WASHINGTON — In the end, the pink wave carried two white men ashore.
Since Donald J. Trump won the presidency, women’s rage has fueled the Democratic Party. Women created new political organizations, led protests, ran for office and voted for Democrats more than they ever had before. A record number of female lawmakers now serve in Congress. After years of being considered a political liability, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has emerged as a party icon and, in 2020, multiple women ran for president.
For the first time in history, Americans saw a diverse group of female leaders pursuing the country’s highest office, an elite sorority that included former prosecutors, senators, a combat veteran and even a self-help celebrity.
And, for the first time in history, a majority of Democratic voters rejected them all. As the party moves toward picking a nominee, the last man left standing will be, most certainly, a man.
It’s a situation that has left some prominent Democratic women frustrated to still be fighting battles they hoped had been settled years ago.
“The narrative that somehow women are less electable than men seems to still be an issue. It’s very disgusting really,” said Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, who was one of Senator Kamala Harris’s campaign co-chairs. “In 2020, we should have a woman as our commander in chief.”
That’s a view shared by many of the female candidates, who struggled to explain how, after the year of the woman, no women remained as a serious contender for the nomination.
“One of the hardest parts of this,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren, her voice shaking as she announced the end of her campaign on Thursday, “is all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years. That’s going to be hard.”
Senator Amy Klobuchar described feeling a “kind of obligation” to the girls who would approach her at events.
“This is how I reconcile some of the fact that I’m not up there anymore. It’s that you also see women with power,” she said in an interview Wednesday night. “They ended up by not choosing the women, but that doesn’t mean the women are going to go away.”
Ms. Harris was far less optimistic: “The reality is that there’s still a lot of work to be done to make it clear that women are exceptionally qualified and capable of being the commander in chief of the United States,” she told reporters on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
As the campaign moved across the country, the debate over that simple and strangely enduring question — can a woman win? — happened in book clubs and college dorm rooms, on debate stages and at town hall meetings. After Ms. Warren announced her bid at the end of 2018, Democratic strategists fretted over whether the misogyny they argued helped cause Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 could take down another woman nominee.
Early comparisons to Mrs. Clinton were unavoidable for the women running in 2020, even though they had little in common other than their gender and party.
Like Mrs. Clinton and every other person who has ever run for president, the female candidates made strategic miscalculations, struggled with fund-raising, building support and the rigors of the campaign trail.
Any missteps heightened the doubts that voters already harbored.
At events for Democratic candidates over the past year, many women said that they were more aware than ever of sexism in their own lives and in the culture at large, because of the #MeToo movement and heightened focus on gender parity. They remain hurt and resentful about Mrs. Clinton’s loss. All of that awareness and resentment, though, became an obstacle to electing a female president. They knew how sexist the world was, some said, and they couldn’t take the risk.
As they waited for Ms. Warren to arrive at a rally in San Antonio last week, Kathleen Chandler and Amanda Cardoza vividly recalled the moment when Mrs. Clinton lost and how it spurred them to get more involved in politics. Ms. Chandler, 34, held an election night party, she recounted, ordering cookies with pictures of Mrs. Clinton’s face. Deflating balloons clung to her ceiling for a month after the defeat; she couldn’t bear to take them down.
Now, Ms. Chandler saw Mr. Trump’s victory as a sign that Democrats must pick a woman as their nominee. She voted for Ms. Warren.
“Women as leaders can heal better, and our country’s broken,” she said as she fed her young son a bottle. “It’s infuriating that the women are dropping and we’re going to be stuck with white men.”
But Ms. Cardoza, 38, took a different lesson from Mrs. Clinton’s loss. The high school teacher, who wore earrings modeled after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s collar, was torn between Ms. Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders.
“America hates women,” she said, “I’m sad to say that I think that’s what it is.”
Like Ms. Cardoza, female voters worried the most about the viability of female candidates. Eighteen percent of Democratic women said that a woman could not win the White House, compared with 7 percent of men, according to a CNN poll in January.
In the Super Tuesday contests, Ms. Warren ranked third among female voters, losing to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Mr. Sanders by more than 10 percentage points. She did, however, win 30 percent of white college-educated women, the largest share held by any of the candidates, according to exit polls.
“We are so hungry to replace the occupant of the White House that a certain portion of Democratic Party was not willing to take the perceived risk of having a woman lead the ticket,” said Gov. Kate Brown, the first female governor of Oregon in more than two decades, who questioned whether gender was influencing voters’ decisions at a private meeting with Democratic governors after the Iowa caucuses. “It’s as straightforward as that.”
