Politico

‘Here’s Hoping Harris Will Break the Mold of How Women Are Treated on the Stump’


Will it be different this time?

Female vice presidential candidates appeared on major party tickets in 1984 and 2008, and in 2016, a woman headed the ticket. Each time, headlines heralded the historic choice; each time, for any number of reasons, the ticket lost. Those races also gave us a window into how women running for executive office are treated in the U.S.: The candidates were more likely than men to be questioned about their spouses; their attire and looks often became a part of the story; they had to make extra effort to show they were “tough” enough to serve.

Now that Sen. Kamala Harris has become the third female VP candidate on a major party ticket in history, Politico Magazine asked some smart female political observers to tell us: How will things be different for this VP choice, for this woman, and for this race? Or has nothing changed at all? Here’s what they had to say.

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‘Her demeanor, her delivery, and her personal life will be under the same microscope’
Treva Lindsey is associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality Studies at the Ohio State University.

Without question, sexism, patriarchy and misogyny remain intractable forces in electoral politics. Leading up to the announcement of Senator Kamala Harris as the vice presidential candidate, rumors circulated regarding concerns about her ambition and assertiveness. As a Black and South Asian-American woman, Harris endured and will continue to confront racialized forms of misogyny rooted in white supremacy. The global pandemic coupled with the national uprising prompted by the killing of George Floyd offers a distinct context, however, in which responses to her candidacy will unfold. While many potential voters may offer legitimate critiques of Harris, the media as well as many of her political opponents have already shown their willingness to engage sexist stereotypes to discredit the junior senator from California. The combination of racism and sexism will be palpable through Election Day—even if transmitted on less obvious frequencies.

Her attire may not receive the scrutiny Secretary Hillary Clinton’s did, but her demeanor, her delivery, and her personal life will be under the same microscope as other women who ran for executive offices. Commentary about her personality and her likability will comprise an excessive amount of the conversation around her candidacy. As a woman of color, the interconnected weight of racism and sexism will undergird reactions to her speeches, her debate style, and how she engages both her allies and adversaries. The reality is that 44 of the 45 presidents of the United States have been white men. Senator Harris will be treading familiar ground with sexism and misogyny, her identity as a woman of color means unprecedented challenges await. She will encounter both familiar and particular obstacles. Her candidacy will magnify the contours of the ceiling yet to be broken.

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‘Harris will be judged more by her record and judgment than any of her predecessors’
Beth Hansen is a Republican political strategist and the former campaign manager for John Kasich.

What is different this time is the passage of time, and the times in which we live. There are currently 26 women serving the the United States Senate: In 1984, there were two (Nancy Kassebaum and Paula Hawkins—both proud Republicans). There are nine women serving as governors, and women ably leading major cities like Atlanta, Chicago, San Francisco and the District of Columbia. As these and other talented leaders forge a body of work locally, nationally and internationally (former UN Ambassador Susan Rice was rumored to be among the Biden team’s VP finalists), women who seek and serve will be seen not as an anomaly or a curiosity, but as a candidate or official to be judged on the wisdom and merit of their leadership and decisions.

The times in which we live are among the momentous times of change in our country’s history: a time when there is a focus and a demand for justice, fairness and equal treatment. Thirty-six years after Geraldine Ferraro’s groundbreaking nomination as Walter Mondale’s vice-presidential candidate, Senator Kamala Harris will be judged more by her record and judgment than any of her predecessors, and less than any of her successors. Will the race and the scrutiny be completely fair based on gender and race? Unfortunately not (… yet), but as times change, so do circumstances and it’s up to all of us to hold ourselves accountable for the kind of campaign we want to see.

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‘Will media and voters still apply a double standard? Without question. … But we are making progress‘
Anne-Marie Slaughter is CEO of New America.

