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Column: Has gender bias helped Bernie Sanders outperform Elizabeth Warren with voters? Seems like it

Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders
Elizabeth Warren and and Bernie Sanders.
(Associated Press)

Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the wife of Gov. Gavin Newsom, tells a family story to illustrate how political gender bias begins in infancy.

I phoned the first partner because she had endorsed Elizabeth Warren four days before Super Tuesday. And I was wondering whether the Massachusetts senator had been the victim of gender bias in her quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

After all, Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are both liberals and had been espousing basically the same leftist policy agendas: universal government-run healthcare, tuition-free public universities, taxing the rich. Both had been ranting in television debates — Warren in a “high-pitched scold” and Sanders in a low, “grouchy bellow.” She wasn’t attracting many votes. But he was cleaning up.

Was Warren paying a price for being a woman?

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Jennifer Newsom thought so and wrote an op-ed piece for the San Francisco Chronicle criticizing male pundits who, she said, were encouraging Warren and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar to quit the race and “make way for a male.”

“This is a man’s world, after all,” the documentary filmmaker wrote with a strong dose of sarcasm. “Until we change it.”

Klobuchar did step aside and endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden before Newsom’s piece reached print.

When Newsom returned my call, she was critical of “the media” — everything from newspapers to TV and social media — for their treatment of female presidential candidates.

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“Women presidential candidates are either ignored completely or they’re demeaned,” she contended.

I dispute that, but wasn’t going to argue.

“There’s more questioning of their viability and less issues-based coverage,” she continued.

Yes, she’s right on that. There’s more “horse race” coverage of all candidates — male and female — than focus on policy positions, and that’s unfortunate.

Warren had lots of detailed plans for policy implementation, Newsom asserted, but the media “eviscerated her plans and didn’t even ask the same of the men.”

At the same time, she said, the media “focuses on men because they’re ‘electable.’” That’s because people are conditioned from birth to believe female presidential candidates cannot be elected, she added.

“I’ll let you in on a story,” Newsom said, and then talked about her four children.

When the Newsoms’ oldest child, daughter Montana, was born in 2009, Gavin Newsom was San Francisco mayor and the infant “received many comments on her looks and lots of pink presents — flowers, princess gear, you name it,” Jennifer Newsom said.

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Two years later, when Gavin Newsom was lieutenant governor, son Hunter was born.

“Hunter received fewer comments on his appearance,” Jennifer Newsom recalled, “but he received lots of blue … and silver cups displaying the White House insignia. He even received a letter from the president [Obama] … and the First Lady [Michelle Obama]…. And if the messaging wasn’t clear enough, he also received a blue T-shirt that said, ‘Future President.’”

Two years later, daughter Brooklynn entered the world.

“To this day,” Newsom said, “Brooklynn has yet to receive a ‘Madame President’ T-shirt or any political paraphernalia from someone in formal leadership suggesting that she, too, like her older brother could be president. And the story continues when Dutch was born [in 2016]. He received multiple letters from political leaders and even a former president….

“The message is clear: From the earliest of ages, we condition our boys and men to see that they are our natural born leaders. And we do not do the same for women. This has profound consequences for the way the media and our culture treat female candidates and ultimately contributes to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.”

I called some other people — academics and political pros.

“I don’t think the Democratic primary electorate is sexist,” said Bob Shrum, a longtime Democratic strategist who is director of the Center for the Political Future at USC. “Women constitute a pretty substantial majority of Democratic voters and they did not rally to Warren and Klobuchar.”

But Shrum added: “No question that in the general election there is a real element of bias and barriers for women.”

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Shrum noted that four years ago Democrats nominated the nation’s first female standard-bearer, Hillary Clinton, who actually won more popular votes than Donald Trump. But Trump was elected in the archaic electoral college.

Look, there must be some gender bias because no woman has ever been elected president. And Californians have never elected a female governor. That said, they also haven’t elected a male U.S. senator in 32 years.

Jane Junn, a political science and gender studies professor at USC, said the office at stake affects bias.

“School board is no problem,” she said. “But with the presidency, women might have a problem.”

Does she think Warren was hurt by her gender? “Yes, I do.”

Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and former speechwriter for Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, said “maybe there was some sexism” in the Warren-Sanders competition, “but other things are worth pointing out. Bernie has a cult following around the country and she does not.

“Bernie also has something else she does not have: absolute purity. He hasn’t moved on ‘Medicare for all.’ She has moved to a modified position. Moreover, Bernie was doing this [running for president] long before she came to the dance.”

Sacramento State political science professor Kimberly Nalder, who teaches a course on women in politics, pointed out that in parliamentary systems, women are chosen to lead a nation by their colleagues, who know them best. In this country, a greater role is assigned to voters.

The latest lesson for U.S. candidates is that “grouchy bellowing” is tolerable, but “high-pitched scolding” is a turnoff. That means there’s still some gender bias out there.

Someone needs to send Brooklynn Newsom a “Madame President” T-shirt.


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