A Female VP: What’s Ambition Got To Do With It?

Print More

It’s convention season, which means it is almost time for Joe Biden to name his VP running mate. Since the announcement that the VP will be a womanvarious names have been floated, each with her own unique selling point: Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Tammy Baldwin, Stacey Abrams, Susan Rice – the list goes on and on.

As names have proliferated, so has the commentary: each woman has been analyzed, scrutinized, and endlessly discussed in this not-so-modern Cinderella story. Who will be given the glass slipper, the rose garden? For now, only Prince Joe the Charming knows. In 2020, only four short years after Hilary Clinton’s electoral college defeat, it is sad that women can still only strive second-best, especially given the tremendous rise in women holding public office since the last election.

Today, 127 women serve in Congress, more than ever before but still less than a quarter of all representatives. The tendency to parade and belittle women is, if not as old as time, at least as old as the ancient Greeks. The story of the Trojan War begins with the Judgement of Paris, a not very impressive shepherd saddled with the task of allocating a golden apple to one of three goddesses. Hera promised him power, Athena wisdom, and Aphrodite the possession of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris chose sex, and the rest, as it were, is history: men get to choose between women more powerful than they, in hopes that their choices will empower them right back.

And so it goes: Biden’s allies are already said to be waging a secret campaign against Kamala Harris, on the suspicion that she will be ‘too ambitious’ for the presidency in 2024 to pull her weight this time around. But why shouldn’t she be? Biden is 77, and age alone means there is a real chance his will be a one-term presidency. Even if it weren’t, what Vice-President doesn’t have his—or, someday her—eye on the next rung?  It is female ambition that is frowned upon, women who are seen as taking up more room than they warrant.

How can we break this narrative? Hillary Clinton tried to be more prepared, more approachable, and more experienced, but failed among her fellow white female voters. What can women do to break out of their pre-assigned role, step off the pedestal, and muck in the same arena where political progress is actually made? As a woman voter, here is what I hope for. Whomever Biden ends up picking—and we each have our favorites—I want the ticket to become a genuine partnership, and the chosen VP an ambitious prospect for next time, when she is the presumptive nominee and the party will have had four years to prepare for the inevitable wave of misogyny.

Even more, though, I want this presidency – through the VP selection, cabinet appointments, leadership position and legislative priorities — to be an exercise in public education, making the prospect of the first female president an inevitable and long overdue consequence of all that women have achieved. To do this, the Biden campaign, and the White House, must work to make women’s issues central to the experience of each and every citizen, whatever their gender.

Reproductive rights, maternity leave, pre- and post-natal care, childcare, workplace discrimination, the pay gap, sexual harassment, rape culture, educational attainment – these are all issues that affect every one of us, even if they impact the bodies of only half the population. Framing them as ‘women’s issues’ not only distorts reality, but ignores the vast contribution of women to the fabric of society as mothers, nurses, teachers, social workers, CEOS, lawyers, soldiers, or doctors.

Biden is well on his way: his $775 billion dollar plan to fund universal childcare and elder care  is an ambitious start, and if the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it is that this country’s economic recovery begins and ends with care duties, and those who shoulder them, who are predominantly women of color. But there is more, much more, to be done. Putting a woman in the VP slot is a good start, but to really change the narrative, it is time for Prince Charming to turn the selection process on its head: Ask not what women can do for you, but what you can do for women. 

Ayelet Haimson Lushkov is an Associate Professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a Public Voices Fellow of the Op-Ed Project.

Comments are closed.