Kamala Harris is making history; here’s hoping she will also be breaking the mold of how women candidates are treated on the stump. I strongly suspect that we will see lots of cosmetic changes without probing or changing the deeper underlying biases. As we have already seen with the women presidential candidates in the Democratic primary, fewer media reports will mention hair or dress specifically. Editors will be vigilant about stripping out value judgments couched in descriptions of her “warmth” (expected) or “reserve” (code for aloof) or “toughness” (synonym for the B-word), etc. But will media and voters still apply a double standard? Without question. The “likeability” test is certainly not limited to women—George W. Bush won it over John Kerry. But the deep biases—the way that men, and other women, are threatened by an ambitious woman or dismissive of a funny one or simply unable to imagine “Hail to the Chief” played when a woman walks into a room—are not going to disappear anytime soon.

But we are making progress. Younger voters are more likely to call out those biases in one another and in their parents and grandparents. And Kamala Harris reflects the new America in inspiring ways. She is a woman of color, but not easy to type. Black American—but with a Jamaican immigrant father. Part Indian-American. A woman of color who has experienced the discrimination that our country still dishes out to all people of color, but with a white husband and Jewish stepchildren. The Harris-Emhoff household is thus one of multiple races and ethnicities bound by love—as generations of future American families will be. A woman of color who is a prosecutor, challenging the stereotypical assumptions of some men about women who are “soft on crime” and some white Americans about where Black Americans stand on issues of law and order. A senator, but also someone who has managed a 4,500 person law firm as attorney general of California. Mixing it up, scrambling assumptions, challenging stereotypes—it’s a great campaign strategy. And it’s our best country strategy, well beyond this election.

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‘We will likely see the knotty intersection of racism and sexism in the criticism that Harris will endure’
Oneka LaBennett is associate professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University.

The political double standards and sexist attitudes towards past women candidates like Hillary Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin offer only a partial glimpse into what we can expect Kamala Harris to face as Joe Biden’s running mate. Yes, having ascended to the VP slot, Harris will experience targeted forms of sexism. But with this history-making selection of a woman of color, we will likely see the knotty intersection of racism and sexism in the criticism that Harris will endure. Black women are keenly aware of how, in both professional and personal arenas, misogyny and systemic racism doggedly intersect as we strive to break through the double-paned glass ceiling of patriarchy and White supremacy. Shirley Chisholm’s legacy is a better benchmark for the singularity of Harris’s achievement and an apt template for the tenacity that she will have to muster. The senator’s track record of standing up to powerful men—delivering that famous debate gut punch to Biden, grilling both Brett Kavanaugh and William Barr with steely determination—is evidence that she’s up to the challenge.

Harris’s candidacy is historic on numerous counts: She is only the second woman to be on a Democratic presidential ticket, but she is the first Black woman, and also the first Southeast Asian woman to inhabit this role. Her racial heritage may materialize as an indicator of the diverse groups with whom she resonates. Her race and gender are testaments to the critical voting block that African American women represent. Those who want to marshal identity politics against Harris might take cheap shots by pointing to her interracial ancestry and to her marriage to Douglas Emhoff, a White entertainment attorney, to question her authenticity. But as the daughter of immigrants, in a shifting racial landscape in which American marriages are increasingly mixed and Whites are becoming a minority, Kamala Harris looks like America.

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‘Women are allowed to have allies, and be allies’
Heather Hurlburt runs the New Models of Policy Change project at New America and co-chairs the Executive Committee of the Leadership Council for Women in National Security.

Some things haven’t changed since I was a sullen teenager watching Geraldine Ferraro accept a place alongside Walter Mondale. First, despite my parents’ hopeful 1984 assurances, this remains a sexist (and racist) world. Just like Ferraro, Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton, Harris will face questions, doubts and double standards that even the most unlikely white male pick would not. On law enforcement, national security, budget discipline, she will be pressured to be tough and then skewered for toughness. Her clothes, her hair, her child-rearing choices … don’t get me started.

