In 2016, just four years shy of the hundred-year anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, Americans witnessed history as the first woman ever was nominated as a presidential candidate by a major political party.

 America also saw her lose, and for many, it was all hell breaking loose. Never mind the apparent misogynist who was her opponent, many Americans were heartbroken and hopeless seeing a woman rise so high, reaching a place where no woman had been allowed to ascend before, only to be rebuffed so brazenly and with such hostility. On top of the heartbreak of coming so close to making history and breaking one of the last intact glass ceilings, many were fearful of what the next four years would look like — and rightfully so

On election night 2016, I tried my best to stay awake, even as moods darkened when supposedly blue-leaning swing states swung red. Even then, as I drifted off to sleep, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that I was finally going to see a woman elected as the president of the United States, and thankfully, one who was guided by feminist principles and advocated for progressive policies. When I woke up the next morning, my heart sank into my stomach and my throat felt like it was closing; like so many women and other marginalized people, I knew exactly how high the stakes really were. 

It was devastating, soul-crushing and deeply distressing. 

Now, nearly four years later, there is once again a woman making history at the top of the ballot. On Aug. 11, former vice president Joe Biden selected Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as his running mate. Introducing her at their first press conference together as his ticket’s vice president, Biden said, “One of the reasons that I chose Kamala is that we both believe that we can define America simply in one word: possibilities.” 

Even before any vote is cast, Harris’s nomination is historic: She is the both the first Black woman and the first Indian woman to be nominated for vice president by a major political party. If Biden is elected president, she will be the first woman to serve in one of the highest roles in our nation as the first female vice president. 

Nodding toward this legacy, Biden also said, “This morning, all across the nation, little girls woke up, especially little Black and brown girls, who so often feel overlooked and undervalued in their communities. But today just maybe they’re seeing themselves for the first time in a new way: as the stuff of presidents and vice presidents.” 

In an effort to understand the impact of Harris’s nomination, I spoke to several University of Michigan students about their thoughts on Biden choosing Harris to be his running mate and what her vice presidency might mean. 

In an email to The Michigan Daily, Jake Riegel, an LSA sophomore studying American Culture and a member of Students for Biden on campus, wrote about what Biden’s selection shows. 

“… The Democratic Party is proving itself to be the party of diversity and inclusion,” Riegel wrote. “I do feel more excited (to vote for Joe Biden), because Senator Harris was my preferred vice presidential candidate.” 

Riegel also commented on the historic nature of her candidacy.

“It is significant that Joe Biden picked Kamala Harris, both because she is Black and South Asian, as well as a woman, but I am more excited because of her qualifications. She is ultimately qualified for both the position as vice president and president.” 

While many are excited about the progress Harris’s nomination means for women in politics, others are a bit more cautious. LSA freshman Eva Hale, also a member of Students for Biden, touched on this idea in an interview. 

“A woman still hasn’t been elected (as president), and if Joe and Kamala win, she still wouldn’t have been elected,” Hale said. “The fact that a lot of women were competitive for the presidential nomination this year is great — I guess it shows we’re getting there, but we can’t say we’re there yet.”

While Harris’s nomination makes her a trailblazer for women’s political representation, she is not, however, the first woman to be nominated as a vice presidential running mate. In fact, there have been two women before her who were selected to be on a major party ticket. The stories of these two women’s nominations could not be more different, but the country’s reaction to them provides important context for Harris’s nomination and potential election. 

In 1984, then-Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, a Democrat from New York, was selected by Walter Mondale to be his running mate. Before this selection, Ferraro, a former schoolteacher and sex crimes prosecutor, quickly rose in the Democratic party’s leadership, becoming the Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus. 

It was not long before she faced misogyny on the campaign trail. On top of sexist coverage about her clothes and her hair, she was asked by a voter if she could bake a blueberry muffin because “down here in Mississippi the men don’t cook.” On Meet the Press, one moderator questioned whether she could push the nuclear button and if Mondale would have chosen her if she weren’t a woman. Articles were written asking if America was “ready” for a female vice president, something pundits continue to ask to this day, just as they asked if America was ready for a Black president when then-Senator Obama ran in 2008. 

The sexism didn’t only come from the press; it also came from her opponent’s campaign: Vice President Bush’s spokesperson, Peter Teeley, said, “She’s too bitchy. She’s very arrogant. Humility isn’t one of her strong points, and I think that comes through.” 

Ambitious women frequently receive these sorts of remarks from men like Teeley — men who view women who dare to step out of their socially-constructed place with contempt and vitriol. 

