Skip navigation

Weekend Reading on Women's Representation January 22, 2021


Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayer swearing in Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday at the Capitol
Dear friends,
This week's inauguration of a new administration was at once a testimony to the power of our democratic traditions and an embrace of new voices & diverse leadership. According to this piece by columnist Monica Hesse in The Washington Post, American democracy has finally passed the Bechdel test with Justice Sonia Sotomayer swearing in our nation's first woman vice president, Kamala Harris:

The promise of a Joe Biden presidency was a return to normalcy, but 62 seconds of Wednesday’s inauguration ceremony were quietly revolutionary. Not the soar of Amanda Gorman’s poem, or the thunderous power of Lady Gaga using a golden microphone to belt the national anthem. In a ceremony filled with artistic creations specifically designed to arouse emotions of patriotism and pride, the 62 seconds that did so most effectively were from a bland, scripted oath of office, administered with the same exchange of words for more than a hundred years. But never between two women.

“Please raise your right hand and repeat after me,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor instructed soon-to-be Vice President Kamala D. Harris. And Harris did.

On one side of the dais, the first Latina member of the U.S. Supreme Court had been entrusted to embody America’s judicial system. She alone would be empowered to administer this oath.

On the other side, the first female, first Black and first Asian American vice president would be entrusted to swear it.

Harris vowed to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. She vowed that she took the obligation freely, and that she would do her duty faithfully.

Do you know how rare it is to see women, and especially women of color, portrayed as patriots? As the strong forces who will be in charge of defending the country from enemies?

Two women, who wouldn’t have been allowed to vote when this oath was written, whose Constitution — the one Harris vowed to Sotomayor that she would protect — doesn’t even include the pronoun “she”?

Do you know how meaningful it was to see Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, holding the Bible on which she placed her left hand — a silent act of support, a strong man graciously upholding his background role in helping his wife begin her job?

For Harris to be sworn in by any member of the court would have already been unprecedented. For Harris to be sworn in by another woman was breathtaking. It conveyed the message that women’s words can be trusted. That the highest level of government business can be competently conducted with no men in the room. That when women speak to each other, it is right and appropriate that the dialogue be lofty, serious and important. That two women can look each other steadily in the eyes, and in the space between them they can hold the entire history and meaning of the republic.

Several years ago, a term arose in cinema and literature: The Bechdel test, named after cartoonist Alison Bechdel, judged artistic works based on whether there were any scenes in which two or more women had a conversation about something other than a man. Vice President Harris’s swearing in was a Bechdel test of American democracy, and after nearly 250 years, we finally passed it.

I cannot stop watching these 62 seconds. Breaking them down moment by moment, each time finding something new. In the seventh second, the way Harris exhales before speaking, appearing to calm her nerves. In the 10th, the way Sotomayor incorrectly pronounces “Kamala,” and Harris smiles because the flub is not going to throw her off today, and because she also knows that, for once, it was probably an honest mistake. In the 22nd, the way you notice that every person behind Sotomayor in the frame, every single one, is a man. Approaching the minute mark, how Harris mistakenly says “upon” instead of “on,” and then raises an eyebrow as if to acknowledge her error.

And then, at the very end: “So help me God,” delivered with a hint of actual supplication and vulnerability in the face of an enormous task, delivered with humility and joy.

So help me, that moment caught me out. You watch enough of these inaugurations and you think there’s nothing left to impress you in the pomp and the circumstance. But then two women can take the dais and you suddenly hear the government of the people, all of its words and all of the things left unsaid.

Powerful political women including Dr Jill Biden, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Michelle Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Amy Klobuchar stood shoulder to shoulder to witness the milestone and Lady Gaga & Jennifer Lopez sang  beautiful American ballads. The amazing youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman became the youngest poet to perform at an inauguration ceremony according to this piece in The Lily by Caroline Kitchener:
On Wednesday, Gorman became the youngest poet to perform at a presidential inauguration. Named the first-ever Youth Poet Laureate in 2017, she roused the country with “The Hill We Climb,” a poem about the fragile state of democracy and the role each individual can play in preserving it. Gorman became a viral sensation as millions of Americans watched her recitation, amassing nearly 900,000 Twitter followers over the course of the day.
Youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman, The Lily

Teachers and mentors who have worked with Gorman weren’t surprised to hear she’d been chosen to perform at the inauguration. From a young age, she had a reputation as a powerful writer and activist, working to help those in need, said Padilla, who taught Gorman at the New Roads School in Santa Monica, Calif., and has continued to mentor Gorman since she graduated from high school in 2016. Gorman has often said that she plans to run for president in 2036, the first year she’ll be eligible. She also alluded to her presidential ambitions in her inaugural poem.

“I don’t know exactly what path she’ll take” to the presidency, said Padilla. “But I have no doubt she’ll find a way.”
Here is the full text of Amanda Gorman's The Hill We Climb:
The Hill We Climb
When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?

