We have our first female Vice-President, but how long will it be before we see a woman in the top job?
With the chaos of the 2020 US elections slowing down and the handover process beginning, attention is turning towards the new democratic administration under President Biden. At his side throughout his campaign, and for the next four years, will be Kamala Harris, the first African-American, first Asian-American and first female Vice President in US history.
Harris is an incredibly successful attorney and politician, and her victory marks undeniable progress in the representation of women in political power. But it should be shameful to us that these crucial milestones have taken so long to reach. With Harris serving as the key advisor and supporter to another white, male president, we have to ask ourselves – how much longer will we have to wait to see a female head of state?
Firstly, it’s important to clear up one (hopefully obvious) point. The desire to see a woman in the White House does not mean that voters should sacrifice their values and beliefs in order to vote for a female candidate regardless of her political affiliation. The point is that representation matters, and the significance of a female President of the United States on the campaign for gender equality can’t be overstated.
Elizabeth Warren dropping out of the race for Democratic nominee in March extinguished any hope that a woman might finally occupy the Oval Office this year. Warren herself acknowledged that, in withdrawing her campaign, she thought of “all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years” to see a woman in the most powerful position in the world (BBC News, 6 March 2020). This sentiment was mirrored in Harris’s victory speech on November 7th as she acknowledged how “every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities” (The Independent, 8 Nov 2020).
Hillary Clinton securing the Democratic nomination in 2016 and becoming the first ever female presidential nominee from a major party was a huge step in the right direction. If we put aside ideology and party politics for a moment, Clinton’s nomination undoubtedly broke the mould and offered a possible alternative to the presidential candidates who came before her, in much the same way as Obama’s nomination in 2008.
There were many reasons why Clinton’s presidential campaign was unsuccessful, but it would be foolish to suggest that her gender was not at least a contributing factor. In the aforementioned March 2020 press conference following her campaign withdrawal, Elizabeth Warren made reference to the sexism she faced during her campaign. What we should learn from this is that, in order to address the perpetual dominance of men at the top tier of US politics, we have to address the inequalities embedded within US society as a whole.
Much has been written in the past few months about the passing of one key figure in the fight to tackle such inequalities – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Supreme Court Justice and champion of the rights and representation of women in US politics. These discussions often focus on her incredible achievements and her relentless campaign for justice. It is often emphasised that these achievements are even more remarkable given her identity as a woman, a wife and a mother. By itself, this speaks volumes about the battle for women’s equality in US politics – women in these positions are largely an exception to the rule.
Of course, the achievements of Ginsburg and other powerful female figures are not inherently more remarkable because they are women. They are no less capable than their male colleagues, but their identity as wives and mothers is considered a hurdle that they must overcome in order to reach the same level of success as their male peers. These conceptions are present in law, politics and everyday conversations in the US. Despite the work of women like Ginsburg and the organisations she supported, (CNN, Sept 2020) equality and civil rights remain the subject of debate rather than essential components of a democratic society.
Further evidence for this fact comes from the recent UN Gender Social Norms Index which found that, from data of 75 countries, almost 90% of both men and women still hold some form of bias against women (as shown in the chart above) and around half believe that men make better political leaders (UNDP 2020 ). This proves that the issue goes beyond just the US, but in a nation supposedly built on democracy, liberty and equal opportunity, these statistics simply aren’t good enough.
As we wait for a female candidate to make it as far as the White House, women’s rights over their own bodies remain the subject of debate, and there is still no explicit amendment in the Constitution to protect the rights of all citizens regardless of their gender or sex (The Guardian 2020). We cannot overlook how much work is still to be done. Even those of us who can’t use our voices on the ballot paper can use them to campaign, donate and protest for the rights of those who are constantly silenced.
As Harris said herself: “while I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last.” Let’s channel frustrations and disappointments into action, so that perhaps in four years’ time there might even be two female candidates on the ballot paper.
Bibliography | Further Reading
BBC News 2020 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-51759386
CNN (2020) https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/19/us/ruth-bader-ginsburg-rbg-favorite-causes-charity-iyw/index.html
The Guardian (2020) https://www.theguardian.com/law/2020/feb/24/equal-rights-amendment-era-poll-congress
The Independent (2020) https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-election-2020/kamala-harris-speech-transcript-full-read-b1687603.html
The New York Times (2020) https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/us/elections/kamala-harris.html
UNDP (2020), ‘2020 Human Development Perspective: Tackling Social Norms’ http://hdr.undp.org/en/gsni