When asked, many women bristled over the idea that they would back a candidate because of their gender.
“I’m not going to vote for someone simply because we share identity,” said Hassani Scott, 24, as she watched Super Tuesday results at a watch party sponsored by Mr. Biden’s campaign in Los Angeles. “It’s more practical voting for Uncle Joe.”
At least a few of the Democratic women elected to Congress in 2018 said they didn’t take gender into account when they made their choice.
Representative Chrissy Houlahan, a freshman congresswoman from the Philadelphia suburbs, was wooed by multiple presidential candidates for her support before endorsing Mr. Biden, a candidate she saw as a near-native son of her home state.
“When I was looking at the field, I was looking for people who shared the values of my community. I wasn’t necessarily evaluating on gender,” she said in an interview two days before Ms. Warren dropped out of the race. “In my lifetime I absolutely believe we will have a female president. But I would assume not this time.”
Other female politicians cited more practical factors: The challenge of raising money from donors who said they liked a particular candidate, but just weren’t convinced she should be — or could be elected — president. The double standard that research shows female politicians face around issues like “likability” and traits that voters prize in male politicians but not in women, including ambition and aggression.
In her remarks on Thursday, Ms. Warren described talking about sexism as “the trap question for every woman,” forcing female candidates to either look like a “whiner” or deny a reality widely known to “about a bazillion women.”
“I promise I’ll have a lot more to say on that subject,” she added.
Yet as the race progressed, some of the most prominent women in the party seemed to have very little to say. Ms. Pelosi and Mrs. Clinton declined to endorse or even more subtly signal a possible female heir. At her weekly news conference on Thursday, Ms. Pelosi acknowledged an “element of misogyny” in the presidential race.
“Every time I get introduced as the most powerful woman in the United States, I almost cry, because I wish that wasn’t true,” she told reporters.
Women’s organizations also largely stayed out of the fight. Emily’s List, the powerful political action committee that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, endorsed Ms. Warren three days before she ended her bid.
While those kinds of endorsements don’t necessarily move votes, they provide a powerful signal, said Amanda Litman, executive director of Run for Something, which encourages young Democrats to seek political office.
“They create the permission structure,” said Ms. Litman, whose candidates are predominantly female. “The people who were most fired up and doing the work in 2018 were the so-called ‘resistance moms,’ but I don’t think the ‘resistance moms’ knew where to go this time around.”
Supermajority, a new women’s advocacy group, is turning its attention to the vice-presidential pick, with plans to push the Democratic nominee to select a woman.
“Women of course will be the majority of voters in November,” said Cecile Richards, a founder of the group and the former president of Planned Parenthood. “They will be the majority of volunteers.”
Stephanie Schriock, the president of Emily’s List, said backing one female candidate over another would have meant the possibility of hurting one woman’s path to the nomination — an outcome that the group couldn’t countenance, though will likely have to navigate in the future.
“This is a new era. Prior to this we’d only endorsed in two presidential primaries and it was the same woman twice,” Ms. Schriock said. “Not in a million years, if you asked me four years ago, did I think four senators were going to run at the same time four years later.”
Those four senators charted four different paths when it came to putting their experience as a woman in politics at the center of their appeal to voters.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand leaned into an unabashedly feminist message, gaining little traction for what she called a “woman plus” campaign platform. Ms. Klobuchar talked about the double-bind of being a woman in politics. Ms. Harris highlighted her barrier-breaking career, recounting on the campaign trail being asked to describe “what it’s like to be the first woman fill-in-the-blank.”
When she began her campaign, Ms. Warren refused to engage in a debate around her “likability.” In January 2019, she dismissed the discussion as a distraction, saying that she would “keep fighting on the issues because I think that’s what matters most.”
Yet over the course of her nearly 14-month bid, she came to address gender more directly: Attacking Michael R. Bloomberg for derogatory comments about women, accusing Mr. Sanders of lying in his denial that he told her a woman was not electable in 2020, and describing the discrimination she faced during one of her pregnancies.
In the final days of her campaign, she began introducing herself as “the woman who would defeat Donald Trump.”
But by then, voters were done asking whether a woman could win. They had already decided the answer was no.
Katie Glueck contributed reporting from Los Angeles.