Indicative of the tightrope she was forced to walk as a woman vying for one of the highest offices in the land, Ferrero often referred to herself as “a housewife from Queens.” She could not be too openly ambitious. She needed to be careful not to be perceived as threatening the status quo of men holding almost all political power. She could not even defend herself against sexist attacks; in 2008, she reflected on the experience saying, “In 1984, I couldn’t say, ‘Stop it,” because I couldn’t look like I was whining or upset about it.” 

On top of the criticism she faced solely as a result of being a woman, Ferraro’s nomination, while historic, was essentially doomed from the beginning. Trailing Reagan, Mondale decided he needed to shake up the race by picking a female running mate, an effort to clinch the excitement of Democratic voters. The effort failed, though, in part due to Mondale’s own strategic blunders, resulting in the Mondale-Ferraro ticket only winning 13 electoral votes in the Electoral College.

While Mondale’s own candidacy was ill-fated from the beginning due to the country experiencing short-term economic growth from the Reagan-era tax cuts, picking a woman to be your running mate as a last-ditch effort to save your candidacy is nothing to be applauded. It is objectifying and indicates a level of contempt for women voters by thinking that they will rush to your side for picking a lady to be on the ticket. 

And yet, 24 years later, another woman was selected as a vice presidential running mate for the same reason: Sarah Palin.

In 2008, then-Senator and candidate John McCain selected Palin to be his running mate, though his first-choice pick was Joe Lieberman, a centrist from Connecticut. He ultimately picked then-Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin because, as one GOP strategist said, he “clearly felt like (the campaign) needed to shake this race up and go for broke.” Picking a woman to be his running mate as a Republican nominee certainly raised eyebrows, but also initially elicited positive feedback, with McCain’s campaign receiving a bit of a boost in the aftermath of this selection. 

Again, though, Palin was set up to fail. At the time of the pick, McCain was consistently trailing behind Obama in polling, dragged down for his party association with Bush as the economy barreled toward collapse in the fall of 2008. McCain needed a splashy pick to try to bring some enthusiasm and new interest to his campaign. 

On top of tasking her with saving his declining candidacy, McCain thrust Palin into the spotlight with relatively little vetting and preparedness. Of course, as a governor, there was little excuse as to why Palin could not name a single newspaper or magazine she regularly read in a now-famous interview with Katie Couric, where she said she read “all of them, any of them.” 

Still, the McCain campaign famously failed to fully vet Palin as they had scrambled to find a pick after several other candidates fell through, using her as less of an equal partner or colleague and more as a shiny new toy to dazzle voters and the press. 

Despite the time between Ferraro’s history-making nomination and Palin joining McCain’s ticket, female candidates were still subject to similar instances of sexism by the media and voters on the campaign trail. In reflection on the 2008 campaign, which also included Hillary Clinton’s first presidential run, Ferraro said, “Even when (the media was) so sexist to Hillary, and we said something about it, they still thought we were whining or acting like sore losers … But I never thought we’d have the opportunity to see another woman go through it, this same election cycle, after the press had been put on notice,” referencing when Charlie Gibson of ABC News asked Palin how somebody could manage a family of seven and the vice presidency. 

It is true that one’s political party rarely protects female candidates from sexist coverage or attacks, but a female candidate’s political party, particularly due to the policy preferences she holds, are decisive in determining whether her election is a victory for women and for feminism. Though some who are not particularly well-read on feminist scholarship will claim the election of a woman — any woman — automatically means progress for women’s rights, this assertion is deeply misguided and factually wrong. The election of Sarah Palin, an anti-choice, far-right Republican, would not have been a win for women. As vice president, she would have advocated for positions in the McCain administration that would have systematically stripped women, as well as other marginalized groups, of their rights and liberties, particularly on issues of reproductive justice, voting rights, environmental justice and economic justice. 

Women’s political interests are only benefitted when women who will work toward gender equality and autonomy are elected. Similar to Palin, Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to fill Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the Supreme Court on Monday was not a win for women because she is a woman or a working mom. A woman taking your rights away is still someone taking your rights away. 

It is in this context that Harris’s nomination to be vice president is such an important moment for the country, as well as for feminism. While she joins a ticket headed by Biden, who was considered to be the moderate who could bring both Democrats and Never-Trump Republicans together, the Biden-Harris policy agenda is actually the most progressive presidential platform in the history of U.S. electoral politics. Harris has taken progressive policy stances of her own, such as signing onto the Green New Deal, supporting a public option to allow more Americans to obtain health insurance and pledging to end the Hyde Amendment, among many others. Her record of voting and legislation introduction has been deemed among the most liberal in the Senate by GovTrack, a non-partisan organization that tracks bills in Congress. All of these positions are rooted in creating a more equitable, more just future for all, which is certainly aligned with the goals of feminism.

