Who’s the Right Kind of Woman, Joe? – The Cut

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You may have noticed a weird tic in some of the recent reporting about Representative Karen Bass of California, rumored to be on Joe Biden’s shortlist for vice-president. Several stories include mention of her aversion to having her photo taken.

“She was a worker bee. She didn’t need to be in front of a camera all the time,” former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told The Atlantic of the time they spent together in the 1970s organizing around police abuse (her) and immigrants’ rights (him), while the New York Times presented Bass’s habit of moving out of the frame as an expression of deference to community activists. “When television cameras showed up, she would often step aside and defer to the people who lived there,” the paper reported, describing her overall style as “nonthreatening.”

The photo thing, readers are led to believe, is key to understanding Bass’s modesty, her “worker bee” style, and her ability to get along with everyone, including former California governor and cigar-smoking Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger and Trump-loving House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and has been used both subtly and unsubtly to set her up in comparison to other women Biden is considering running alongside. As Politico put it directly: “She’s a politician who cringes at having her picture taken and is content to let others grab headlines … In many ways, [Bass] is the anti-Kamala Harris.”

That Bass’s (surely genuine!) lack of enthusiasm for being photographed has come to signal so much about her nature — and that that nature is being presented as a point of appealing contrast with other female politicians — might make more sense in the context of some not-so-distant political history.

Back in 2006, as Hillary Clinton geared up for her first run for the presidency, The Atlantic’s Joshua Green reported a remarkable story about the former First Lady’s tenure in the U.S. Senate. One of the most controversial women in political history when she arrived there in 2001, regarded by Republicans and Democrats alike with suspicion and loathing — Trent Lott had openly speculated that she might be struck by lightning before being sworn in — Clinton had improbably become one of the senators most beloved even by the institution’s most powerful, obstinate old bulls. How had Hillary Rodham Clinton, with her reputation as a troublesome and ambitious liberal agitator, charmed Senate warhorses like Democrat Robert Byrd and Republicans including John McCain and Lott himself?

The answer was soul-grinding in its simplicity: Sources told Green about Clinton’s willingness “to pour coffee for her male seniors”; he reported on her public promise to follow Byrd’s advice that she “be a workhorse, not a show horse,” and some of Clinton’s fellow senators “admiringly pointed out” that — wait for it — when they would gather at press conferences, during “the statesmanlike jockeying for primacy of position before the cameras,” Clinton would be “the only one who routinely steps backward and defers to her colleagues.”

The symmetry of these anecdotes, nearly 14 years apart, can be read as an extremely dark, spirit-eroding joke: The kind of powerful woman who can be easily liked and admired by colleagues and rivals (even if that affection is short-lived, as it was in Clinton’s case) is the kind of woman who is willing to step out of the frame, to disappear herself and her presence from any public record of political achievement.

Except that it’s not a joke, and this silly sexist personality test didn’t just apply 14 years ago, back when we’d only ever had one woman appear on a major party’s presidential ticket, before one (the one who’d made room for the boys in Senate photo ops) had amassed enough goodwill to eventually become the nominee, before six women had run for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president — and before they had all placed behind two elderly white men who’d both served in Congress for decades.

That was then, but dismal public appraisals of women who might soon be America’s vice-president are happening now.

Joe Biden’s campaign has not yet announced his choice for running mate, whom he has vowed will be a woman, but his team has already managed to grotesquely bungle it. The selection that was surely intended to signal the 77-year-old former vice-president’s feminist bona fides has devolved, before it has even concluded, into insulting spectacle, reliant on the perpetuation of ancient sexist and racist tropes about which kinds of women and which kinds of female power are attractive or acceptable.