The loss we carry. A sea we must wade.

We braved the belly of the beast.

We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace, and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it.

Somehow we do it.

Somehow we weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.

We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.

And, yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect.

We are striving to forge our union with purpose.

To compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.

And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.

We close the divide because we know to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside.

We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another.

We seek harm to none and harmony for all.

Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true.

That even as we grieved, we grew.

That even as we hurt, we hoped.

That even as we tired, we tried.

That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.

Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.

Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.

If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.

That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb, if only we dare.

It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit.

It’s the past we step into and how we repair it.

We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation, rather than share it.

Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.

And this effort very nearly succeeded.

But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated.

In this truth, in this faith we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us.

This is the era of just redemption.

We feared at its inception.

We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour.

But within it we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.

So, while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?

We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce and free.

We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation, become the future.

Our blunders become their burdens.

But one thing is certain.

If we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy and change our children’s birthright.

So let us leave behind a country better than the one we were left.

Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.

We will rise from the golden hills of the West.

We will rise from the windswept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution.

We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states.

We will rise from the sun-baked South.

We will rebuild, reconcile, and recover.

And every known nook of our nation and every corner called our country, our people diverse and beautiful, will emerge battered and beautiful.

When day comes, we step out of the shade of flame and unafraid.

The new dawn balloons as we free it.

For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it.

If only we’re brave enough to be it.
More women will serve as White House correspondents for the new administration according to this story in Glamour by Pauline Jayne Isaac:
President Joe Biden’s White House correspondents serve as a reminder that the new administration will be a diverse one. Major TV networks, including ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN, announced that women will lead White House coverage. ABC appointed Cecilia Vega as the network’s chief correspondent. Kaitlan Collins is taking on the role for CNN. CBS News chose Nancy Cordes. And Kristen Welker will join Peter Alexander for NBC. In addition to those new appointments, Yamiche Alcindor will continue to lead White House coverage for PBS.

“I’ve always thought women belonged in the front row—whether that’s in the White House briefing room or any other,” Collins said. NBC’s Welker, who has spoken about how her identity as a Black woman has inspired her work, says she is “thrilled” to be among a “formidable group of reporters.”

With Kamala Harris now sworn in as the first female, Black, and South Asian vice president in the nation’s history, it’s only right that same diversity is reflected in the White House correspondents. “It is clear that diversity in all forms, including in gender and race, is necessary to tell the stories of our generation in the most accurate and fair way,” Alcindor told CNN Business, according to WENY News. “The American people are best served by a media that looks like the collage of experiences and backgrounds that make up this country.”

Even though it’s 2021, appointing women to lead White House coverage is still newsworthy. Former ABC News White House correspondent Ann Compton commented on the progress being made in political news coverage. She said, per WENY News, “A generation ago, being the only woman was perhaps a blessing—I really stood out from the crowd. The day will come—should come—when it is not news that the majority in the public eye in any profession is female.”
The team at Gender on the Ballot has written a series of profiles of the women who have been nominated to serve in the Biden/Harris administration - here is the latest:
You’ve been following our series on the notable women appointed to the Biden-Harris administration. As the inauguration on January 20th approaches and we wrap up this series, we will be continuing to update the list of trailblazing women on our tracker. Check out Women on Wednesdays, a virtual conversation hosted by The Women & Politics Institute, on January 27th to learn more about the women joining the historic Biden-Harris administration.

Here are a few more names that have been announced since our last post:

Gina Raimondo: Secretary of Commerce

President-elect Joe Biden is tapping Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo as Secretary of Commerce.

As head of the Department of Commerce, Raimondo will manage the development of foreign and domestic commerce including ocean fisheries, weather forecasting and international product standards. She will play a crucial role in handling international trade issues lingering from the Trump administration and assisting Biden in potentially rolling back these actions.

Raimondo, a former venture capitalist, was elected general treasurer of Rhode Island in 2011 and became Rhode Island’s first female governor in 2014. She was previously in the running to lead the Department of Health and Human Services as well as the Treasury Department.

Dr. Kathleen Hicks: Deputy Secretary of Defense

Trusted advisor to President-elect Joe Biden, Dr. Kathleen Hicks, has been selected to serve as Deputy Secretary of Defense. If confirmed by the Senate, she will be the first woman to serve in this role. Dr. Hicks will work with the President-elect, the Vice President-elect and the Secretary of Defense to ensure national security, protect American leadership and manage the defense budget. Previously, she served as Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy under the Obama-Biden Administration.

Vanita Gupta: Associate Attorney General

American civil rights attorney Vanita Gupta has been nominated by the Biden-Harris administration to be Associate Attorney General. Gupta, who is Indian-American, would be the first woman of color to serve in this role. She is currently the President and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Previously, she was appointed by Barack Obama as the the Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General and head of the Civil Rights Division where she served as the chief civil rights prosecutor for the U.S and worked to reform the criminal justice system and protect LGBTQ+, disability, and voting rights.

