Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a candidate for president, at a campaign stop in Nashua, N.H., on Sunday. (Photo: Steven Senne/AP)

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a candidate for president, at a campaign stop in Nashua, N.H., on Sunday. (Photo: Steven Senne/AP)

Amy Klobuchar’s Defenders Mistake the Promise of Feminism

There are enough women running who don’t share Klobuchar’s staff issues, and who can therefore more credibly set forth a pro-worker agenda, to make criticism of Klobuchar tactically safe (if you’re protecting a path for women to the presidency) as well as morally justified.

Elizabeth Bruenig

 by The Washington Post

Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s 2020 presidential bid has been beset by grim reporting on her treatment of staff members since the Minnesota Democrat declared her intent to run earlier this month. Reports of Klobuchar’s abuse of staff members have included allegations that she has thrown office supplies such as phones and binders in the direction of underlings in fits of anger, that she regularly berates her workers, and that she has attempted to sink job prospects for staffers departing her office as revenge for their leaving. Her reputation for ill treatment of those in her employ apparently made it difficult for her to put together a team to staff her presidential campaign.

The reports drew criticism of Klobuchar from most commentators. But some people weren’t convinced. In fact, as former staffers have continued to speak with reporters and allegations of Klobuchar’s office antics have continued to emerge, a specifically feminist line of defense has arisen regarding the senator’s methods of doing business.

It’s clear, now, that being a woman isn’t a barrier to claiming the party’s nomination. And that means that there’s no need to defend female candidates who just aren’t principled enough to reliably lead.

In Politico, Jennifer Palmieri, the former director of communications for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, argued that men with Klobuchar’s management habits would wear such reports as a “badge of honor,” and that “those who say that Klobuchar is getting the treatment she deserves also miss another, larger force at play: We still hold women in American politics to higher standards than men, which puts added pressure on female bosses.” And for Vox, editorial director Laura McGann mused: “It’s hard not to wonder, would a male candidate in the same position take the same heat?”

Sexism in our politics was one of the chief organizing narratives in the 2016 election, so it is not surprising to see it revived again ahead of 2020. But with at least four other women in the running in the upcoming Democratic primaries, it’s clear that Clinton’s 2016 jab at the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” changed something important in the party’s imagination: It’s clear, now, that being a woman isn’t a barrier to claiming the party’s nomination. And that means that there’s no need to defend female candidates who just aren’t principled enough to reliably lead. Klobuchar, in other words, needn’t be a hill to die on.

There’s a reflexive kind of defensiveness that comes from the realization that women are judged more harshly than men for the same behavior.

There’s a reflexive kind of defensiveness that comes from the realization that women are judged more harshly than men for the same behavior. It tells us that fairness matters—and it does. But there are positive and negative forms of fairness. Negative fairness is a kind of fairness that reduces everyone to an equally bad position. Arguments that we ought to discount coverage of Klobuchar’s maltreatment of her staffers on gender-egalitarian grounds, for instance, really hold that because we wrongly accept male abuse of workers, we also ought to accept female abuse of workers. But the reality is actually the reverse: We rightly don’t accept female abuse of workers, and we shouldn’t accept male abuse of workers, either. This line of criticism is both gender-egalitarian and aimed at increasing the overall common good by creating a moral expectation that all workers be treated with dignity. That’s positive fairness.

What Klobuchar did, according to several reports from different credible news organizations, isn’t acceptable — and it’s almost certainly the case that plenty of men who have run for office in prior years are guilty of similar abuses, and should be just as firmly held accountable. But this time around, staking out a path for women to the nation’s highest office doesn’t require us to choose between reluctantly championing a negative fairness or kissing the hope of a mixed-gender field of candidates goodbye. There are enough women running who don’t share Klobuchar’s staff issues, and who can therefore more credibly set forth a pro-worker agenda, to make criticism of Klobuchar tactically safe (if you’re protecting a path for women to the presidency) as well as morally justified.

As the 2020 primaries wear on, there will be both fair and unfair criticisms of the female candidates in the race. It is and will remain necessary and useful to prosecute sexist criticisms which aim to undermine candidates strictly because of their sex. But the multiplicity of women running means that there’s no incentive anymore to shrug off legitimate criticisms for the greater good, even if doing so once seemed like an unfortunate fact of political life. There are more choices now, and no more need to weigh out greater and lesser evils. And hasn’t that always been the promise of feminism?


© 2021 Washington Post
Elizabeth Bruenig

Elizabeth Bruenig

Elizabeth Bruenig is an opinion columnist at The Washington Post.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

On Election Day, Warnock Supporters Urge Georgians 'Don't Walk, Run to the Polls!'

"The stakes could not be higher," said Planned Parenthood Action Fund president Alexis McGill Johnson, who campaigned for the Democratic senator. "Freedom is on the ballot."

Jessica Corbett ·


Revealing New Evidence in Abu Akleh's Killing, Al Jazeera Sues Israeli Forces at ICC

The news network said the journalist's killing was part of a "wider attack on Al Jazeera, and journalists in Palestine."

Julia Conley ·


Fears of Escalation as Ukraine Answers Russian Missile Onslaught With Strike Deep Inside Invader's Territory

Ukrainian drones bombed two air bases more than 300 miles inside Russia, reportedly killing three soldiers, wounding four others, and damaging multiple warplanes.

Brett Wilkins ·


Patient Groups Push Congress to Combat Big Pharma Greed in Spending Bill

"As Congress works toward finalizing an end-of-year budget package, we urge the chambers to include bipartisan legislation to address abuse of the Food and Drug Administration's citizen petition process in order to reduce drug prices and save the government hundreds of millions of dollars."

Brett Wilkins ·


10,000+ Sign Open Letter Demanding Biden Order Paid Sick Leave for Railway Workers

"No one, especially in the world's richest nation, should have to choose between forgoing pay or working through severe illness and family emergencies," says The Lever's letter.

Jessica Corbett ·

Common Dreams Logo