It’s a sad reminder of the past and a frightening preview of the road immediately ahead of us. Because the Biden campaign is about to pick a woman. And her selection, thanks to this wretched process, is likely to be met with deflation, exhaustion, and resentment, rather than with thrill. Whoever this woman may be, she will be coming aboard a campaign that has already shown how unseriously it takes the historic and fraught role she will be playing, how little it’s considered how to defend her from the heaps of sexist and perhaps racist garbage about to be thrown at her, at least some of which that campaign will have seeded itself. 

The errors began when Biden made his pledge in the March debate with Bernie Sanders: If he won the nomination, he would pick a woman to be his vice-president. It was a savvy way to dominate the post-debate news cycle, but the pop only lasted so long before the big promise got muddy: A … specific woman? A woman with what kind of politics, strengths, ideology, and experience?

There is certainly representational value in electing more women in a country that has been disgracefully underrepresented by anyone other than white men, and that’s what Biden’s pledge was trying to address. But the months that have passed, with no player yet named, have left only the hollowness of that value and … nothing else.

Biden may have intended this to be about an imagined expansion of possibility for women but wound up creating a pre-narrowed field, from which he, the benevolent corrector of representational deficiency (who had just aggressively run against six women), would eventually pluck some lucky contestant. He also ensured that no man could feel that he had been passed over for a woman and no woman could feel that she’d been selected as the right person for the job, merely as the right woman.

And oh, how the conversation about what it means to be the right kind of woman, unfolding in the void created by the absence of a real live choice, has soured.

To start, in ensuring that all contenders were female, Biden set up a cat-fight narrative for a media always salivating to cover one. This is what has permitted the poisonous Kamala-versus-Karen narratives — in which California senator Kamala Harris has been held up as the alarmingly ambitious antithesis of selfless legislator Karen Bass.

That dynamic was foregrounded by an earlier, inverted Kamala-versus-Stacey narrative in which Stacey Abrams, Georgia legislator and former gubernatorial candidate, who was refreshingly up-front about her eagerness to be Biden’s vice-president, was described in Bloomberg as “actively campaigning” for the job of the vice-presidency in contrast to Harris, who had “taken a subtler approach.” (The distinction was presented as meaningless anyway, since some sources told Bloomberg that they saw Harris’s subtler approach as “sleight-of-hand self-promotion.”)

That all of these contrasts have hinged on the question of who can be the more self-effacing — and thus idealized— Black female lieutenant to a white man is breathtakingly racist.

But the hair-pulling lens wasn’t just applied to Black politicians. When Senator Amy Klobuchar — whose once-bright VP prospects dimmed given her regressive prosecutorial record in Minnesota, where the summer’s BLM protests were erupting — publicly withdrew from consideration, urging Biden to choose a woman of color for his running mate, political writer Seth Abramson described her parting words as “Basically … hitting [white Massachusetts senator Elizabeth] Warren behind the knees with a metal rod on her way out the door, such is politics.” Abramson was surely correct that interpersonal kneecapping is a political norm, but the metaphor he seemed to be riffing on was from the hyper-fetishized and -feminized world of figure skating.

Meanwhile, all the vice-presidential hopefuls have been framed as active and aggressive in pursuit of the job, which is not how the story of running-mate selection has traditionally been told. Instead, as The New York Times Magazine correspondent Mark Leibovich put it in a column about the shock of Abrams’s self-advocacy, historically, the unspoken rule has been that “people who want to be picked … must never appear to be openly campaigning for the job — even though he or she plainly wants it (probably very badly).”

This year, multiple stories have presented the women — and again, because of the nature of this process, only women — as “vyingfor the gig. NBC described how some had “put their markers out,” and the New York Post reported on how Klobuchar, along with Nevada senator Catherine Cortez Masto, Warren, and Abrams, were making their cases in what the Post called “a fierce behind-the-scenes battle among some of the nation’s most high-profile female leaders for the potentially historic job.” Abrams was described by the Washington Post as “lobbying” boldly, and ten-term Missouri Democratic representative William Lacy Clay — who this week lost his primary to challenger Cori Bush — openly criticized Abrams’s approach as “offensive” and “inappropriate.”

