On Thursday, September 12, on stage at a historically black university, three women vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination took their place among seven men as they prepared to debate in front of the nation. It was, in itself, historic—before this election cycle, there has never been more than one female candidate onstage for a U.S. presidential debate. What’s more, the women standing up there represented the breadth of the Democratic party: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is calling for Medicare for All and free public college, is one of the most left-leaning candidates of the race. Then there’s Sen. Kamala Harris, who falls slightly to the right of Warren, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who’s one of the most moderate candidates of the top ten.
These women are working to change our idea of what a presidential election looks like. So why aren’t the debates following suit?
During Thursday’s three-hour long event, the moderators posed zero questions about abortion, child care, paid family leave, sexual harassment, or the wage gap. Instead, following the pattern of the past two debates, there were lengthy discussions about health care, gun control, climate change, and foreign policy. These are, of course, significant matters affecting all Americans, and they need to be touched upon. But they are not the only ones, and people took notice:
And it wasn’t just voters. The candidates called out the lack of questions too:
Instead of being asked what they would do about the precarious state of reproductive health care in America, candidates were asked about their biggest professional setbacks. At one point, Sen. Cory Booker was asked if he thinks all Americans should join him and go vegan. And while, yes, there should be a conversation about how eating meat affects climate change, the question jumps out when you consider the ones that weren’t asked in its place.
These candidates have proven, through their plans, that they want to have these conversations. Warren and Harris, along with Booker and Sen. Bernie Sanders, have offered up plans to protect abortion rights. Warren and Harris have spoken about the black maternal health crisis; many have vocalized their support for ending the wage gap and combating sexual harassment and domestic violence. And in a country where nearly 1 in 4 people will seek an abortion by the time they’re 45 and women are five times more likely to be killed when a gun is present in a domestic violence situation, these issues aren’t optional; they’re essential.
And with more women on the stage than ever, the Democratic party is in a position to have these comprehensive discussions with candidates who will naturally put these issues at the forefront of their campaigns. Harris, Warren, and Klobuchar are uniquely prepared to tell American voters what a presidency would look like with a woman in charge, and how they, through their personal experience, know the burden of having to scrape together child care or fight for better maternal care. Our politics have come so far as to give us the opportunity to hear from these qualified women, and yet, when presented on a national stage, we do not give them the chance.
Of course, this is not all on the moderators. Candidates can insert other topics into the debate as they so choose, as we saw when Joe Biden took time to mention the Violence Against Women Act. But we must also work to give them the platform to do so. When the primary elections roll around, voters deserve to know where candidates stand on health care and to have seen them tease out their differences in a public setting. But you know what plays into the health and wellbeing of a majority of Americans, men and women? Reproductive care. Abortion. Child care.
As New York Magazine correspondent Irin Carmon pointed out on Twitter, there’s a chance candidates weren’t asked about abortion “because of an assumption that there aren’t contrasts there.” But of course there are. (As has been pointed out before, Biden has changed his position on abortion in the past, once saying he thought that the Supreme Court went “too far” in Roe v. Wade.) While all candidates might be pro-choice now, what are their plans to stop the courts from rolling back reproductive rights across the country? As Carmon writes, where do they stand on the Hyde Amendment? There are crucial differences between these candidates, differences that need to be highlighted.
Women like Harris, Warren, and Klobuchar (not to mention Gabbard, Williamson, and Gillibrand) have already changed what the debate stage looks like. Now we need to change the actual conversation, too.