But some things have changed. Women are allowed to fight back. And they are allowed to have allies, and be allies. You don‘t imagine Clinton, Palin, Ferraro or Shirley Chisholm surrounded by sorority sisters, or taking political advice from her actual sister. Harris—although she comes across as a very strong individual—also comes across as interconnected with other women in a way that wasn’t available to prior generations (not that they didn’t privately draw vital support from other women). Harris’s squads of devoted female followers were an under-reported phenomenon in the primaries. Now Americans—especially young women—will get to experience politics not as the solo, stoic sacrifice it’s been for so many women, but as a team sport. (White Americans may learn a few things about what the networks of non-white Americans bring to the table, starting with Harris’ sorority sisters.) The way history rhymes, now I’m the parent of a teenager. Women running for high office is normal to him. Women running every cycle, women running with men they’ve criticized, women running in competition matters because of something else that hasn’t changed since my teenage years—representation matters. Harris and the women who champion her are going to make space all over again, as it turns out every generation has to, for young people to imagine themselves and their styles of leadership taking our country forward.

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‘An acceleration of women’s political leadership’
Debbie Walsh is director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

This truly historic vice presidential pick is an indication that politics in this country may be forever changed. We have watched the steady, but painfully slow progress of women’s representation since the first woman was elected to statewide office in 1893. But in the past four years we have seen an acceleration of women’s political leadership. In 2016, the first woman was nominated by a major party for president. In 2019, the largest and most diverse class of women entered the U.S. House, and a woman took the speaker’s gavel. In 2020, the most diverse slate of candidates sought the presidency, and record numbers of women are again running for Congress. Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris, the first woman of color on a major party presidential ticket, is another indicator that the future of American politics will not be business as usual.

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‘She may very well hold the key to Biden’s win in November’
Keisha N. Blain is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, a 2020-21 Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University, and author of Set the World on Fire: Black Nationalist Women and the Global Struggle for Freedom.

Joe Biden’s selection of Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate is a historic moment. Although this is not the first time in our nation’s history that we’ve seen a woman on the ticket of a major presidential party, this is the first time a woman of African and South Asian descent has held this position. While there is no denying that many will be inspired and energized by Biden’s decision, Harris’ selection as his VP nominee is especially meaningful at this particular moment. Over the past few months, millions of activists in the United States and across the globe have joined together to bring greater attention to the systemic problem of police violence in Black communities. Through a series of mass protests and marches, in various cities across the nation and the world, activists of diverse racial and economic backgrounds have come together to decry anti-Black racism in all its manifestations. These developments have taken place against the backdrop of a global pandemic, which has devastated Black and Brown communities and exacerbated already terrible conditions for the poor and other vulnerable groups. Senator Kamala Harris now enters the presidential race as Biden’s running mate under extraordinary and challenging circumstances. Yet, in many ways, she is well prepared to face them. Her wide-ranging progressive and inclusive platform along with her commitment to advancing racial justice, expanding healthcare, and protecting vulnerable populations are most urgently needed today—perhaps more than ever before. While there is no doubt that Harris will face media scrutiny—most likely more than her predecessors—she may very well hold the key to Biden’s win in November.

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‘Now more than ever … the frustration … is palpable’
Kelly Dittmar is an associate professor of political science at Rutgers-Camden and director of Research at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.

The Democratic presidential primary demonstrated that our political institutions are stubborn in the face of progress. While a record number of women sought the Democratic nomination for president, persistent skepticism about a woman’s electability meant that women candidates had to do more work than men to prove they were equally capable of success. Joe Biden benefited from doubts of women’s electability, which makes it only appropriate that he at least use his privilege to bring a woman with him into presidential power.

The context for Senator Kamala Harris’ selection as Biden’s running mate is different than in 1984 and 2008, the previous election years in which women were tapped as vice presidential nominees. Now more than ever—148 years after Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for president, nearly 50 years after Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman to run for a major-party presidential nomination, 36 years after Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman on a major-party ticket, four years after Hillary Clinton’s loss, and coming on the heels of the nomination of another white man after Democrats fielded the most diverse pool of primary candidates ever—the frustration over women’s persistent underrepresentation in presidential politics is palpable. Likewise, the demand for upending gender and racial biases that have long plagued all U.S. institutions—including political ones—is great. None of this means that Harris will be free from biased commentary, evaluation and treatment due to her race and gender—and, importantly, the intersection of both. She will not. But, as has already been seen, there are more individuals and organizations ready to sound the alarm when it happens. The responsibility falls to all of us to listen and do better than we have done before.