The opprobrium directed at Abrams was particularly dismaying given that Biden’s team had floated rumors last spring of a potential vice-presidential alliance with her — a move his camp also pulled in 2015 with Warren when he was considering running for the 2016 nomination — to imaginatively boost his own primary prospects.

But the manipulations that white men make in order to advance themselves and their interests are normalized, unremarkable, just politics; of course they can use dynamic women to make themselves appear more exciting, but woe betide those very same women should they get too excited about their own advancement. And of course powerful white men have lobbied and vied with each other for vice-presidential berths for ages, but their proximity to power means that the process can unfold behind cigar smoke or on golf courses or in meetings and conversations that are simply understood as part of the political process between those in power.

Women, and especially Black women, whose political power is still not normalized, do not have access to that kind of proximity or that kind of quiet, invisible ease of communication. Approaches that would go unremarked upon when men make them — meetings, phone calls, the advocacy of colleagues — wind up sticking out like sore thumbs when they’re made by women, and that’s before you get to the part where a Black woman might be moved to say out loud that she’d like to be considered for a job that more than two centuries of American history suggests she will not otherwise be considered for.

All of this puts women in violation of old niceties — the kind of customs built around white male power. “In the so-called veepstakes, publicly vying for the job is considered impolitic and the wrong way to get picked,” according to a 2008 Boston Globe story — no surprise — about Hillary Clinton, who had met with her former primary competitor Barack Obama as part of what was depicted as an “aggressive push” from the Clinton camp for her to become his vice-president. (Clinton’s campaign had to put out a statement assuring the public that “she is not seeking the vice presidency … The choice here is Senator Obama’s and his alone.”)

The very act of having made themselves visible or audible to those in power promptly defines women as ambitious, and of course, these women, like every one of the men who have preceded them in American elected office, are ambitious. But as these past weeks remind us sharply, ambition — understood to be inherent to success in men — is still widely understood as an unattractive perversion in women. Personal drive, strongly held convictions and sharp political instincts are critical qualities for anyone who wants to pursue an active or transformative role in American politics. They happen also to be traits that render women instantly suspect in the American popular imagination: inscrutable and untrustworthy on an almost biblical level.

Four years ago, when a handful of men and one woman (Elizabeth Warren) were regularly mentioned as contenders for the second spot on Hillary Clinton’s presidential ticket, a Los Angeles Times roundup of the players noted that one of the concerns about Warren was that it was “unclear how [she] would adapt to the subservient role of vice president.” None of the other politicians — including Warren’s Senate colleagues Sherrod Brown, Tim Kaine, and Cory Booker — provoked similar worry, which is especially odd since a legitimate concern in the unprecedented circumstances of 2016 might have been how willingly powerful men would “adapt to the subservient role of vice president” to the woman who would have been the nation’s first female chief executive. But even when the candidate at the top of the ticket was female, the anxiety was about another woman’s ability to shrink herself.

These evaluative standards are unjust not simply to the women tagged as disqualifyingly ambitious — Abrams, Harris, Warren, Clinton — but to those whose reputations get warped to fulfill some fantasy of ladylike submission. Karen Bass — a politician with a long, righteous, and sometimes spiky career of having advocated for police reform, of having worked in the 1970s for a pro-Cuban political group — certainly doesn’t deserve to have her character boiled down to a retrograde appreciation for the fact that she’s never aspired to be the president; she doesn’t deserve to be admired for being, as CNN described her backers’ assessments of her, “a safe political choice who would not rock the boat.” The first Black woman to serve as a Speaker of a state legislative body merits better than to be described rapturously by her old friend Villaraigosa as someone who “knows how to stand up for what she believes in, without being difficult.”