Biden may lose the presidential election on Nov. 3, but it is obvious that he did not pick Harris as his running mate while being down in the polls or feeling any sense of needing a last-ditch effort to shake up the campaign; he’s been leading Trump for the entirety of the campaign season. 

In this way, Biden is breaking the habit of male presidential nominees setting their female running mates up for peril on a glass cliff — a phenomena named by psychologists that refers to the fact that women become more likely to be elevated to leadership positions in times of crisis when they are more likely to fail. For women, the glass cliff is not exclusive to politics — another famous example of this phenomena is Marissa Mayer’s elevation to CEO of Yahoo in 2012, when the company was in major need of a turnaround. 

Additionally, Harris’s run somewhat diverges from Ferraro and Palin’s because her nomination came after Clinton’s historic presidential campaign in 2016. Susan Carroll, a professor of Political Science and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, said, “The context of the times is different. We’ve had Hillary Clinton run for president. We’ve had all of the women who ran this time, so some of the worst kinds of barriers have broken down,” adding that a woman on the executive ticket has, “become more normalized now.”

While women running for high office may be more normalized, the misogyny directed at ambitious women has not dissipated, though it’s now more exclusively coming from the Republican Party. After she was announced, Trump called Harris “nasty” and “a madwoman.” And like father, like son: Eric Trump favorited a now-deleted tweet calling Harris a “whorendous pick.” One of Trump’s favorite lackeys, Tucker Carlson of Fox News, insisted on mispronouncing her name and demanded to know why he should give her the respect of learning how to pronounce it correctly. 

Unlike Ferraro and Palin, though, Harris, as a Black and South Asian woman, is also subjected to racism on top of misogyny. While the term “intersectionality” has been watered down by the popular media, it was originally coined by feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in her Stanford Law Review article “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Color” to signify the ways in which one’s identities interact to shape the multiple dimensions of their experiences. In Harris’s case, she experiences distinctive discrimination as a biracial woman of color. Carlson’s refusal to correctly pronounce her name is unquestionably linked to her identity as a woman of color with a traditionally South Asian name.

For Harris, though, her identity has always been a point of pride on her path-breaking journey. In introducing herself to voters, she often recites the story of her parents meeting: her father, an immigrant and Ph.D student from Jamaica, was giving a civil rights-related speech at the University of California-Berkeley, and her mother, an immigrant and Ph.D student from India, wanted to know more, prompting future meetings between the two. 

In Harris’s memoir, “The Truths We Hold,” she writes extensively about how her childhood and young adulthood shaped who she is as a person and policymaker, detailing how being raised by a single mother after her parents’ split opened her eyes to injustice. In one chapter, she explores her experience going to Howard University, a historically Black university in Washington, D.C. 

“At Howard, you could come as you were and leave as the person you aspired to be. We weren’t just told we had the capacity to be great; we were challenged to live up to that potential. There was an expectation that we would cultivate and use our talents to take on roles of leadership and have an impact on other people, on our country and maybe even on the world,” she recalled. 

Before becoming a U.S. senator, a presidential candidate and a vice presidential nominee, Harris was the first Black person and first woman to be elected as both the district attorney of San Francisco and the attorney general of California. She then went on to become the first Black woman to represent California in the U.S. Senate. 

As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Harris became known for her sharp, incisive witness questioning, a skill undoubtedly connected to her legal training at UC-Hastings College of Law. Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions even said her questioning was “making (him) nervous,” and several clips of her pointed questioning of then-nominee Brett Kavanaugh went viral during his Supreme Court nomination hearings. 

These skills were on full display at the vice presidential debate on Oct. 7, as Harris pushed back on Mike Pence’s obfuscation about the Trump administration’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as their attempts to strip nearly 20 million Americans of the health insurance by challenging the Affordable Care Act in the Supreme Court. She also came off as charismatic and competent, two qualities indicating she is ready to step into the role of president if ever needed — arguably the most important duty for a vice president.

In the chapter of her memoir describing her campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2016, Harris writes of the 1992 elections. The Year of the Woman, as 1992 came to be known, saw four new women elected to the U.S. Senate — Barbara Boxer of California, Carol Mosely Braun of Illinois, Patty Murray of Washington and Dianne Feinstein of California — which brought the total to six women serving in the Senate. Harris writes, “Their election was … an inspiration to girls and women everywhere, including me.” 

If the Biden-Harris ticket wins on Nov. 3, there will, some years from now, be female politicians who write in their own memoirs that what inspired them to run for office was the election of Harris as vice president of the U.S. Before she even moves into the Naval Observatory, her election could inspire a generation of young women to become engaged in politics and run for office, a legacy to behold.

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