'Bittersweet': Harris VP pick reminds some women the glass ceiling is still intact

By Cynthia Richie Terrell on August 20, 2020

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By Lauren Egan

WASHINGTON — Sen. Kamala Harris' place on the Democratic ticket represents another crack in the glass ceiling for many women, even as some say it serves to reinforce just how difficult it is to shatter.

In conversations with activists and party leaders, many women described the VP pick as a tough reminder that, despite the historic number of women who ran for the 2020 Democratic nomination, a septuagenarian white man is still at the top of the ticket.

"It's almost like we can taste it as women," said former Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland. "We're almost there."

Edwards ran in 2016 to replace retiring Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the first woman to be elected to the U.S. Senate in Maryland, but lost in the Democratic primary to then-Rep. Chris Van Hollen (who went on to win the seat).

"I have been fairly critical, one would say, of the Democratic Party because I think we are a party that is more representative in terms of women, people of color," Edwards said. “But we haven't always done justice to those really important parts of our fabric. And I think that looking at Kamala's ascendancy from the primary process, in some ways, was predictable and a surprise."

Amanda Litman, who served as Hillary Clinton's 2016 email director and co-founded the group Run for Something, which recruits and trains young progressives running for state and local office, said that Harris' joining the ticket was "amazing and exciting — terrifying and sad and bittersweet."

During the primary, even Harris herself recoiled at the idea of being second-in-command.

"As vice president, he's shown he can do the job," Harris said of Biden last spring when asked if she was interested in being his running mate, implying he could instead be her vice president.

Despite the record number of women who competed for the nomination this cycle (six), many Democratic primary voters expressed fear that the country still wasn't ready for a woman in charge. In a November study, only 49 percent of American men said they would feel very comfortable with a woman as president.

Polling data showed a large number of Democratic voters saying that "electability" took priority over values compared with previous elections — a term experts say is disproportionally used against women and people of color. A February poll from USA TODAY/Ipsos showed that while a majority of Americans said they believed the country was ready for a female president, the level of support had declined over the previous six months of the primary.

Still, many Democrats contend that electing the first woman and the first Black or Asian American as vice president — which would be the case if Biden-Harris wins in November — is an important step forward that could change the country's attitudes toward women in power.

"If you get more women, it accustoms people to thinking about women in that highest leadership position. And I think that's all to the good," Hillary Clinton said at a virtual summit hosted by The 19th on Thursday. "I am hopeful that I will be around to vote for a woman president, assuming I agree with her."

Aimee Allison, the founder of the advocacy group She the People, called Harris' selection "remarkable" considering what she described as the Democratic Party's history of taking women of color for granted.

"There's all the reason to celebrate and to really look at where we are in the sense of a continuum," Allison said, adding that Biden ran three times before winning the nomination. "Harris' first run was way more successful than Biden’s first run," she added.

Cynthia Richie Terrell, the founder and executive director of RepresentWomen, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for more women in office, said that Biden's commitment early-on to picking a female running mate is an example of how men can wield their privilege to help change the underrepresentation of women in politics.

"It's an important reminder that executives have a lot of power to accelerate progress to parity,” said Terrell. "It really begins to crack the egg of sexism, and all of a sudden people see that women can also be in positions of power."

Harris, too, seemed to share that view, saying Friday in an interview at The 19th summit that Biden had the "audacity" to choose a Black woman to help break one of the most "substantial barriers that has existed in our country."

Edwards said that Biden's pick "says a lot about him, for one, because I think it takes a lot for men in this environment to be strong and confident and not be afraid of a strong and confident woman."

Others warn that while having Harris on the ticket is warmly welcomed, it is not a silver bullet for changing views of women in politics.

“On the one hand, it's an incredibly important move for the Democratic Party because it demonstrates that the party is well aware of the fact that they depend on a pretty diverse voter base," said Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.

"I do think, though, that we should not just say, 'OK, now our work is done,'" Lawless continued. "The reality is that the overwhelming majority of our elected officials are still men."

There is currently a record number of women serving in Congress thanks to the watershed 2018 midterms, but they still only make up about a quarter of the House and Senate despite making up the majority of the electorate.

Others have warned that Biden and the Democratic Party will have to work hard to make sure Harris is treated like an equal, so as to not reinforce harmful stereotypes about women and people of color serving at the pleasure of white men in power.

"Joe Biden has also got to prove that he is really committed to this," Brittney Cooper, an associate professor of women and gender studies at Rutgers University, said in an interview with MSNBC's Ari Melber this week. "He has made the pick, but now we just don't need it to be symbolic."

Allison said that she still expects racism and sexism to be a major hurdle in this campaign and in future elections.

"We have a long way to go," she said. “But, dang, we just took a big step.”

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