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Elizabeth Warren’s Women Stare Into a 2020 Void

“For the general, if it is Biden v. Trump, I will write in Anita Hill.”

The Massachusetts senator announces the suspension of her 2020 campaign. (Amanda Sabga/Getty Images)

Kelli Musick knew this was going to happen.

Like a lot of women who supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary, she’d been told it wasn’t that people didn’t want a woman president, they just didn’t want this woman. But four years later, Elizabeth Warren—the one woman consistently invoked as a “real progressive” in those same conversations—ran on the Democratic ticket and lost. Badly.

It feels personal for Musick, a first year at University of Maine Law School who described tearing up in the voting booth on Tuesday, much as she had done while casting her ballot for Clinton. Now she sees her predicament as having to choose between two inadequate men. With Bernie Sanders, she fears the down-ballot effect of having him at the top of the ticket will deny Democrats the opportunity to govern. With Joe Biden, she worries about his touchy-feely record with women. 

“We’re going from Trump to a watered-down Trump in aviators,” she said. “I’m really not a fan of the lesser-of-two-evils language, but I don’t think Sanders or Biden are the leaders we need in this moment.”

Julie Dinnerstein, an immigration lawyer in New York City, said Warren’s loss felt personal for her, too: “I’ve watched the debates, and Warren is hands down the smartest and most competent person on stage. But it just doesn’t matter. It’s as if the Democratic electorate has collectively decided that it tried the girl candidate once and it did not work out, so never again.”

She’ll vote for Sanders in the primary, she said. But she cannot bring herself to hold her nose and vote Biden. “For the general, if it is Biden v. Trump, I will write in Anita Hill.”

When I put out a request on Twitter Wednesday night for women supporting Warren at a loss for what to do, I expected to get a few replies. Instead, they were sliding all over my DMs.

 “Distraught female Warren supporter, reporting for duty,” wrote an attorney in upstate New York.

“Warren supporter here who spent her entire therapy session today talking about how to go forward,” said a sexual violence prevention educator in Chicago.

“When will a woman ever be good enough?” asked Jenny Martin.

“Literally fighting back tears at my office,” said Bree Ryback.

“Devastated is an understatement,” wrote Audrey Morrison.

“I’m not at a loss,” said a D.C. marketing consultant who says she’ll vote for Sanders in the primary and whoever’s the Democratic nominee in the general. “I’m just pissed. And tired.”

If you’ve never had a waterfall of Warren supporters pour into your DMs, let me tell you, it’s a singular joy. The women I spoke to ran the gamut from earnest and acutely kind to edgy and darkly comic. All of them were smart, though, and I wanted them to be my friends. Talking to them, channeling them, became a way of articulating my own inexpressible sadness this week about the way that no woman is ever the “right” woman. They offered me words I didn’t have about how it doesn’t matter if you think bigger and deeper than everyone else, connect the dots, win the debates, and plot the real-world strategy, all while grounding it in extraordinary humanity and humility: She’s still going to lose.

Musick’s story mirrors almost exactly a conversation I had in 2016 with my oldest, dearest friend during my bachelorette weekend in Austin, Texas. I suspected at the time that voters wouldn’t turn out to put the “right” progressive woman in office. I just didn’t know it would hurt so much to be right.

Last month, Warren happened to walk into the pizza place where my husband and I were eating dinner in Charleston, South Carolina. She was wearing a “Dream Big, Fight Hard” hoodie and accompanied only by her son. This is the woman whose economic scholarship transformed public consciousness around pressures facing the middle class and who, the following night on the debate stage, would author the epitaph of Mike Bloomberg’s attempt to buy the presidency.

But that night, when we approached the table where she and her son were drinking a couple of Bud Lights, she chatted us up like neighbors, pulling up a photo of her dog and, with me obviously pregnant, asking about my girl, who’s due in just a few months. She talked about how America is at a pivotal moment, like the one seized by Franklin Delano Roosevelt; how it’s an exciting time, when dramatic and lasting change is possible and there’s a huge difference between not just Republican and Democratic candidates but between different Democratic candidates themselves.

Turns out America just wanted a steady hand.

It’s hard for me to describe the disappointment I felt on Super Tuesday, just days after that conversation, in my numb state of semi-despondency. But other women I read and spoke to tried. It’s a pain that’s mainly being felt by people who look a lot like me: college-educated and—for the most part—white women, who cluster in major cities and work in the knowledge sector. We came of age having received the tidy assurance that we were equal and could do anything. Then we actually grew up.