Bass has been dishonestly reduced to a white patriarchal fever dream of female pliability and then used cruelly as a cudgel against Harris. Without using the toxic phrase “unlikable,” coverage of the two women has managed to get the idea across: Where Bass is “universally liked,” CNN has quoted former DNC head Ed Rendell saying that “Kamala can rub some people the wrong way.” Where Bass is depicted as a “team player,” CNN has reported on Biden’s worry that Harris — who hit him hard on his past opposition to school busing in a debate last summer — might not be, in CNN’s phrasing, a “trustworthy team player.” Former Connecticut senator Chris Dodd, a member of Biden’s search committee, is reported to have told a donor that when he asked her about that debate, “she laughed and said, ‘That’s politics.’ She had no remorse.” According to Politico, Dodd has been among those elevating Bass, urging Biden to go with her because “she’s a loyal No. 2.”

In this, there are so many repellently retro echoes of the past, a callback to former New York governor Mario Cuomo’s saying that Geraldine Ferraro, upon her nomination to be Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984, “will be the moon to Mondale’s sun.” Sure, male vice-presidents are also supposed to be loyal, something Biden reminds everyone whenever he waxes of his devotion to Barack Obama, but what are the chances that Cuomo would have been described, had he not taken himself out of contention and wound up Mondale’s running mate, as a mere reflection of Minnesotan glow?

Male vice-presidents may be expected to fall in line behind their male presidents, but they are also often widely understood to be willing to make this sacrifice in part because the job sets them up as presidents-in-waiting, something that this summer has taught us is off the table for women.

In a jaw-dropping New York Times story last week, sources close to the Biden selection team openly admitted that a quality they’re seeking in a prospective vice-president is the absence of desire to be president. Addressing Bass’s late surge in the selection process, the Times reported that she had assured officials “that she has no interest in seeking the presidency herself,” noting that that “commitment could assuage concerns in the Biden camp that he might be overshadowed by a running mate positioning herself to succeed him.”

This strain of white-hot stupidity constitutes an open undermining of Harris, Warren, and every other woman who has had the apparent temerity to have already run for president (a choice I had been led to understand was valid for women here in 2020); it also is a dig at Abrams, who in other contexts has been — again, refreshingly — open about her desire to someday sit in the Oval Office. It is offensive on nearly every level when applied to women — and especially to Black women, who have never gotten even close to being justly represented in American elected office, let alone in the executive branch — and is also completely bananas in the context of the 2020 election in which the candidate is a 77-year-old man facing a global health crisis and economic collapse.

Part of the job of being vice-president is preparedness to be president at any moment that it might prove necessary, and part of Joe Biden’s job, without question, should be seeking out and promoting to power talented and driven politicians who badly want to lead his party into the future. Why on earth would a man who parlayed his own vice-presidency into a presidential nomination (having spectacularly flamed out in the two previous presidential primaries he ran in before getting tapped by Obama in 2008) disqualify a woman for considering a similar trajectory?

Consider too some of the men who have been evaluating women’s political worth on a scale calibrated to how difficult, loyal, or deferential they imagine those women to be. That those men include Chris Dodd, an old “drinking buddy” of Ted Kennedy’s — Kennedy reportedly once threw a waitress on Dodd while the Massachusetts senator rubbed his “genital area” on her — and Rendell, who, while mayor of Philadelphia, once told a magazine writer profiling him “in raw and alliterative terms, how he presumes I am in bed,” and that they are choosing for Biden, who himself has made multiple women uncomfortable with his habit of nonconsensual touching, are terribly cruel ironies.

But they are also the nub of it, really: It’s these guys, with their habits and histories that have never really been held against them, and the fact that they are still somehow the ones weighing women’s political and personal value as the fate of the nation hangs in the balance. They — and the whole power structure that enabled their rise and fostered their influence while keeping so many others from challenging them — are why we haven’t had a female vice-president or president or a Black woman governor and only two Black women in the Senate ever in the history of this country.

