Mere hours after Joe Biden announced Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate for the presidency, former Republican nominee Sarah Palin shared her advice on Instagram. “Fight mightily,” she said, “[and] don’t forget the women who came before you.” The women Palin refers to most immediately are herself and Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic nominee for Vice President in 1984, but countless women came before Harris. She stands on the shoulders of giants like Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for president in the Democratic party, as well as the innumerable activists who led to her success. However, as much as Harris fits into a larger story of women politicians and activists, she deserves recognition for the significance of her nomination specifically. Although she is the fourth woman to be nominated on a major party’s presidential ticket, Harris is the first woman of color, the first Black woman, and the first South Asian woman to ever receive the nomination for either Vice President or President.
The fact that Biden would be the oldest president ever elected—78, by inauguration day—bolsters the importance of Harris’ nomination; he has stressed that his running mate should be ready to take the reins “on day one” of his term. The search for a VP has not carried so much consequence in an election since 1944 when incumbent President Franklin Roosevelt was in bad health and changed his VP for his second term from Henry Wallace to Harry Truman. (Truman took over the office less than four months into the term). Even if Biden completes his first four years, he has indicated that he would not run for reelection, and the subtext of Harris’ nomination is that she is poised to follow in Biden’s footsteps and become the Democratic nominee for President in 2024.
The gravity of Biden’s pick contributed to the intensity of his search. In the months between Biden’s public commitment in March to select a woman and his stated announcement deadline of early August, dozens of potential candidates have faced public scrutiny, Harris among them. Rankings of probable picks often included Harris, Georgia Gubernatorial Candidate Stacey Abrams, former U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, Senators Tammy Duckworth, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren, California Representative Karen Bass, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Florida Representative Val Demings, and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Many community leaders and activists mounted pressure on Biden to select a Black woman, citing multiple reasons such as the party’s reliance on Black women voters, who have consistently supported the party in elections yet are underrepresented in Democratic leadership.
During the five-month-long “veepstakes,” many activists expressed outrage over the sexist and racist treatment of potential candidates by media outlets. A case in point was the characterization of Abrams as overly ambitious following her openly seeking the nomination. Harris also faced criticism for her ambition. In opposition to this treatment, one group of more than 100 Black women activists and leaders published a letter detailing the unacceptable disrespect shown to the Black women under consideration, specifically referencing a Virginia mayor’s Facebook post which claimed that Biden “announced Aunt Jemima” as his pick. Later, in anticipation of Biden’s imminent announcement, a coalition of feminist organizations such as Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List, and the National Women’s Law Center, sent out a memo urging media outlets to internally examine their biases and to be intentional about equitable coverage.
Sexist media has plagued female candidates for as long as they’ve been running. In 1872, cartoonist Thomas Nast critiqued Victoria Woodhull’s historic run for the presidency by drawing her as the literal devil incarnate. More recently, Tina Fey’s impression of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live (“I can see Russia from my house!”) has garnered more attention and praise than almost any other act in the show’s history. While the impression is hilarious in its own right, it is worth noting that audiences reward mocking female politicians much more than mocking male ones: see Julia Louis Dreyfus’ six consecutive Emmys for playing Selina Meyer on VEEP, the longest streak of Emmy wins by any actor, ever. (Harris herself is played by Maya Rudolph on SNL. In her debut episode, she is described as “America’s fun aunt—a ‘funt.’”)
As predicted, the Biden/Harris campaign met a barrage of racist and sexist coverage following the VP announcement. In the minutes after the campaign announced on August 11, an online fight dubbed the “Wikipedia War” by The Atlantic’s Joshua Benton broke out on Harris’ Wikipedia page, debating her racial identity, national origin, and eligibility to be president. For two minutes, one Wikipedia editor replaced Harris’ name with a sexist slur, “C*ntala Harris,” leaving anyone who Googled her name to see the altered page as the first result. Later that night, Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson refused to even pronounce Harris’ name correctly on-air, and at a news conference, President Trump shared false rumors about Harris’ eligibility for the presidency in a manner reminiscent of the 2008 “birtherism” attacks on President Obama.
In addition to simply smearing the campaign, the racist and sexist attacks lodged against Harris cloud legitimate criticism of her record, which some claim opposes the Black Lives Matter movement. Harris served as District Attorney of San Francisco from 2003 to 2010, when she was elected Attorney General of California. Many characterize Harris as California’s “progressive prosecutor,” a label she embraces and gestured at in her presidential campaign slogan: “Kamala Harris For the People.” This very history most likely contributed to the selection of Harris as VP: by choosing Harris as his running mate, Biden counters Trump’s self-description as the law and order candidate.
However, many leftists and activists criticize Harris’ record as a tough-on-crime “top cop.” One policy that many point to is Harris’ initiative to criminalize truancy, which has resulted in multiple arrests and prosecutions since Harris left office. Harris has claimed that she never intended for her truancy initiative to jail parents, labeling it an “unintended consequence” of an attempt to incentivize local governments to interact with parents and provide them with the resources they need. (An independent fact-checking site has determined her statement on this to be misleading). Additionally, the Biden/Harris campaign opposes calls to defund and abolish the police, which is a top priority for many voters following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and numerous other Black people at the hands of police officers. The problem is not the criticism of Harris’ record and political stances. Rather, it is that legitimate concerns snowball with misleading pieces and racist attacks to result in an overall dismissal of Harris as a candidate, especially when other male candidates are not written off even when they have records on par or worse than Harris’, including Biden himself.
Vox reporter Aaron Ross Coleman writes that Harris is “a politician, not an activist.” In 2020, this identity means that her record is at odds with a growing leftist movement and many young people intensely committed to lifelong activism. Harris is a complicated public official who is routinely denied the nuance afforded to other people in her position. Although this judgment of her often comes from well-intentioned lines of thinking informed by a new generation’s higher standards, it also fits into a longer narrative of women needing to fit every standard, to be excellent in multiple roles at once—highly effective politician and stalwart activist at the same time. Harris follows dozens of women who have pursued the White House in both major and nonmajor parties, including several Black women and women of color, but these women cannot be collapsed into a singular perspective. Harris, like every politician, has unique strengths and weaknesses. She is both an individual and a member of a collective history, a person capable of making mistakes and a politician who should be held accountable. In short, she exists in her context.