Samantha Power: Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)

President-elect Joe Biden has nominated Ambassador Samantha Power for Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and promoted the role to be part of the National Security Council. Power has served as a diplomat and public servant, leading the resolution of international conflicts and humanitarian emergencies such as the Ebola epidemic and the Paris climate agreement. In her new role, Ambassador Power will work to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic while protecting vulnerable communities and advancing American interests worldwide.
Dr Rachel Levine
The Biden/ Harris administration has nominated Dr Rachel Levine to be assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. If confirmed, Dr Levine would the first Senate-confirmed trans official in the United States according to this article on The 19th*:
For the first time in history, a transgender person will go before the Senate to be confirmed for a presidential appointment.

President-elect Joe Biden has nominated Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine to serve as assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. If approved, Levine would be the first ever Senate-confirmed trans official in U.S. history. In 2015, her appointment as Pennsylvania Physician General was unanimously approved by both parties in the state Senate.

 “Dr. Rachel Levine will bring the steady leadership and essential expertise we need to get people through this pandemic — no matter their zip code, race, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability — and meet the public health needs of our country in this critical moment and beyond,” Biden said in a statement. “She is a historic and deeply qualified choice to help lead our administration’s health efforts.”

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said she looked forward to working with Levine to rebuild the country “in a way that lifts everyone up.”

“Dr. Rachel Levine is a remarkable public servant with the knowledge and experience to help us contain this pandemic, and protect and improve the health and well-being of the American people,” Harris said in a statement.
Representative Haaland 
There was a story in Euro News about Representative Deb Haaland who is Biden's pick to serve as Interior Secretary, if confirmed Haaland will become the first indigenous woman to serve in this capacity, another milestone reached:
For the first time in history, a Native American woman will be in charge of protecting US public land as Interior Secretary, if confirmed by the Senate.

Congresswoman Deb Haaland is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe in New Mexico and is also the first-ever Native American to serve as a Cabinet Secretary, a high-ranking position within the Executive Office of the President of the United States.

She proudly calls herself a 35th generation New Mexican.

Haaland was born in Winslow, Arizona, where her grandfather worked on the railroad, as part of a federal government policy of "cultural assimilation" for Native Americans. She comes from a military family, her father was a decorated Marine and her mother served in the Navy. Later as an adult, Haaland struggled as a single mother, once having to apply for food stamps to put food on the table for her children.

Throughout her career, she has worked tirelessly as a community activist, long before she decided to enter politics at a national level. Even back then, when she was campaigning in front of only 30 people, her progressive agenda included investing in environmental measures like clean energy.

Haaland says it was Donald Trump's surprise win that got her interested in running for office.

Ever since, she has been known for her work addressing climate change. "I pledge to vote against all new fossil fuel infrastructure and to fight instead for 100% clean energy," she states on her website.

In particular, Haaland openly opposes the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which passes through Native American land. Biden recently announced that he plans to cancel the project as soon as he is sworn into office.
Women in Tunisia.jpg
Many Tunisian women dreamed of greater gender equality after autocratic leader Ben Ali was toppled by protests in January 2011 [Constantin Gouvy/Al Jazeera]
According to a sobering story on Aljazeera, progress toward women's equality in Tunisia has stagnated, despite historic gains a decade ago:
Ten years ago, Tunisian women poured onto the streets to help overthrow autocratic leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali after nearly 20 years in power, and, for some, to denounce the patriarchal nature of Tunisia’s political sphere.

“During the 2011 uprising, we dreamt big,” longtime women’s rights activist Neila Zoghlami recalled with nostalgia.

“We dreamt of equal representation. We dreamt we would become full citizens, not just burdened with men’s duties, but also endowed with their rights … we dreamt we would finally be able to carve out a genuine space for women in politics.”

Now secretary-general of the feminist Tunisian Association of Democratic Women, Zoghlami says, despite big strides in the right direction, her dream remains unfulfilled, as women’s political engagement and representation have started to erode.

On the eve of Tunisia’s revolution, despite several decades of “state feminism” initiated by former President Habib Bourguiba upon independence from France in 1956 and perpetuated by Ben Ali’s repressive rule, politics unmistakably remained a man’s world.

On the face of it, Tunisia’s parliament comprised a large number of women. After the introduction of gender quotas on electoral lists, women secured 28 percent of the seats in the 2009 legislative election – a larger share than in the United States House of Representatives in 2021.
I toasted Vice President Harris on Wednesday and thought of all my family and dear friends around the globe who were celebrating as well. Here's to a rapid expansion of women's power in the coming decade!
P.S. I think you will love Whose Yellen Now by Dessa and the new Madame Vice President playlist on Spotify from the team at RepresentWomen
Artist Kimothy Joy captured the essence of Amanda Gorman's poem.

Continue Reading

Read More