What’s so sad right now is that the process of trying to change gender dynamics moving forward is being controlled by avatars of an unjust past. That doesn’t portend anything good about the near future or the aptitude of the Biden team. They have squandered the historic and electrifying opportunities here, drained this choice of its power. They have misread the possibilities and peril of this moment and what it requires of them.

Instead of showcasing affirmative cases for a robust list of exciting possibilities — making the assured move of picking a woman who’s dunked on you in a debate or touting the resilience of woman who lost a gubernatorial bid and promptly created a massive apparatus to battle voter suppression; instead of having his surrogates cite the enthusiasm and proficiency of a senator determined to battle corruption and protect consumers or speak admiringly about the political commitments, rather than the appealing humility of, a former community organizer who has been fighting for progressive reforms for decades — instead of any of that, Biden has permitted his League of Mediocre White Men to run around dinging up a group of trailblazing female politicians, most of them Black, all of whom have plied paths unimaginably more challenging than any taken by these men. This has been the vice-presidential selection process of Joe Biden’s 2020 campaign, and it should leave us all hot with anger.

Because we have learned something about our candidate and the team trying to help him win a world-historic, emergency election that is crucial to the survival of the planet: that while he’s eager to leverage a woman to benefit him, neither he nor his team has given any rigorous thought to issues of gender and race in advance of having nominated that woman. Like the quick boost he got from his initial promise, he wants the bang-pow of the feel-good gimmick but hasn’t done any work to consider what actually redressing and correcting representational and political inequality might entail.

And who’s going to be left to do that work? You can guess. The potential vice-presidential nominees, all of them women, have all already been taxed with having to figure out how to respond to this horseshit and do so while navigating around the campaign they’re hoping to join.

Bass had to put out a statement clarifying her distaste for the “anti-Kamala” narrative, noting that Harris “has spent her entire life fighting for the people. I would never want to be labeled the ‘anti-Kamala Harris.’” Abrams has had to answer in interviews again and again for having asserted her desire for a job. And Harris last week had to find words when addressing the virtual Black Girls Lead conference, telling participants: “There will be a resistance to your ambition … There will be people who say to you, ‘You are out of your lane,’ because they are burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been instead of what can be. But don’t you let that burden you.”

How can it not burden them? It is already a burden for Harris and the rest of these women, and the burden has been bestowed on them by the campaign of the guy who wants to be credited with getting the first woman elected vice-president.

The fact that this has been allowed to happen suggests that no one on the team doing the picking seems to understand, in their efforts to minimize the role this vice-president will be playing, how many double standards and higher bars she will face, how much attention she’ll draw, and how much of the reaction to her will be pumped full of raw, terrifying, misogynistic, and possibly racist vitriol. For some insight on this, Biden might actually want to turn to — rather than reject out of hand on account of their imagined threat to him — the very women who have just run for president, and have thus recently been through this fire; they know a hell of a lot that he does not.

There have only ever been three women on major-party presidential tickets in this country’s history; none of them have been Black. All of them have lost. And all of them have walked an extremely lonely, extremely dangerous road with an American public still trained — as Biden’s chatty advisers are — to distrust powerful women.

The American democracy is young, unjust, and violent in its ingrained hatreds. The Biden campaign thought it could get a cute feminist bump without doing the work of thinking through the very real dynamics it’ll be immersed in once it nominates a woman, and maybe it will work for them. On some level, I have to hope so. Because of course I want Biden to win the presidency; perhaps, thanks to the circumstances, I want it as badly as I have ever wanted a candidate to win. If he does, this country will have its first-ever female vice president.

But beyond that — if we make it beyond that — I want a real reckoning: with the forces that helped this candidate, and so many fundamentally ordinary white men before him, to such extraordinary power. I want a fight, and one that’s going to have to be aggressive, for a future of smart, ambitious, progressive, and actually representative leadership.

I don’t need the ordinary white guys to clear out completely, but I’d sure like to see them start stepping aside for the photographs.