MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Elizabeth Warren's campaign sent a fundraising email yesterday which said, I'm angry, and I own it. That is a reference to an argument between her and Joe Biden's campaign that happened this week and raised a debate about sexism. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has more.
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: This all started with a fight over Elizabeth Warren's "Medicare for All" plan. Joe Biden criticized how she said she'd pay for it. Warren responded by suggesting he should run as a Republican. Biden responded on multiple fronts. He wrote a blog post saying that attack reflects, quote, "an angry, unyielding viewpoint that has crept into our politics." And he also went on Sirius XM's "Joe Madison Show" this week to push back.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE JOE MADISON SHOW")
JOE BIDEN: It's just an elitist attitude about you either - my way or the highway. You mustn't be - mustn't know what you're talking about if you disagree with me.
KURTZLEBEN: Talking about anger and elitism in connection to a woman candidate can have a lot of different meanings according to Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor at Rutgers University Center for American Women and Politics.
KELLY DITTMAR: They sort of give permission to voters who do rely on some of those stereotypes. So it's not that, you know, I'm sexist. It's that she's really angry or really unlikable.
KURTZLEBEN: Dittmar also says the elitism charge can strike a particularly bad chord for some women.
DITTMAR: Women who run for office have to prove that they're smarter all of the time.
KURTZLEBEN: From the beginning of the campaign, Biden has been trying to shake the perception that he has a problem with relating to women. At the start of his campaign, Anita Hill criticized how he handled her testimony in the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings. Biden was also accused of unwanted touching and then made jokes about that, which themselves inspired backlash.
JESS MCINTOSH: Biden has unique challenges when it comes to talking about gender in the 2020 race.
MARTIN: Jess McIntosh is a Democratic strategist who served as a senior communications adviser to Hillary Clinton.
MCINTOSH: He continues to make these comments that aren't terrible on their face, but they show that he just doesn't get it.
KURTZLEBEN: Carol Moseley Braun does not believe that Biden's recent comments are sexist. She served with Biden in the Senate and supports his campaign.
CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN: You can judge him by his actions, and what his actions have said is that he respects and cares about women and our interests and our - where we want to go in this world and our concern.
KURTZLEBEN: She pointed to his role in passing the Violence Against Women Act as an example. It's also true that words like angry and elitist have long been used as attacks on male candidates. Biden himself has made some of those attacks. Dittmar acknowledges that but brings up a famous example from Barack Obama as a counterpoint.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE RACHEL MADDOW SHOW")
BARACK OBAMA: You're likable enough.
HILLARY CLINTON: Thank you so much.
DITTMAR: He probably just wasn't thinking about the gendered implications of that, right? Like, but it got a lot of press. And it got a lot of folks who weren't happy. And you never heard him say it again because he could realize that that was going to be heard differently by a lot of women across the country.
KURTZLEBEN: Biden does have plenty of women who support him. According to recent polls, he and Warren are running neck and neck nationally with women and men. Still, thinking about how voters will hear these comments could be crucial in a tight primary race. According to Aimee Allison, founder of She The People, which advocates for women of color's involvement in politics...
AIMEE ALLISON: Using this kind of language - it won't alienate everyone. But in a competitive field, particularly when these candidates are really needing to appeal to women of color as the core of the vote in the primary, this kind of language matters.
MARTIN: Biden, for his part, has insisted that his criticism is not about Warren but about a broader attitude he sees in the party.
Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.