ALL of a sudden it’s turned into the Bernie and Joe show. With one-time frontrunner Elizabeth Warren ending her campaign last Thursday, the US Democratic presidential field is now pretty much inhabited by a two-man race between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders for the party’s nomination.

Sure, Tulsi Gabbard, the congresswoman from Hawaii, and her one earned delegate remains in the race (just), but this is a far cry from the six Democratic women, three African Americans, a Latino, a gay man, and three Asian Americans who stepped up to contend for president earlier this year.

Once again white and male seems to be the order of the day when it comes to running for America’s highest office. So just why did things end up this way and what does it tell us about American politics right now as the race for the White House heats up?

As the New York Times reporter Lisa Lerer pointed out a few days ago, ever since Donald Trump won the presidency women’s rage has fuelled the Democratic Party.

In response to Trump’s flagrant misogyny, new political organisations sprung up, women led protests like the #MeToo movement, ran for office and voted for Democrats more than they ever had before. There was in effect a fundamental shift in the way many Americans viewed elected power and government.

This year’s democratic primary certainly reflected that with a record number of women vying for the chance to run for the US presidency.

Of the 29 main Democratic candidates six were women, including four senators – Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand – along with Tulsi Gabbard, the Hawaii congresswoman, and Marianne Williamson, a motivational speaker.

It was back in 2007 when Hillary Rodham Clinton first announced “I’m in, and I’m in to win,” stoking hope in those Americans who valued political parity and that a woman could become the president of the United States.

The talented sorority who stepped up to the challenge this year felt exactly the same way as Clinton, and between them brought together a pool of backgrounds and abilities that included former prosecutors, senators, a combat veteran and a self-help celebrity.

Their rise, too, came off the back of the success of female Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterms, when female voters played a critical role in electing a record-breaking number of women to Congress.

On the face of it, things appeared to have come a long way and were turning out for the better.The last time Democrats selected a woman as the vice-presidential nominee was when Geraldine Ferraro ran as Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984, though they lost 49 of the 50 states to Ronald Reagan.

On the Republican side, the last female vice-presidential candidate was Sarah Palin, whose presence on the ticket was believed to have hurt John McCain’s campaign. Some political observers insist though that the lingering legacy of such experiences remains a major hurdle for women contesting for senior office.

“Some of the gender dynamics is more like once bitten, twice-shy and unfortunately that dynamic tends to impact women far too often in politics,” observed Lara Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University in a Financial Times interview following the withdrawal of all women candidates except for Gabbard.

Those who fought that campaign though while clearly frustrated, equally insist there is no point in looking back.

Elizabeth Warren, who for a time was seen as the candidate to beat in the Democratic field, said on Thursday that she had “no regrets” about her campaign.

“Ten years I was teaching a few blocks from here and talking about what was broken in America and ideas about how to fix it, and pretty much nobody wanted to hear it,” Warren said, speaking in her home state of Massachusetts.

But just like her rival candidates Warren still feels there is much fixing to be done when it comes to making sure women are on an equal political playing field as men.

Many observers agree – including David Plouffe, the political strategist best known as the campaign manager for Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign.

In an interview with Politico magazine Plouffe flagged up his belief that Warren “was put through a ... crucible of the electability question in a slightly different way than some of the other candidates were”.

The presidency specifically now seems to be a harder ceiling says Plouffe who contends, “there is more resistance to a woman president then there is to any male minority group, or a male of any sexual orientation.”

Democrat Mazie Hirono, a senator from Hawaii, echoes Plouffe views. She insists there’s something about a woman running for a top executive post that brings out “strange attitudes” in American voters.

“They think women are not tough enough, that we can’t do the job,” Hirono insists, adding that it was something she experienced when running for governor in 2002, though a Republican woman beat her in that race.

But if one thing is beyond doubt it’s that Warren, like the other women candidates in the recent campaign, is more than up to the task.

Known to stay at campaign rallies for hours after they finished, Warren talks of what she calls a “pinky promise” at her events, telling young women: “I’m running for president because that’s what girls do.”

Another woman candidate, Senator Amy Klobuchar, likewise 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 last week.

“They ended up by not choosing the women, but that doesn’t mean the women are going to go away,” Klobuchar added.

Speaking after her withdrawal from the campaign on Thursday, Warren said that “one of the hardest parts of this is all those pinky-promises and all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years”.

There are those who will argue of course that Warren likely failed for reasons more than gender. She was after all competing with male counterpart Bernie Sanders for the progressive mantle while also arguing she could bridge the two wings of the Democratic Party better than her opponents.

