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The Buttigieg Dilemma – The Persistence of Sexism in Politics

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December 2, 2020

Pete Buttigieg made headlines for the first time since his pre-Super Tuesday campaign suspension in early October when he defended late-term abortions on a Fox News town hall. When discussing the issue with host Chris Wallace, he fought back against the assertion that third trimester abortions were commonplace, arguing that the people seeking them are often faced with devastating circumstances and shouldn’t be further burdened with bureaucracy when facing with an already difficult decision. Liberals on social media shared the remarks far and wide, praising the former mayor for standing up for reproductive rights and for giving an eloquent argument Wallace’s bad faith “facts.”

As a reproductive justice activist myself, I see no opposition to anything the Mayor said in his statement. Anti-choice advocates consistently use late-term abortion as a red herring, purposely misleading uninformed audiences into believing people in their 8 month of pregnancy are aborting their healthy babies. It’s always nice to have those in the mainstream political scene advocate for the freedom of families to make the right decisions for their lives.

My problem with this, however, is that female politicians have been making these same arguments for decades and the public is lauding Buttigieg’s comment as original.

During the presidential primary, we all watched the underdog tale of then-unknown upstart Buttigieg rise in the polls against seasoned political operatives. A small-town mayor, Harvard grad, navy vet, and the first viable queer candidate for president in American history, Pete’s story sounded like it was pulled straight from the script of a lifetime movie. He struck the tough balance of being well educated, while still utilizing his midwestern charm to fit the “everyman” trope so desired in places that reject the educational elitism in politics. His charisma, paired with his plain-spokenness is what many credited to his overnight success, and he quickly became a democratic-party darling compared to the likes of John Kennedy.

If we’re being honest with ourselves, the biggest reason for Buttigieg’s success wasn’t his midwestern charm, but that he was the only young white man in the field. While having a gay man as a serious contender for the White House isn’t something to downplay, it’s also difficult to ignore his race and gender when writing the narrative on his rise to political stardom – something he, notably, doesn’t ever address. In the most diverse field of candidates ever in a democratic presidential primary- a field that included 3 serious female candidates- the public gravitated toward the cis white guy who had little to no platform for majority of the campaign.

This isn’t to say that Pete Buttigieg invented sexism in politics by any stretch. The first woman to serve in congress, Jeanette Rankin, had to fight off angry mobs after her “nay” vote to participate in WWI, Barbara Jordan claimed that more was expected from her as a black woman in power, and AOC was recently called a “fucking bitch” by her colleague Ted Yoho. If these examples weren’t enough, just remember that we live in a country where white women have only been able to vote for 100 years, and women of color for even less than that.

What Pete did do in his primary campaign, however, is dog whistling the idea that a man in power will always be better than a woman. Buttigieg claims that he decided to run for the nomination because he believed he could “guide this country and one another to a better place.” But what makes him, a mayor of a minor city with 102,000 people (60% of them white), the most qualified person to run an incredibly complex and diverse country? The three major female candidates, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, and Kamala Harris, are all highly educated senators and have actual background in legal scholarship and leadership. The three women also come from different angles of the American left’s spectrum, ranging from more centrist to progressive, leaving truly no excuse to ignore their respective campaigns. While many (myself included) have legitimate critiques on each of their platforms, it speaks to the white man’s hubris to still believe himself the superior choice.

It’s a hubris that he knew the media would buy into almost unconditionally. While his female competitors were heavily critiqued, given fluff pieces, or simply ignored by news outlets, Pete received a carte blanche to run his campaign under minimal scrutiny. More press coverage by the mainstream media was done on Elizabeth Warren’s dog than Buttigieg’s 2% approval rating with black voters.

The effect this had on everyday voters isn’t hypothetical, either. In my time working on the New Hampshire primary, a majority of the hundreds of people I had conversations with would sing Buttigieg’s praises while dismissing the women running as “shrill”. When pressing voters by stating the three sound nothing alike, they would typically shrug me off, almost making a silent acknowledgement that their critiques had no basis in reality. The dismissal of women running for office as being ambitious and selfish was an accepted narrative, while the veracity of a 38-year-old man with less than 10 years of low-level political experience was never called into question. Flowery-worded speeches were taken in place of solid policy initiatives, and while his colleagues were being raked over the coals for “flip-flopping” on issues, his supporters saw Pete doing it as simply a change of heart.

The problem with Pete isn’t that he’s a white male – that isn’t something he can change. The problem is that instead of using his privilege to raise the voices of his female fellow politicians, he instead chooses to copy their proposals while subtly feeding into the misogyny that keeps them out of higher offices. In his campaign announcement speech, he stated “Women’s equality is freedom, because you’re not free if your reproductive health choices are dictated by male politicians or bosses.”

While this is a nice sentiment, it’s overshadowed with the damning realization that he was the “male politician” that wanted to call the shots on our reproductive care. If male politicians want to call themselves allies in the fight against sexism, they need to put their ego aside and let the women vastly more qualified than them take the wheel. We don’t need a white male savior; we need someone to give us proper acknowledgement for our work.

So please forgive me for not fawning over Pete Buttigieg’s comments against anti-choice rhetoric, I’ll be busy praising the women who’ve been saying the same exact things since before he was born.