Four years ago, Melissa Kell brought her twin daughters along to the polls to vote for Hillary Clinton, wanting the toddlers to bear witness to an election she hoped would bring the first woman president.

Her daughters, now 6, were there on Super Tuesday this week as Kell voted for Elizabeth Warren. Two days later, the Massachusetts senator dropped out of the race for president, and Kell broke into tears.

"I keep teaching them there are no boundaries for women," said Kell, a vice president of a Minneapolis advertising agency. "The thing that haunts me is, what if our country can't have a woman president? I feel that I've never put limits on myself because of my gender and I'm accomplished in my career and in my life, but now I feel like there are limits that I didn't know existed."

Warren's exit came just three days after Minnesota U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar dropped out of the race, putting a fine point on the exodus of women from a field that was, early on, the most diverse in history. One by one, five female candidates in the race dropped out, leaving only Hawaii U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard at the back of the pack. The two leading candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, are both white men in their 70s who have run before.

"One of the hardest parts of this is all those pinkie promises," Warren told reporters outside of her Massachusetts home Thursday. "And all those little girls who have to wait four more years."

Warren rose to prominence as the brains behind the Obama era Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal agency responsible for consumer protection in the financial sector. But she cemented her status as a feminist icon as a United States senator, famously bumping up against chamber procedures in protesting the nomination of then Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell complained that "nevertheless, she persisted" — unintentionally creating a rallying cry for women across the country. In the midst of the MeToo movement, Warren and several other future presidential candidates, including New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and California Sen. Kamala Harris, were part of a group who called on former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken to resign over allegations of inappropriate groping and kissing.

Hopes for women in politics were high after a record number of Democratic women ran and won elected office in 2018. But after Clinton's loss to Donald Trump four years ago, female presidential candidates this cycle were dogged by persistent questions of electability. Advocates for more women in politics say those questions dragged down the women in the race.

"These narratives fuel fear and doubt in voters that women cannot be the answer," said Meggie Wittorf, executive director of Minnesota-based Women Winning. "These are intangible things, and it's difficult for anyone to understand how to navigate intangible, unmeasurable things."

In Minnesota, some women are still coming to terms with the fact that it's a near certainty there won't be a woman president in 2021. As news of Warren's exit from the race spread, dozens of women gathered at the State Capitol for a rally in support of adding language affirming equal rights for women to the state Constitution. Warren's decision weighed heavily on some.

"It's enervating for women to not see ourselves represented at the highest level of governance in this country," said Betty Folliard, a former DFL legislator leading the Equal Rights Amendment push. "Why can so many other countries in the world manage to get this done and the United States of America can't?"

Stephanie Holte, a marketing manager from Wayzata, is also searching for answers. The self-described "super volunteer" for Klobuchar spent months knocking doors in Iowa, Nevada and Minnesota for the senator's presidential campaign.

"I don't know why this continues to be an issue, but it does in this country," she said. "I wish I knew what the magic formula was."

For Hayley Matthews-Jones, a Warren supporter from Minneapolis, the outcome felt like a "slap in the face." Like Kell, she struggled Thursday with how to break the news to her young daughters.

"It's just so bleak," she said. "It feels like if Warren can't succeed, how can anyone?"

Former state Rep. Erin Maye Quade was part of the first all-female gubernatorial ticket in 2018. She introduced Warren at a rally at Macalester last fall. She said there's a reason women have served in leading roles in businesses and state government for years but have not yet reached highest executive offices.

"There's a reason there's never been a female governor in Minnesota," she said. "We have to admit that misogyny does play a role in it and collective decisionmaking compounds racism and sexism, all the 'isms.' "

Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics, said women pursuing public office are still held to higher standards. But she was encouraged that candidates were "willing to talk more explicitly about the gendered challenges and hurdles that they faced." From Warren fundraising off a "likability" tweet to Klobuchar questioning whether a woman with the same experience as former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg would garner the same attention, female candidates repeatedly "called out the bias pretty overtly" on the trail, she said.

The laments have not only come from Democrats. Carly Fiorina, a 2016 GOP presidential candidate, suggested that sexism was at play when critics questioned the qualifications of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republicans' 2008 vice presidential candidate. In the 2012 presidential election, then Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann became the first woman to win the Iowa GOP straw poll, but then finished a distant sixth in the state's caucuses.

Amid this year's disappointments, many Democratic women were looking to where women in the race might land. Some hoped one of the former female candidates would at least end up on the ticket this November.

Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY's List, a political group that works to elect Democratic women who support abortion rights, was disappointed when Warren, only the second woman in history to get the group's presidential endorsement, dropped out. But she said she was encouraged by the fact that even four years ago, the idea that there would be six women running for president in 2020 didn't even cross her mind.

Schriock, too, wants to see a woman selected as the vice presidential nominee. And she's holding out hope that what's been called the "highest, hardest" glass ceiling will shatter soon.

"Unfortunately it's not going to be 2020," she said. "But sometimes you need to run more than once."

Torey Van Oot • 651-925-5049