Officially, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s long shot campaign for the presidency lasted just over five months from its forceful March 17 debut. Realistically, Gillibrand’s campaign has been on life support since barely scraping the threshold for inclusion in the July Democratic primary debate.
Gillibrand’s withdrawal is a loss not only because it means one fewer female voice in an historically diverse primary cycle, but because it was Gillibrand, more than any other candidate, who crafted a campaign by, for, and about the challenges facing women in America.
As early as February, 2020 watchers were commenting on the “unabashedly feminist” tone of Gillibrand’s campaign. Most voters first saw that in the June Democratic primary debate, when Gillibrand broke through a superficial discussion of abortion rights to hammer home just how excluded women — even U.S. senators — are from the policymaking process.
“When the door is closed and negotiations are made, there are conversations about women’s rights,” Gillibrand said. “Compromises have been made on our backs. That’s how we got to the Hyde Amendment.”
Gillibrand put the 1976 Hyde Amendment — which prevents government from funding abortion services — at the center of her messaging. She pledged to repeal the law as one of her first acts in office. But that wouldn’t be enough, Gillibrand said. Without enshrining abortion funding in federal law, women would still be left to the whims of state legislatures.
Just two weeks ago, Gillibrand held a reproductive rights town hall in St. Louis, taking precious time away from early-voting states to directly address Missouri’s unconscionable new law banning abortion after the eighth week of pregnancy. When Planned Parenthood announced it would leave the federal Title X program rather than stop referring women for abortion services, Gillibrand released a policy outline that proposed repealing Trump’s Title X changes on her first day in office.
On the campaign trail, Gillibrand talked about issues ranging from improving access to contraceptives to the epidemic of sexual assault in our armed forces. She took an intersectional approach, connecting difficult issues of race to overlooked issues of gender inequality.
When a white single mother asked Gillibrand why Democrats kept telling her she had “white privilege,” Gillibrand responded with an empowering explanation of how white women have a role to play in easing the burdens of institutional racism on mothers and communities of color.
What Gillibrand provided was a sense of institutional memory about the long and ongoing struggle for equal pay, equal access to medical care and an end to sexual harassment and workplace misconduct. Whether expounding on the history of abortion rights from the debate stage or talking about the cost of childcare at the Iowa State Fair, she refused to allow her colleagues to speak broadly on women’s issues. She demanded specifics: Which laws would you pass? How would you preserve Roe v. Wade in the courts?
That Democrats agree on the importance of defending abortion rights doesn’t mean every Democrat on the debate stage understands the long and painful fight that brought us to unanimity. Gillibrand made fighting against state and local abortion restrictions a central part of her campaign at a time when other candidates spoke only broadly about preserving Roe v. Wade from a Supreme Court now packed with Trump-approved justices.
But in the realpolitik of some Washington politicos, the #MeToo movement remains little more than a tool to damage enemies across the aisle. When misconduct landed in the Democratic camp, Gillibrand staked her position and refused to bend her principles to protect a colleague. The tragedy of Kirsten Gillibrand is that she proved unwilling to sell out women for her own political advancement.
Party rainmakers chose, mostly in private but sometimes in public, to punish Gillibrand for her integrity. She was right then and remains so now.
As Gillibrand ends her bid for the White House, Democrats must ask: Who, if anyone, will pick up the torch of women’s issues with her passion and focus?
Burns is a veteran Democratic strategist and senior contributor at Millennial Politics. He regularly appears on Fox News, Fox Business, and Bloomberg Radio. Follow him on Twitter @TheMaxBurns.