With the Democratic National Convention less than a week away, Joe Biden finally announced that Sen. Kamala Harris will be his running mate. Harris is the choice that many predicted he would make, an accomplished Democrat, and an established household name who polls well with Biden supporters. She brings an impressive legislative record and killer charisma. In her short-lived presidential campaign, she was energetic and showed a penchant for zingers and quick comebacks, and picked up momentum when she challenged Biden during a debate on his busing record with a moving personal anecdote about her own history with segregated schools.
Becoming not only the first woman vice president, but also the first Black vice president would be an historic achievement because of the lack of equitable political representation for both women and Black Americans. If she and Biden win, Harris will have overcome not only long-held skepticism of women in power but also the white supremacist structure that has shut out candidates like Harris from major party positions. That deserves a moment of acknowledgement — even celebration— for Harris, her allies in Congress and on the campaign trail, and many Americans.
However, it’s hard to celebrate this nomination in a full-throated way, and not just because of her controversial history as a pro-police District Attorney. For many people — including many Democrats — Biden’s candidacy is already compromised because of his centrist record and treatment of women, and this selection is a part of that. Biden’s offering of what is arguably the second-highest position of power in the country feels like handing out crumbs, and the reasons for that are both straightforward and frustrating.
The shadow of the 2016 election and the 2020 primary: Despite being leagues more qualified and capable than her counterpart, Hillary Clinton lost the election while also facing a barrage of sexist attacks. The framing surrounding her historic run as the first woman candidate of a major political party was incredibly gendered, from Trump’s “nasty woman” comment, to the horrifying shirts worn at Trump rallies, to the outsized media focus on her perceived physical weaknesses. This VP pick is also haunted by the shameful process of the 2020 Democratic primary, during which voters were constantly told that, amid a slate of competent women candidates, it was Joe Biden who was the only electable pick. This reinforced the idea that women are not viable as presidential candidates, and are best used in supporting roles — as tokens.
The announcement: In March during a Democratic debate, Biden announced that his VP pick would be a woman so his administration will “look like the country.” Rather than the empowering olive branch he likely intended, his announcement was seen by many as condescending, a symbolic, but ultimately hollow move. By forcing gender into the conversation, Biden opened up the discourse to sexist questions, like: Is this the best candidate for the job? Or is this the best woman candidate?
The statements from Biden staff: Throughout the last few weeks of the “Veepstakes,” statements from within Biden’s campaign itself were made to indicate that this woman’s power will come with conditions — in a job for which responsibilities are also granted by the president. For example:
– Sen. Chris Dodd, a member of Biden’s VP search committee, campaigned against Harris, saying “she had no remorse” when she attacked Biden at the debate (a valid political move).
– Some of Biden’s advisers reportedly said they don’t want a running mate who is positioned to succeed him, or who would overshadow him. This is strange given that he’d be the oldest serving president in history if elected — and how common it is for VP picks to have been opponents of their nominees (including Biden himself, who ran against Obama in the 2008 primary).
Sexism from the media: While right-wing media is known for its sexist coverage, mainstream outlets also portray women candidates as more emotional, more prone to lying, or as less capable of leadership. Women’s organizations recently wrote a letter to the media with advice on how to overcome these biases. Unfortunately, while these efforts are laudable (and a welcome correction to what happened in 2016), they will still be ignored by many. (See: L.A. Times’ cringe-worthy Bachelor headline.) One way in which this has played out is the recent framing of Harris as devious (“She had no remorse”) in her questioning of Biden on his busing record, when all she was doing was asking a legitimate question — and playing politics, as might be expected of a politician. In contrast, Rep. Karen Bass, who was recently rumored to be a top VP option, was framed as a “non-threatening” “worker bee” who wouldn’t cause trouble for Biden. These characterizations aren’t just untrue, they’re also damaging. Reportedly, the Biden campaign is trying to get ahead of the sexist coverage and “defend” the nominee, but it remains to see how this plays out. Additionally, the idea of “protecting” a woman nominee takes on an unmistakably patriarchal tone.
Biden’s baggage on women: Inevitably, Harris will spend significant energy answering for Biden’s record when it comes to women and Black Americans, including his treatment of Anita Hill, Tara Reade’s allegations of sexual assault, and his flip-flopping on the Hyde Amendment. As a Black woman, she will also be asked to defend his record of working with segregationists — a point that Harris has brought up against Biden during debates. And as a former prosecutor, she will be pressured to appear very focused on “law and order,” which will be complicated given that she’s already garnered criticism for her prosecutorial record from criminal justice advocates, and potentially alienate the left wing of the party. At the same time, Trump will inevitably be going after Harris for being “soft on crime” (despite the fact that the Biden administration has made no indication that it supports police defunding efforts). It will be uncomfortable, ugly, and ultimately unfair.
And, of course, attacks from Trump. Can any woman in the spotlight who opposes him really avoid these? He has already wasted no time calling her “horrible,” “disrespectful,” and “extraordinarily nasty” in relation to her questioning of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his nomination hearings.
In some ways, all of this is the perfect encapsulation of what it’s like to be a woman in 2020: Life is a Catch-22 for those who vie for power. If you want it, you’re not supposed to show it. And once you get it, you’ll be attacked for it. Congratulations Kamala, but also we’re so, so sorry.
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