Politics

Feminist activists are eager to build on Kamala Harris' ascent to vice president

Share
Key Points
  • Kamala Harris may not be the president, but for those on the front lines of the battle to see a woman behind the Resolute desk, her ascendancy to the No.2 spot is an undeniable victory to build upon.
  • "That is a huge milestone to cross over," said Stephanie Schriock, president of political action committee Emily's List, which has been on the front lines of that battle since 1985.
  • The rest of the world has had less trouble producing female top political leaders and the structure of American government has a lot to do with it.
  • The presidency is an especially masculinized office. It continues to give power and value to masculine traits, said Kelly Dittmar, associate professor of political science at Rutgers University.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), running mate of Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee former Vice President Joe Biden, attends a coronavirus briefing at a makeshift studio at the Hotel DuPont on August 13, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images

Kamala Harris cast the tie-breaking vote on Democrats' $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill that became the law of the land last week, marking another high-profile moment for the first female vice president in U.S. history.

This week Harris, who is of Indian descent, is at the center of the administration's efforts to confront growing anti-Asian violence.

Harris may not be the president, but for those on the front lines of the battle to see a woman behind the resolute desk, her ascendancy to the No.2 spot is an undeniable victory to build on.

"That is a huge milestone to cross over," said Stephanie Schriock, president of political action committee Emily's List, which has been on the front lines of that battle since 1985. "She will be in the room where the big decisions are being made, where the agenda is being set, with a perspective that has never been there before."

Beyond being the first female vice president, Harris brings the perspective of being the first Black woman and first Asian American woman to hold the office. Her multi-racial background made her a compelling choice for then President-elect Joe Biden as he sought a running mate who could lock in the Democratic voter coalition he needed to win.

But Harris had higher ambitions initially. She was one of six Democratic women who ran for president in 2020, an historical feat in itself in a political system that has been hostile to women candidates since its inception.

"In 2020 there were six women running, that was a really positive change for this process," said Schriock. "There's usually only one, and that's happened only a couple of times in our history."

Harris' office did not respond to a request for comment.

Efforts to get a woman elected to the highest office in the land stretch back well over a century. Victoria Claflin Woodhull became the first woman to run for the office in 1872, as the candidate of the Equal Rights Party. Dozens of women tried to gain a foothold in the following years, and they are listed here.

The most significant milestone comes a full century later when Rep. Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman to run for the Democratic nomination and the first woman to win votes at the Democratic National Convention.

"Shirley Chisolm was really important moment for women in this country," said Schriock, even if her candidacy was considered mostly symbolic at the time.

And then Hillary Clinton changed the game in dramatic fashion. The former first lady and New York senator brought real world experience and gravitas to her campaigns for president in 2008 and 2016.

In her second campaign, the former secretary of State became the first woman to win a major party nomination and seemed poised to win it all.

The front runner

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally in Cleveland, November 6, 2016.
Brian Snyder | Reuters

"Hillary Clinton was perceived as not only viable but as the front-runner," said said Kelly Dittmar, associate professor of political science at Rutgers University.

Her electoral loss to Republican Donald Trump was a major blow to her legions of supporters, but Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million, proving that Americans were finally willing to put their trust in a female leader.

That election also laid bare the most egregious stereotypes that have held women back from the nation's top job.

"One of the bigger gender stories in 2016, was the doubling down on a traditional and toxic form of masculinity that Donald Trump" relied on to win the election, Dittmar added.

Trump aggressively attacked his rivals, used offensive language and racial and gender stereotypes to inflame voters' fears and insecurities. His extreme tactics helped him win the Republican nomination and pick up enough votes in three traditionally blue states to win an electoral college victory over Clinton.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who ran for the Republican nomination during the 2016 primary, experienced Trump's sexism first-hand when he famously made comments disparaging her appearance.

'Your opinion of my appearance is inappropriate'

Republican presidential candidates Carly Fiorina, former chairman and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co., and Scott Walker, governor of Wisconsin, walk on stage during the Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, Sept. 16, 2015.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Fiorina, who was the first female to run a fortune 500 company, said she was accustomed to being the only woman in the room and getting comments about her looks. But she put the awkward shoe on the other foot: "Donald Trump's comments about my face and all the rest of it, I think it was an example of some men not really knowing quite how to deal with" female competitors, she said in an interview.

