimately spelled doom for her campaign.
I agree wholeheartedly with the diagnosis that Warren was a victim of sexism. I also acknowledge that her campaign suffered from a number of flaws, in particular her handling of the claims to Native American ancestry.
However much those flaws carry weight, we absolutely cannot discount the excruciating and impossible demands that patriarchy places on women, particularly the double bind of being “perfect” but not “too perfect.”
As a gay man, I obviously haven’t endured the kind of sexism and misogyny in my lifetime that women have. Instead, I’ve had to deal with homophobia and heteronormativity, aspects of patriarchy that are deeply entangled with, but not the same as, sexism and misogyny.
I won’t belabor their points of intersection and divergence here. But their entanglement means something to me — and perhaps to a generation of gay men in their late ’40s or 50s who also didn’t have any gay teachers for role models.
For me, and I suspect for other gay men of my generation, women teachers played that crucial role, modeling for us the idea that the patriarchy, with all of its barriers to success for anyone who wasn’t a straight white man, could be overcome if you were smart and competent enough. Despite our differences, some part of me saw myself in all of these women; their fight was my fight, and their path to success meant that possibility existed for me too.
Warren therefore stood not only for women’s capacity to shatter barriers, to be materialized most powerfully and symbolically in finally having a woman occupy the highest office in our country, but also for the possibility that we might some day have a gay President too.
From high school to college, and from graduate school to law school, women teachers were my greatest mentors. For me, they represented a merit-based system that wasn’t based on seemingly arbitrary designations of who was popular based on looks or physical prowess (the school version of patriarchy). In middle and high school, that meant I could excel by being a nerd, rather than trying to fit in being a jock or a cool kid. In college, graduate school, and law school, it meant that I could excel by using my brain, being organized, efficient, and conscientious. Merit, not male identity, is what mattered.
By and large, my women role models were smart yet exacting, imposing high standards and rewarding those who performed academically. They chaired their departments, wrote impressive scholarship, and were exceptional teachers. They weren’t lacking in compassion or kindness, but they also didn’t sacrifice their standards or try to be “nice” in order to curry favor with their students. I admired them, and saw them as models to emulate. That admiration also fueled a deep intellectual interest in feminism and queer theory as a graduate student and professor of Spanish literature.
Importantly, I never felt judged by these teachers for being gay — or even appearing to be gay. There wasn’t the implicit threat that I seemed to pose to straight male teachers and professors who often responded to me with indifference, if not outright hostility. (To be fair, I have had a number of brilliant male role models, both straight and gay, but they were the exceptions.)
My women teachers modeled what it meant to overcome a patriarchal double standard and achieve a certain success by being brilliant, not just good or even mediocre, like many of their male colleagues. Seeing women undermine patriarchal norms meant that other possibilities for social transformation were possible.
I saw their allegiance to intellectual effort as their way of saying that if you were smart enough, if you were competent enough, you could counterbalance the patriarchy’s big fat thumb on the scale for mediocre straight men.
For me, Warren’s candidacy was the culmination of what my teacher role models stood for. She was reputed to be brilliant in the classroom, drawing the best out of her students. I saw in Warren the kind of candidate who could do the same for the office of the President, and by extension, the nation as a whole. As a former academic and lawyer, I respected deeply her erudition as a law professor and her track record of creating and staffing the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. Her brains and competence made her the most qualified person for the job.
Little did I know that my fixation on competence was not shared by others. As articles in Vox and The New York Times have persuasively argued, Warren’s popularity was strongly correlated with education. The more education, the more likely to be a Warren supporter. By having a Ph.D. and a J.D., I am considered “overeducated” and decidedly in the minority of American voters who picked Warren as their top candidate. And I’m hardly alone, as many of the people I know who supported Warren were highly educated, often with multiple degrees.
Not surprisingly, so many of us underestimated just how much people don’t like listening to smart women. As Megan Garber writes in The Atlantic, “One of the truisms of the 2020 campaign — just as it was a truism in 2016, and in 2008 — is that women candidates are punished, still, for public displays of ambition.” And, of course, given the double standard, one of the ways that women have to show themselves to be competent is to be smart and experienced enough to be taken seriously, but not too smart, because people without college degrees feel talked down to.