Amanda Dambrink, a writer and editor in her mid-thirties based in Madison, Wisconsin, is in some ways your stereotypical Warren supporter. She has a graduate degree in English and spent Super Tuesday updating the data in her homemade delegate tracker.

“It’s hard to explain how I felt because it doesn’t feel logical to feel as sad as I did, but I just felt really disappointed,” said Dambrink, who made over 500 calls to people in early voting states urging them to support Warren. “I was excited about electing a woman, and that not happening has been part of the disappointment, certainly, but there really is something about Warren that had me more excited, really made it seem even more possible to have a female president.”

Now she’s leaning toward Sanders, but the shine is off the election. “I’m more excited about Bernie Sanders and his policies and the folks that I think he’d surround himself with when he gets into office,” she said, adding dutifully, “but I will support Biden if he gets the nomination.”

Ever the optimist, Warren has sought to put a positive spin on things—even this week, in the throes of defeat. Addressing her campaign staff on Thursday afternoon, she urged them to take pride in what they’d accomplished and also “to get some sleep, maybe to get that haircut you’ve been putting off … gather up your energy, because I know you are coming back.”

But some of her supporters, including a lot of prominent feminist writers, are less willing to oblige in putting a happy face on things. Brittney Cooper, an associate professor and author of Eloquent Rage, called the routing of Warren sexist and patriarchal. “I’m still mad,” she wrote on Twitter, noting that in recent debates Americans had watched her almost tank Bloomberg’s campaign but didn’t give her credit for it at the polls. “Her reward for cleaning up the Bloomberg mess: voters coalescing for Biden.”

She added, “Folks are fine with women doing the custodial work of democracy. Sinking candidates that shouldn’t be there, writing actual plans for the progressive revolution, and in Black women’s case—us showing up to vote, as long as we don’t demand too much.”

Kelly Thompson, who works in global health in New Jersey, said she was “gutted” by what happened to Warren. After the surge of women elected to Congress in 2018, she’d thought that maybe Clinton’s loss had a silver lining. “But now it’s 2020, and we’re just back in the same place with the same arguments and the same shouty old men,” she said.

Thompson feels both Bernie and Biden are problematic from a gender  perspective. “Whilst Bernie is more closely aligned to Warren on many issues, I have reservations about his ability to achieve change, the misogynistic nature of his supporters, and that he lied about his interaction with Warren on his comments on whether a woman could win—so at this point I’m leaning towards Biden,” she said.

Kass Bessert from Battle Ground, Washington, worked for Sanders in 2016, but she was all in on Warren this time around. “For now I’m just sad and excited to see what Warren does next,” she said after Warren announced her withdrawal. “We have a lot of work to do outside of the presidential ticket—state legislatures are in session, and local governments to the Senate are in play. There’s a lot of room for progressive policy and Democratic wins,” she said. “But damn, am I going to miss the possibility of a 2021 President Warren.”

A woman in Tucson, Arizona, said she and her husband were both Warren supporters, but now they’re arguing about Biden versus Bernie. “He doesn’t understand my concerns about Bernie and can’t believe I’d consider Biden,” she said of her husband.

Around the country, many progressives are giving Biden a second look. Christina, who works in tech support for a biotech company in Massachusetts, says her parents are among them. She was distraught this week when she found she had to fight to get them to back Warren in the presidential primary, even though they’d been voting for her for Senate for years. “They were afraid if they didn’t vote for Biden, the nomination would go to Sanders,” she said.

Biden won the famously liberal state handily. And Colleen, a barista who watched her fellow Bay Staters forsake their senator’s bid, was “still working through her grief,” when she DM’ed me Wednesday night. “I am just stunned still by how fast things can change. And I’m sad in a way that is very reminiscent of 2016,” she said.

Meanwhile, Lisa, a Warren volunteer and mother of two living in Columbus, Ohio, is torn about what to do next. “I’m leaning Bernie, but I hated the way his supporters treated Warren, plus he doesn’t seem to listen to black Democrats. It’s frustrating to have to choose between him and Biden,” she said, adding that she’ll wait to see if Warren will endorse.

Musick thinks women in this country have waited long enough. “I’m a white woman, and even in that place of privilege, we’ve only been able to vote for 100 years. The oldest law-making body in America is in Virginia, my home state,” she said, “so I can appreciate what a small chunk of time women have had that right, and it’s even less for women of color.”

She added, “If you drink, I hope you have a glass of wine tonight.”