It is fitting that Harris frequently told audiences while campaigning for president that she had “faith in the American people to know that we will never be burdened by the assumptions of who can do what based on who historically has done it.” The next three months will continue to test that faith, but might also result in the reimagining that is necessary for a woman of color to make history not only as vice president but sooner than later as president of the United States.

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‘The general assumption that she will be the Democratic Party nominee in 2024’
Jo Freeman has published 11 books, including three on women and politics. She has been to 15 Democratic Conventions and 11 Republican Conventions.

Kamala Harris is a first in many ways, her race just being the most obvious. What’s really different this time is the general assumption that she will be the Democratic Party nominee in 2024, with a real possibility of becoming the first woman president. Biden won’t run in 2024, whether due to death, defeat or just old age.

Consequently, she will be scrutinized even more thoroughly than Hillary was. Especially her appearance. Men seem to believe that how a woman looks is more important than how she thinks or what she does.

Will the choice make a difference? Back in 1984, Mondale got the same heavy lobbying to choose a woman that Biden got to choose a black woman. Polls before the convention indicated that Ferraro would help Mondale win the presidency, but polls afterwards said she didn’t. In reality, it’s very unusual for the VP candidate to make much of a difference in the election.

It’s possible, though, Harris will bring an increase in black votes. Obama got a minority bump in 2008 and 2012. The bump went down when Hillary Clinton was the nominee in 2016, even though Obama campaigned for her. It’s in which states that bump happens that will matter.

The choice of Kamala Harris was an inspiration, but the reality is that bold moves by the Democratic ticket won’t win this election. Bad moves by the Republican ticket will lose it.

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‘The Democratic presidential ticket will not be shared by two white men for the foreseeable future’
Amanda Clayton is an assistant professor of political science and Vanderbuilt.

Biden’s pick is historic. Choosing a Black woman to join him in the White House sends a powerful message of respect and appreciation to the Democratic Party’s staunchest and most reliable supporter voters—Black women. Black women are the Democratic base, and for the first time they will be represented on a major presidential ticket.

At the same time, Harris faces an uphill battle. She is likely to receive the type of scrutiny that tends to be reserved for women. Even before she was tapped as VP, she was portrayed as overly ambitious. This is nothing new. Women who have sought power have historically dealt with such criticism, while men rarely do. Gender and politics scholars refer to this as the classic double bind. A woman politician who is “too feminine” is criticized as unserious (recall Sarah Palin) and a woman politician who is too masculine—seen as too tough or too ambitious—is criticized as unlikeable (recall HRC). Harris will continue to face this particular kind of sexism as the presidential campaign continues.

Yet, what is different this time? In 1984, Geraldine Ferraro did not stand a chance. In 2008, Sarah Palin was a long shot. In 2016, Hillary Clinton was too close to call. Although November is still a long way off (an eternity in politics, as pundits like to say), Biden’s lead in the polls over Trump means, at this moment, the Biden/Kamala ticket appears to have a good shot at making history. If Biden wins, it will likely have more do with the fundamentals of this particular political moment—an unpopular incumbent in the midst of a recession and public health crisis—than with the historic nature of Kamala’s name on the ticket. Yet, this does not discount the symbolism of her potential vice presidency. That Harris, the daughter of immigrant parents, might become not only the first woman to serve as VP but also the first Black woman and the first South Asian woman, is particularly important because all too often, the first women to break historic milestones in this country have been white women.

