How to cope when another female candidate loses

The stories we tell ourselves make a difference

Photo of Elizabeth Warren by Gage Skidmore

Note: This story was updated March 7, 2020 to be more evergreen and less an in-the-moment response to news of Warren’s loss; the core ideas are the same.

Grieving Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy

Many women in this country are experiencing a thunderous, aching grief as they process the news that Elizabeth Warren is not going to be the Democratic nominee. Their heartbreak comes from allowing themselves to imagine yet another astonishingly talented female leader in the White House, only to see that dream crushed, with two white, male candidates left standing.

Reeling, we tell ourselves a story: America really does hate women. Or, a slightly milder one: This country just isn’t ready to elect a woman to the White House. This cynicism is grounded in a lot of cold, hard data: around the world, when asked to draw a picture of a leader, people — men and women alike — draw a picture of a man.

Misogyny may be the story — but maybe it’s not

I am absolutely open to the possibility that the story that misogyny killed Warren’s candidacy is true; coverage of her campaign was certainly sexist in ways that fill me with rage. And there’s no question in my mind that misogyny is a big reason that Trump is in the White House: If everyone who voted for him is ok with him bragging that he grabs women by the pussy, that, to me, is case in point that these are people who, if they don’t hate women, certainly don’t believe they’re entitled to the same treatment as men. And Trump’s presidency isn’t just proof of misogyny, it’s also a catalyst for it.

The power, and danger, of the stories we tell

I tell stories for a living. I know how powerful they are. And I also know that so often, we tell ourselves stories and then index them in our brains as truth, when that is not necessarily the case. We get a dopamine hit every time we tell a story, because our brains like the relief that comes from finding a pattern in the chaos. And boy do we all need a dopamine hit right now. But we get the dopamine hit whether or not the story is true.

As the neurologist—and novelist—Richard Burton wrote a few years back in the science magazine, Nautilus:

“Because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them. With a half-story from science in our minds, we earn a dopamine “reward” every time it helps us understand something in our world — even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.”
— Neuroscientist and novelist Richard Burton

I want to emphasize that last point: Our brain feels sense of reward even when the story we tell ourselves is wrong.

So at a time like this, when we are reaching for something, anything, positive, we might be inclined to attach ourselves to a narrative that isn’t necessarily true.

The story that America isn’t ready for a female president

Try a thought experiment with me: What if America is, in fact, ready for a woman president?

After all, we elected one in 2016. What if it’s not her identity as a woman that people don’t like about Elizabeth Warren? What if it’s her liberal policies? What if being smart (SO smart, holy shit she’s so intellectually agile it dizzies me) and well-spoken and having a calm demeanor and seeming to ooze integrity isn’t what America wants in a president right now? What if they wouldn’t want that in any bodily form?

To that, you might say: Amy Klobuchar also failed to become a front-runner, and both her policies and her demeanor are different from Warren’s. By contrast, the two front-runners in the race, Biden and Bernie, also represent very different ideologies, policies, and personalities—is it a coincidence that these two men are the candidates winning every race so far, while Warren and Klobuchar are not? Deep down, I don’t think it is. (There’s also the early death of Kamala Harris’ candidacy, which actually broke my heart more than Warren’s losses. We’ll never know how many people might have voted for her if she’d been able to afford staying in the race.)

But I also know this: Biden and Bernie were household names coming into this campaign at a level Warren and certainly Klobuchar were not; more to the point, they were emblazoned in people’s minds as a former VP and popular presidential candidate, respectively. Maybe Warren, who arrived on the national scene later than either of them, was more known as “the smart policy woman,” than as “potential president.”

Maybe.

Much has been written about how Democrats are voting from a place of fear, choosing the candidate they think could beat Trump, rather than the candidate who they think would be the best leader. Maybe, in people’s imaginations, it’s easier to picture an old white man dominating another old white man, than it is to picture a middle-aged white woman doing the same. Or maybe it’s a variation on this: How dare a woman think of dominating a man?

Is this hatred of women? Fear of irrelevance or being disempowered? Or a failure of imagination? All three are insidious. We may never know the answer for sure.

Using stories to fuel women’s leadership and power

Here’s the story I choose to tell myself: More women would fill traditional leadership roles if our world was filled with compelling, authentic stories about powerful women who lead. Because, as I’ve established, stories have power. That’s literally why I started my company, Mighty Forces, which helps women and women’s organizations tell their stories online and beyond—from LinkedIn to Netflix to the next social gathering where someone asks, “So, what do you do?”.

As Ana-Christina Ramón, assistant director of the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, noted in a Huffington Post article about why representation matters:

“What you see often becomes a part of your memory, and thus a part of your life experience.” — Ana-Christina Ramón

Research shows that our brains respond to the events in fictional stories the same way they would if those events were happening in real life. In a wonderful article about the science of stories for Greater Good Magazine, journalist Jeremy Adams Smith explains:

“Experiencing a story alters our neurochemical processes, and stories are a powerful force in shaping human behavior. In this way, stories are not just instruments of connection and entertainment but also of control.” — Jeremy Adams Smith

I won’t lie: Taking back control of how people see women—helping them to see women’s incredible power and leadership ability—sounds real good to me. I want to fill the world with stories about women leaders that make us all ready to imagine a woman in the White House — and leading us in every other area of our lives.

It’s not about discounting misogyny

I’m not trying to equivocate. Misogyny is a disgusting force that we as a world need to reckon with. Period. AND, I hope we’ll consider the possibility that those who didn’t vote for Warren, or Klobuchar, may have had reasons other than hatred of women, or a desire (conscious or otherwise) to dominate women. Because I see a lot of women online feeling their power shut down. The writer Audrey Wauchope Lieberstein wrote:

“Telling your kid the Future is Female is sort of like Santa Claus, what’s the right age to stop the lie?” — @audreyalison
“Telling your kid the Future is Female is sort of like Santa Claus, what’s the right age to stop the lie?” — @audreyalison
“Telling your kid the Future is Female is sort of like Santa Claus, what’s the right age to stop the lie?”

As the mother of a daughter, this gutted me. But here’s the thing: When we say the future is female, we aren’t looking into a crystal ball and making a promise; we’re declaring a commitment— a commitment to CREATE a future filled with female power.

The fact that Warren isn’t going to be the next president sucks—and, it’s not the litmus test of female power in this world. What if, without denying ourselves the right to mourn, we also take our energy, and power, and put them into normalizing the story of the female leader?

What if together, we create a world so full of authentic women’s stories, that the truth about women’s power becomes impossible to ignore?

I’m a writer and story coach committed to filling the world with women’s stories. I’m currently at work on a book about how stories fuel women’s power and leadership, and on several scripts that tell the stories of female leaders. Learn more about amandahirsch.com.

Writer and mother. On a mission to fill the world with stories that tell the truth about women—and with women who tell their stories.

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