One of the more striking lines of inquiry in Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s highly anticipated VP choice was whether these women being considered were too ambitious. An odd question to ask when discussing politicians, who are by nature, deeply ambitious. But Biden promised us a woman and stranger things have happened when discussing female candidates.
Some of Biden’s allies, notably former Senator Chris Dodd and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, were uncomfortable that Senator Kamala Harris had originally set her sights on the presidency. As if plotting her own path to the presidency would make her less loyal to Biden or to his policy goals. This is laughable because Biden himself had been a candidate in 2008, as was Dodd. It is not uncommon for VP candidates to come from the pool of primary candidates.
Also, many vice presidents — no fewer than 14 — have gone on to become president. And it wasn’t just Harris who was accused of ambition: some also balked at Stacey Abrams, the first black woman to be a major party’s nominee for governor, for candidly stating that she wanted the VP job. In contrast, another woman of color who was highly considered for the VP slot was Representative Karen Bass, also of California, said that she could not “envision” becoming president. That alone should have (and perhaps may have) disqualified her.
Why? Because if elected, Biden will be 81 years old when his reelection comes around. Many assume he will serve only one term, which means that his VP pick is really a likely successor. In Harris, he’s chosen someone who, in his own words, is “ready to be president on day one.” In choosing an openly ambitious woman, Biden helps break down these double standards that dog women in politics and all professional pursuits.
Interestingly, a recent study shows that Black women are more ambitious than white women, with 22% of Black professional women aspiring to a powerful position compared to only 8% of white women. More importantly, they are more confident in their ability to lead: 43% to 30%. Yet these women feel stalled in their careers. Harris herself addressed this in a conference for young Black women. “There will be a resistance to your ambition,” she said. “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.”
It was also ambitious of Biden himself to choose Harris, because by many accounts she is his best bet to win the White House in November even if he might have found someone he felt more chummy with. She brings a lot to this ticket. Often seen as a “safe VP pick”, Harris does no harm. She has been publicly vetted during her own presidential run, is an experienced campaigner at the national level and reinforces Biden’s brand of moderate-left policy positions. While she’s only been a Senator for four years, she was the Attorney General of California, the country’s largest state. Perhaps most notably, she brings energy and excitement to an otherwise dull candidacy.
Harris has been a constant frontrunner for the position while other candidates have appeared and faded to the background. Her choice was no surprise, yet it released an outpouring of joy from much of the Democratic Party, especially women and people of color. It felt rather cynical to nominate yet another old white man for the presidency out of a desperation to beat Trump. Then the promised female VP seemed like some sort of lame consolation prize, not just for Biden’s nomination over so many women but also Hillary’s crushing 2016 loss. Making it a woman of color killed two birds with one stone by also palliating the Black community most recently convulsed by protests against racist police brutality.
This is all still true now that Harris’ nomination is official, but progress is progress and it, along with ambition, is sorely needed when it comes to women and women of color in American politics. Harris represents a whole lot of firsts: first Black woman and first Asian woman on a major party ticket and the first Californian and the Generation X-er on a Democratic ticket. All this is rolled up into one VP candidate in this presidential election that marks 100 years since women gained the right to vote in the U.S.
The other three major party candidates: Joe Biden, Donald Trump and Mike Pence are all white men, a stark reminder that gaining the right to vote has yielded little progress in terms of female representation in elected office. A mere 25% of the U.S. Congress are women and we’ve only seen one female presidential candidate from a major political party and now, three vice-presidential candidates. 100 years has brought us zero female presidents or vice presidents.
Women’s progress has been achingly slow, but it won’t come without ambition. Thank you, Kamala, for being unabashedly ambitious and thank you Joe for not being afraid to choose an ambitious woman.
This op-ed was published in Spanish in El Español.