Column: Elizabeth Warren blew up the rules about female rage and came away without a scratch

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) eviscerated the competition during Wednesday's Democratic presidential primary debate in Las Vegas.
(John Locher / Associated Press)

Enough of this crap.

This has to be what Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said to herself moments before taking the stage for the Democratic debate in Las Vegas. Whether driven by a “go big or go home” instinct for survival after poor showings in early primaries, pushed to the limit by her exclusion from a recent survey of how the candidates would fare against President Trump or simply fueled by the inevitable frustration of the double standards and extra-special likability factors faced by anyone campaigning while female, Warren went full throttle.

For the record:

3:18 p.m. Feb. 20, 2020An earlier version of this story quoted Elizabeth Warren as saying “I’m talking about Mike Bloomberg.” The correct quote is “I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg.”

She raged, she stormed, she name-checked, she dismissed, she claimed the most time, she did all the things female candidates are not supposed to do. And far from self-destructing, she went on to enjoy a record-breaking day of campaign donations and a Twitter trend of #PresidentElizabethWarren.

The revolution really was televised.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took flak from all sides in Wednesday’s contentious debate. The fireworks were a sight to behold. But politically inspiring? That’s another matter.

Feb. 19, 2020


Warren has never been afraid of strongly worded declarative sentences, either in person or on Twitter, but on Wednesday night she took it to a double-standard-shredding new level. From the moment she opened her mouth to say, “I’d like to talk about who we’re running against: a billionaire who calls women fat broads and horse-faced lesbians. And no, I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about Mayor Bloomberg,” Warren made clear that if two centuries of American democracy still hadn’t provided a level playing field for women, well, she’d level the field herself.

She wasn’t just determined or confident or pointed or any of those things female candidates often choose to be for fear that unsmiling anger, so beloved by Bernie Sanders supporters, will be tagged in them as shrill and unattractive. She was outraged. Controlled, complete-sentence, full-paragraph outraged. Over Bloomberg’s history of sexist remarks and NDAs, the tactics of the Bernie Sanders campaign, the scantiness of Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar’s healthcare plans. She unloaded her wrath on science-haters, immigrant-bashers and pretty much anyone who thought that, after years of being touted as the person who, unlike the “problematic” Hillary Clinton, could become the first female president, she was just going to quietly surrender to Bernie, or Joe, or Mayor Pete.

Elizabeth Warren was unleashed.

And it did not occur in a vacuum.

The perception that a man adopting a “take no prisoners” attitude is strong, passionate and aggressive while a woman doing the same is controlling, mean and shrill is increasingly being seen for what it is — skewed and, consciously or not, sexist.

Outrage over Clinton being seen as less “likable” than Trump, the #MeToo movement and a slow but steady increase of women in leadership positions has cleared space for women to access the same range of emotional traits as men. Controlled women are no longer “icy”; outrage is no longer “hysteria.”

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proved that a woman can dance and ask the tough questions. Millions of women showed that it is possible to march and wear pink “pussy hats.” When ousted from her position as the first female president of the Recording Academy, Deborah Dugan responded with scorched-earth tactics of her own. It is not a coincidence that Warren’s evisceration of Bloomberg’s history of sexually inappropriate remarks and NDAs happened even as Harvey Weinstein and his walker await a verdict in criminal court.

The fiery candidate showdown among Democratic presidential candidates drew nearly 20 million viewers on NBC and MSNBC, a record high.

Feb. 20, 2020

Narratively speaking, Warren’s sustained big swing on Wednesday night was a climactic, pivot-point performance, worthy of “The West Wing’s” Josiah Bartlet: all power and no missteps. Warren wasn’t forced to stutter out a justification for being a socialist with three houses as Sanders was. She didn’t regrettably display her inner weasel by turning on the low-hanging fruit of Klobuchar’s campaign as Buttigieg did. Her closing remarks weren’t interrupted by protesters accusing her of deporting millions as Biden’s were.

If life were a movie, it would have marked the moment she clinched the nomination.

Life, however, is not a movie, and though Warren’s campaign enjoyed record-breaking donations after the debate, she remains far from the front-runner.

But for the first time — and with any luck, not the last — a female presidential candidate didn’t just play with fire, she threw it, at everyone in her path, and stepped off the stage without a blister.