You may be wondering about the obvious question: why Warren and not Pete? Indeed, the other candidate who most seemed to embody this combination of intellect, learning, and polish was Pete Buttigieg. But despite being a Rhodes scholar with a knowledge of Norwegian, many of my fellow Warren supporters, including fellow gay male friends, didn’t have the same enthusiasm for Pete. Of course, Pete’s role in paving the way for gay and lesbian candidates can’t be overestimated. It was thrilling for me to watch Pete’s rise, to read news coverage of a gay man who was being taken seriously for this office, something I had never imagined in my lifetime.
But I — and a number of my fellow overeducated, gay friends — didn’t ultimately didn’t support Pete. Speaking strictly for myself, my main objection to his candidacy was that he didn’t have the experience that Warren had. I found him to be polished to the point of emptiness on the debate stage, filled with platitudes but without a plan. He also had the kind of pedigree that felt very calculated to get ahead in a patriarchal world — a stint with McKinsey, and a brief period of military service, for example — and thus carried with it a whiff of inauthenticity.
Most importantly, I didn’t think America was ready for a gay President. Conservative media outlets had already started talking about the horrors of dealing with First Gentleman Chasten and the prospect of four years of gay kisses on national television. If Pete had secured the nomination, I wondered what kind of material about Pete’s or Chasten’s previous dating life would drudged up by the Republicans to undermine him.
In short, I wasn’t ready to see just how deep America’s homophobia runs. Sure, I have clues — gay wedding cakes are one red flag — but honestly, I wanted to enjoy the gains we’d made already, with gay marriage being made constitutional doctrine less than five years ago, before we look to see how much ugliness lies behind the curtain. Besides, I thought, it really is time for a woman to be President. So I was very happy to see Pete run, and I was happier still to throw my support behind Warren, thinking (erroneously) that brains and plans would triumph, and Pete’s time would come later.
The brutal truth of Presidential campaigns is that we learn every four years just how much hatred and fear bubble beneath the surface of our national psyche. 2020 showed us once again that the patriarchy, with its emphasis on mediocrity, still hasn’t given up its grip.
Warren’s failure is a sign of just how much work we have to do collectively to root out the biases and assumptions we make about women when they run for public office. Because if someone like Warren can’t even get nominated, much less win the Presidency, you have to wonder who can; I shudder to think that Elie Mystal’s ominous prediction that it will be a woman who wants to uphold the patriarchy might come true.
But most of all, Warren’s failure gave the lie to the message that being smart, competent, and caring could be enough to overcome patriarchy’s double standards. I recognize how disappointing this outcome is for women and the many girls who got pinky promises with Warren. Her success meant the possibility of subverting the patriarchy and fulfilling a possibility that has been denied for too long. Frankly, we as a nation are suffering a loss by not having someone as smart and caring as Warren serve as President.
But it also sends another message, because if Warren can’t be President, neither can Pete. Yes, I know that Pete “won” Iowa, but he tanked in South Carolina and the writing was quickly on the wall. Even if Pete had had the experience that Amy Klobuchar lambasted him for not having, if he had had a few more plans than the PowerPoint that Warren (rightly) criticized him for passing off as a healthcare plan, and even if he hadn’t made major mistakes as mayor of South Bend, and then somehow had ended up the Democratic nominee, I have no doubt that he would have eventually run fully into our nation’s homophobia. If America still isn’t ready for a woman President, it sure as hell isn’t ready for a gay President.
Not winning this time around isn’t entirely a loss, even if it still hurts. It means that, ultimately, patriarchal standards for judging dictate that the top prizes still go to the straight men. Yet each time we make the idea of a woman President more and more a part of reality.
This always happens with new and novel ideas. Take gay marriage or Medicare for All. As seemingly disparate as those concepts may be, they started out as a novel premise, an impossibility, something never before contemplated or widely discussed. The idea takes on a life, a vigor of its own, as more and more people come to understand it. Each time the idea grows and becomes more real. Support for gay marriage grew with each new state that legalized it. Bernie Sanders made Medicare for All a talking point back in 2016, moving the political needle far to the left, and now we have seriously debated it as a possibility for our country’s healthcare system.
The more women run for and gain positions in public office — including for President — the more the idea becomes so familiar, so normal, that it’s no longer questioned as a possibility. That is when we will have a woman President. Like so many women and gay men, I hope that it happens in my lifetime, and that it’s a woman as qualified as Warren. And maybe, just maybe, she’ll have a gay VP who can follow in her trailblazing footsteps.