‘It’s always an extra burden placed on women’: Kamala Harris faces sexism and racism at VP debate, experts say

Ms Harris is the third woman to participate in the US vice presidential debates and the first woman of colour

Graig Graziosi
Tuesday 06 October 2020 15:45
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When Senator Kamala Harris takes the debate stage on Wednesday night in Salt Lake City, she'll do so as the first African American woman and woman of South Asian descent to do so in US history.  

All candidates come to the debate with baggage and expectations; in 1976, audiences expected Bob Dole to be ruthless, and in 2008 they expected Sarah Palin to blunder her way through the event.  

When Ms Harris takes the stage, she will do so bearing the weight of not only being a woman, but of being a person of color.  

Dr Lori Cox Han, professor of political science at Chapman University, said audiences will expect more - and tolerate less - from Ms Harris than they would from most male candidates simply because she's a woman.  

"Can you imagine a woman on a debate stage behaving like Trump or Biden on Tuesday?" Dr Han asked. "There would have been a totally different reaction because there's a totally different standard. Even though when women see Harris get angry they say 'yeah we've always wanted to say that too,' some people will view her aggression as not being feminine."  

Dr Han explained that women are inherently at a disadvantage in contests like debates where individuals are measured by how "presidential" they look because the idea of a president in US society is almost always masculine.  

"You can't be too harsh or too aggressive because it plays against you as a woman, but you can't come across as too weak because then you're viewed as not being able to handle the work," Dr Han said. "It's a very fine line, and it's always an extra burden placed on women due to their gender."  

Dr Tammy Vigil, associate professor of communication at Boston University and an author on political rhetoric, said that antiquated gender roles and expectations are so ingrained in American society that they often shape the policy interests of women as they grow in their political ambitions.  

"This is true across politics, and especially so in conservative circles, but women have to recast themselves in a way that legitimizes their personal interest in politics. Women who do reach high levels cast themselves as having pursued that power for the sake of helping others - women, children, families - in ways that are traditionally gender oriented," Dr Vigil said. "To demonstrate personal ambition is frowned upon for women but not for men."  

While a man like Donald Trump is celebrated by his supporters for his unapologetic vying for wealth and power, a woman doing the same would likely be loathed, as was the case for Hillary Clinton in 2016.  

Ms Harris not only has to contend with gender based bias during the debate, but racial bias as well.

"There is this awful stereotype of 'angry black woman' that people throw around, that may be thrown at Harris if she's overly aggressive. Michelle Obama had to be cautious of it during her time as First Lady, and it's unfair because any show of emotion or assertiveness could result in people falling back on the stereotype," Dr Vigil said. "It's not an accurate or fair stereotype nor is it a fruitful way of understanding conversations that are and should be happening."  

Ms Harris isn't the first woman to take the stage during a vice presidential debate. Two women - Republican Governor Sarah Palin and Democratic Congresswoman Gerlaldine Ferraro -  also stood on the debate stage as vice presidential candidates.  

Ms Ferraro knew firsthand the biases women experienced while in the national eye; during her debate with George H W Bush in 1984, Mr Bush talked down to Ms Ferraro and belittled her intellect during a sharp exchange regarding foreign policy issues.  

In her book Ferraro: My Story, Ms Ferraro explains the anger she felt during the exchange.  

"And that drew Bush's true chauvinistic colors. '... Let me help you with the difference, Mrs. Ferraro, between Iran and the embassy in Lebanon,' he said, going on to point out that the hostages were held by a foreign government in Iran while the Marines were in Lebanon by invitations 'to give peace a chance.' And I got angry," Ms Ferraro wrote. "Not only had Bush persisted in calling me 'Mrs. Ferraro' instead of 'Congresswoman Ferraro' throughout the debate, but now he had insulted me."

She responded to Mr Bush with a sharp condemnation of his attitude.  

"Let me say first of all that I almost resent, Vice President Bush, your patronizing attitude that you have to teach me about foreign policy," she said.  

"Many people thought my rejoinder to Bush had been rehearsed, but it wasn't," Ms Ferraro wrote. "I wish I had not had to say it to him at all. No one likes to have her intelligence not only questioned but dismissed, as Bush had done to me. I won't sit still for that under any circumstances. And I certainly wasn't about to in this critical debate between the two vice-presidential candidates."  

As for Ms Harris and Wednesday's debates, Dr Han believes that - even with the unfair expectations she'll face - Ms Harris can put on a strong performance.  

"We probably won't see Kamala be too aggressive unless Pence attacks her for something, but that's not Pence's style. Kamala is good in debates and good at responding to things she thinks are ridiculous," Dr Han said. "She's pretty experienced and I think even if her primary campaign wasn't successful, the campaign trail has helped her a lot. She looks comfortable in the setting, so that's one expectation she won't have to overcome."

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