Respect for Women in Politics Remains in Short Supply
Hit Pieces Against VP Kamala Harris Underlines a Gender Gap
Respect for Vice President Kamala Harris, the first female and woman of color to hold this position, and someone positioned to run for President in 2024, is often in short supply. We are deeply concerned about the barrage of what we see as “hit pieces” that seem to undermine her success and thereby her future political path. As former presidents of the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee, a feminist PAC now in its 34th year, we celebrated her election as VP.
The U.S. suffers an enormous gender gap in politics. The Center for Women in Politics at Rutgers notes that “Our country’s rank for women’s political representation is 78th in the world, is dropping and the gender gap in political ambition is growing with obvious ill effects for women’s health, economics, education and work.” Harris was crucially important to the success of several bills that enhanced equitable distribution of resources during the pandemic. Without that perspective, decision-makers frequently fail to consider, much less understand, the degree to which this pandemic has impacted women and their families.
Research confirms that when women do decide to run for political office, they win elections as often as their opponents, even very tough elections, as Vice President Harris has done repeatedly in California. Yet it’s understandable why many capable women are reticent to subject themselves to the mockery, derision, and disrespect that can come when a woman is in the public eye and at the mercy of the press, particularly the ultra-conservative media. Surprisingly, well-respected news media such as Los Angeles Times and New York Times often ignore the accomplishments of elected women to focus on what often amounts to gossip about their communication style as opposed to their significant, often groundbreaking, policy proposals and successes. That’s not only a disservice to the political women but also to the public who need to fully understand their capacity for leadership.
In politics at all levels, it is not unusual for “whisper campaigns” to be undertaken for a multitude of personal or political reasons. That is true for any elected official regardless of gender or race. The targeting of Harris began during the presidential primary and undoubtedly was motivated by multiple factors all designed to weaken her as a candidate in 2024 or 2028. Harris’s coverage reminds us about the insulting remarks from pundits about Hillary’s ankles, obsession with her hair styles, her laugh, and “the likability issue” that may have taken her down with undecided voters.
Now, the complicated mix of racial and sexual animus is markedly evident in Harris’s case with headlines focused on her wardrobe or style, her smiling and laughter. We note divisive comments about her private life, or that she is driven by ambition, comments which distract from or actually ignore, her accomplishments.
Harris’s positive policy achievements become reinvented. For example, the truancy program to keep kids out of the criminal justice system, or the reduction in marijuana prosecutions she oversaw as district attorney, are distorted and taken out of context in ways designed to alienate, anger, and divide large swaths of the population, not to mention her own progressive allies. By contrast, male candidates who have been prosecutors are often lauded for their background as “tough” or strategic; Adam Schiff, for example, who was a federal prosecutor, is seen as “tough” on crime while Harris is described in whisper campaigns and media accounts as simply “mean.” More, racist disinformation campaigns by QAnon, and the former president’s supporters, question whether she is or should identify as a Black American. The sexism/racism toward Harris and so many other women of color may be one more talking point in a right-wing campaign to undermine their efforts and progressive agendas for social change.
President Biden has been very attentive to Harris, always referring to “the Biden Harris administration,” suggesting that she is a full partner, and one would assume, “heir apparent.” Being a vice president is an awkward job: to support the president and be a team player without seeming to have an independent path or appear to be preparing for a future political run. Harris has been assigned to the tasks of solving the unwieldy, politically volatile, and polarizing issues of immigration and the protection of voting rights. While possible signs of respect for her ability to handle contentious issues, these difficult assignments in a congressional climate of resistance, make it difficult to showcase her specific good work.
Still this past week, we were gratified to see Vice President Harris presiding over the final passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. She is credited for her role on the front lines in the past few weeks of negotiations. The story of this success will, we hope, outlive possible “hit pieces” that may well undercut her. We are urging mainstream and local media to do justice to our Vice President’s leadership on her diplomatic and legislative accomplishments that will ensure our democracy continues. Let’s not forget that Kamala Harris shattered glass ceilings when she became the first Black and Asian Vice President. Surely, her extraordinary resilience made this path possible, but it’s a strength best served by sustained support for her efforts, not gossip and demeaning commentary that consistently undermines her walk forward.
The former presidents of the Santa Barbara Women’s Political Committee who submitted this op-ed include Janet Barron, Gayle Binion, Hon. Margaret Connell, Jane Gray, Hon. Lisa Guravitz, Sharon Hoshida, Alissa Hummer, Hon. Hannah-Beth Jackson, Carol Keator, Barbara Lindemann, Mary O’Gorman, Lois Phillips, Hon. Luz Reyes-Martin, Carole Piceno, Hon. Susan Rose, Hon. Beth Schneider, and Catherine Swysen.