Asked if sexism had played a role in her performance during the primary, Warren was equally candid, warning that she will have a lot more to say on the subject later. Her reluctance to spill the beans now is a measure of the potential damage she could do to the presidential hopes of her male Democrat colleagues still in the race.

“Gender in this race, you know, that is the trap question for everyone,” Warren told reporters for now.

“If you say, ‘Yeah, there was sexism in this race,’ everyone says, ‘Whiner’. And if you say, ‘There was no sexism,’ about a bazillion women think, ‘What planet do you live on?’”

FOR the second time in four years, an exceptionally qualified female candidate lost to her male counterparts, some objectively far less qualified. Warren’s loss might not have been as rapid and headline grabbing as Hillary Clinton’s in 2016, but the voters rejection still hurt deeply, so much so that she could only muster a third place in her home state of Massachusetts on Super Tuesday.

Few doubt that those female candidates like her seemed held to a higher standard when it came to being “presidential, electable and even likeable” observed Swanee Hunt in a CNN op-ed article last week.

For women those three characteristics “war with one another,” said the Harvard University Kennedy School lecturer.

“A woman who seems nurturing (likeable) pays a steep price. Gillibrand chose to take a soft approach by wearing dresses in contrast to the suits (with pants) that many female candidates wear. Yet beyond optics, she took on issues more overtly women focused than those of her competitors,” observed Hunt.

Likewise in the case of Kamala Harris, was it her strong show of boldness in confronting Joe Biden on race that made her unlikeable? asked Hunt.

Harris, after all, wasn’t just simply a black candidate, given that Obama had already blazed that trail. “She was a black woman,” Hunt opined.

Biases about both gender and race likely intersected on a variety of fronts in the campaign. One example is that in a July poll of likely New Hampshire voters there were good favourability figures for both Warren and Harris.

These came in at 67% for Warren and 54% for Harris, but were accompanied by poor “likeability” ratings for them. Just 4% of likely voters thought Warren was “likeable,” and 5% for Harris.

Compared to that, 20% of likely voters thought Biden and Sanders were likeable.

According to research from Tufts University’s Brian Schaffner and YouGov’s Sam Luks, released that same July, prejudices about women could well have translated to voters’ decision-making.

The study found Democratic primary voters who scored higher on a “hostile sexism” scale were less likely to choose either Warren or Harris as their top choice for the primary when polled.

Many of those watching to see how far the United States had come between 2016 and 2020, in the degree to which gender presented a hurdle to women candidates, will doubtless feel disappointed by such findings and the events of the past weeks during the Democratic campaign. Many, too, maintain that sexism, pure and simple, is one of the main reasons to blame for the disappearance of women candidates from the race for the presidency.

“If Bernie Sanders were a woman, ‘she,’ as an angry, rumpled candidate, never would have made it beyond Mayor Sanders, and even that would have been a stretch,” observed Jennifer Burton a leading Democratic media consultant.

“Likewise, if Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren or Amy Klobuchar were men, I have no doubt that one of them would be our nominee against Donald Trump,” added Burton.

But many still insist that what all this really boils down to is that candidates matter.

While sexism continues to inhabit politics in America as it does in many places, one of the primary reasons say some is that the female candidates running for president did not make it to permanent frontrunner status is the spectre of Donald Trump and the false belief that many voters have that a woman cannot beat him.

This, and the Democrats’ obsession with finding the most “electable” candidate to do just that, loomed over everything in the primary, election watchers point out.

Democratic voters they conclude ranked “the ability to beat Trump” as their main concern and decided that within the deeply ingrained and often invisible institutional norm, it means a woman can’t win.

“There is perceived safety in whiteness and maleness,” says Addisu Demissie, who ran Democrat Cory Booker’s campaign this year before he too pulled out.

“There’s a perceived risk in nominating women and people of colour that was just too great for the electorate this time. It’s wrong and unfortunate and sad, but politics is about perception,” Demissie told Politico magazine in a recent interview.

Despite this latest setback for women candidates in the campaign, activists are quick to remind that it is only that, a setback.

In the last four years, female candidates in the US political scene have made historic gains. Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win the presidential nomination for a major political party and a record number of women ran and were elected to office in Congress. These are the positive signs on which to build and good reasons for not becoming downhearted or disillusioned, the same activists insist.

“So today we mourn. We had six amazing women run, and now the top runners are two old white guys,” observed Erin Vilardi founder and CEO of Vote Run Lead, a US national training programme for women to run for office.

“We acknowledge that this is heartbreaking, and it’s OK to be sad. Tomorrow, though, we’ll organise. Because shit never gets done without women.”