She addressed his remarks from the debate stage where she could communicate with her audience unfiltered. "What I wanted to convey was every woman in America understands that when a man comments on your appearance, when the subject is your competence or your capability, it's not appropriate, whether it's a positive comment or a negative comment," she said. "Your opinion of my appearance is not only inappropriate, it's irrelevant."

Trump wasn't the only one engaging in sexist behavior during that chaotic election season. The press paid more attention to candidate Clinton's clothing, hair and demeanor than Trump's, Dittmar said.

Who would you want to have a beer with?

Hillary Clinton speaks as Donald Trump looks on during the town hall presidential debate at Washington University on October 9, 2016, in St Louis.
Rick Wilking-Pool | Getty Images

The media also gave Trump more coverage. A report from The Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center found that Trump received about 15% more coverage than Clinton.

But voter attitudes remain the most critical stumbling block in a woman's path to the presidency: There's this idea that the president "should be someone we want to have a beer with, and that's usually a man," said Nadra Kareem Nittle, a veteran journalist covering politics and public policy.

The rest of the world has had less trouble producing top political leaders. Dittmar explained that the structure of American government has a lot to do with it. Most of the female leaders from Britain to Pakistan have been prime ministers who are selected by their party, not direct elections.

In America, it's different. "We have very candidate-centered electoral system that amplifies the stereotypical challenges. The presidency is an especially masculinized office. It continues to give power and value to masculine traits."

The president is after all the Commander-in-chief, "so, yes, we associate those roles with a man," said Fiorina.

Clinton's historic run and devastating loss, however, marked a turning point in women's quest for the highest office.

"What her loss caused was an igniting of political power inside of millions of women across country who burst into anger and then passion to save their communities, and stepped up to run for office," Schriock said.

Emily's List has seen a whopping 60,000 women reach out for support to run for office in the four years since the 2016 election, Schriock said. That compares with 962 women in 2015-16 cycle.

Some of those women went on to win a record number of seats in Congress during the 2018 midterms, which helped to flip the house blue and hand the speaker's gavel to Nancy Pelosi.

Clinton's historic run also opened the path for the six female Democrats who hit the presidential campaign trail in 2020, including Harris, and Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand.

Yet for all the progress and diversity of the 2020 Democratic primary slate, in the end, voters chose 78-year old white male Joe Biden as the nominee to duke it out with Trump.

Dittmar says the "electability myth" guided voter behavior. "Democratic voters were especially motivated by a sense of urgency to beat Donald Trump," she said. And an older white man appeared to be the safest bet.

A bridge to the future

Former Vice President Joe Biden talks with Senator Kamala Harris after the conclusion of the 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston, Texas, September 12, 2019.
Mike Blake | Reuters

But he chose a 56-year old Black woman as his running mate, making him what Fiorina called "a transitional figure" and "a bridge to the future."

She said Harris was instrumental in their victory and President Biden "clearly views her as a partner, as a teammate."

So, will Harris be the one who finally makes the leap?

Her role is still being written by the administration. There's concern that tie-breaking responsibilities in the Senate will hamper her ability to take on more meaty tasks that will give her the kind of executive experience voters will accept.  

Harris' background as a biracial woman could make the journey harder if she choses to run.

On the 2020 campaign trail she faced discrimination as rival Trump spread a racist birther conspiracy theory based on her immigrant parents, who were from Jamaica and India. Republican officials often mispronounce her first name, which some consider to be discriminatory.

"It says you don't belong, you're different," A'shanti Gholar, president of Emerge America, which trains Democratic women to run for office, told the Sacramento Bee.

Those obstacles will not go away.

What's more, observers say Democrats are unlikely to clear the field in four or eight years for a Harris candidacy amid memories of Hillary Clinton's near-coronation in 2016. A crowded primary is almost a given.  

Even so, her current platform as vice president gives her advantages no other woman has ever had, if she is given the leadership role that the campaign promised when she got the nod.

"Being woman and a woman of color will make it more difficult for her than other vice presidents," Nittle said. "But she's clearly in a better situation to become president than any American woman in history."