Finally, in the last three presidential tickets, the Democratic Party has looked increasingly like the voters it represents. Much in the same way that HRC’s nomination in 2016 made history, Senator Harris’s appearance on the ticket sets a precedent that is hard to back away from. My prediction is that the Democratic presidential ticket will not be shared by two white men for the foreseeable future.

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‘What hasn’t changed since 1984 or 2008 is the double standard the media places on women candidates’
Tina Tchen is president and CEO of TIME’S UP Now.

This is an historic moment for this country, no matter your party affiliation. Today’s announcement marks the first time a woman of color has been nominated for vice president. But, what hasn’t changed since 1984 or 2008 is the double standard the media places on women candidates, whether they are calling them “too ambitious” or comparing them to the reality TV series, “The Bachelor.” These racist and sexist narratives have kept women, and especially Black women, out of positions of power for far too long. We’ve had enough.

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A moment of racial reckoning
Kimberly Peeler-Allen is a visiting practitioner at the Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University.

The nomination of Senator Harris to be the Democratic nominee is indisputably historic. What makes Harris different from the previous female nominees, who were each historic in their own right, is the moment in which she is being nominated. As the nation continues to reckon with its racist origins and the structural racism that continues to perpetuate inequality in America, to have a Black woman vice president whose parents were immigrants will bring a lived experience that can inform the decision-making process of the administration with lasting impact for not just previously underrepresented voices but for all Americans.

As inspiring as Harris’ nomination is, it is also frightening because of the racist, sexist, misogynistic and xenophobic attacks we know are coming from those who consciously and subconscoulsly wish to perpetuate white male patriarchy. However, there are Black women and allies across the country who are ready to beat back those attacks and work to mobilize voters in battleground states to not only end the chaos and division of the Trump administration but to also show ourselves and the world that we are indeed a nation as good as its promise.

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Having multiple women run for president ‘allowed them to throw out the old playbook and run as their authentic selves’
Barbara Lee is president and founder of the Barbara Lee Political Office.

It is thrilling that Kamala Harris is making history as the first woman of color ever to be on a major party presidential ticket. She is totally up to the challenge. With no existing roadmap for her candidacy, Senator Harris has the opportunity to chart her own course. We are bound to see the same type of media scrutiny that women always face when running for executive office. Our research at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation shows that women in politics are held to higher standards than their male counterparts (doubly so for Black women), and we know that Harris has faced elevated scrutiny throughout her career—overcoming barrier after barrier with skill, courage and grace.

I believe that the excitement about the record number of women elected to office in 2018 paved the way for multiple qualified women to appear on the presidential debate stage this cycle, for the first time in history. Having multiple women allowed them to throw out the old playbook and run as their authentic selves. We were able to see Senator Harris’s energy, expertise, and empathy. I’m glad that the country sees what I saw in Senator Harris when I first met her eight years ago. She has immense talent, hard-won experience, and an ability to connect powerfully with voters. Kamala is uniquely suited for this moment in history, and poised to drive the Democratic ticket to victory in November.

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‘Everything is different. … Her lens. Her life experiences.’
Sophia A. Nelson is the author of E Pluribus One: Reclaiming our Founders Vision for a United America.

Everything is now different. This is a truly historic pick. Not just because Kamala Harris is just the third woman to be on a major party ticket since 1984, but because she is both a Black and South-Asian woman.

I am thinking of Geraldine Ferraro today, because if she were still with us, I think she would be proud that the Democratic Party has made history once again. Joe Biden’s choosing the junior senator from California also says a lot about him as a man. As someone with his eye on the future, not just of the Democratic Party, but of the nation, Biden basically anointed the first female president in 2024.

Let me say it again: Everything is different. Because she is different. Her lens. Her life experiences. Her steadfast climb up the political mountaintop. It all changes the game of what we have seen before.

It changes the media’s coverage because now they must deal with not just gender issues surrounding the candidate, but also racial issues. It changes the political calculus of the Trump campaign on how low they can go against a female VP nominee, who also happens to be of color. And most of all, it changes, quite possibly, in a most positive way the way that we see powerful women forever.

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