We are a young country, still getting used to the notion that authority does not always come wrapped up as a White male. This year, the number of women running Fortune 500 companies hit an all-time high at 37. Don’t even wind me up about diversity — only three of the 37 are women of color. None are Black.
That, of course, stands in stark contrast to the current national obsession over Joe Biden’s running mate — a drama where several highly qualified Black women are getting top billing. At some point off in the middle distance of history, we will look back on this moment with a certain amount of awe and celebration.
But right now it resembles a prickly reality show where the women who might make history must first walk head high through a rain of fists from aging men “critiquing” their talents by speaking sideways to the dudes in the political press. It feels like a bunch of high school jocks assessing potential homecoming queens. In that worldview, the expectation is that the woman who wears the smaller, daintier crown will herself understand that her primary purpose is to adorn the fellow seated to her left but never rise to his stature.
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) is deemed to be “too ambitious” or too aggressive by a group of Biden allies, reportedly including former senator Chris Dodd, who back in 2008 gave into his own ambition to make a run for the job his friend Biden now seeks. We learned he holds a dim view of Harris confronting Biden in a debate about busing, because he whispered this to a friend who whispered it to a reporter who picked up the phone and asked a series of men to opine on this notion that ambition is unseemly. Dodd’s spokesman later issued a statement saying the former senator from Connecticut has nothing but the “utmost respect for Senator Harris and her qualifications.”
It was a graceful gesture but also much like trying to un-ring a bell. The question of ambition had already been fully aerosolized.
There is nothing wrong with a little ambition. Ambition is what you want in someone who might have to take the helm at a moment’s notice. When I fly — that is, when I used to fly, before the pandemic hit — I always want the co-pilot to be both qualified and ambitious if he or she or they ever have to take the controls. I hoped the ambition to be in the big seat would outweigh any ambivalence about being in the top spot. I suspect the critique of Harris and her supposedly outsize ambition has as much to do with her critics’ discomfort as her qualifications.
Susan E. Rice is deemed to be too much of a lightning rod because she can swear like a sailor, throw an occasional elbow and get in someone’s face to make her point. All of these things qualify men for merit badges and bragging rights, but when associated with a woman, and especially a strong Black woman, they are an excuse to look past a stellar career. In Rice’s case, that means Stanford, Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, national security adviser, trusted senior official for two presidents.
At a Group of 20 summit in 2015, President Barack Obama had an impromptu sideline discussion with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, captured by then-White House photographer Pete Souza. It wasn’t on the schedule. It was just four people seated in a circle — no more than four feet apart. That Rice was there suggests that she knows when to be a lightning rod and when to be a divining rod.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) has spent the week explaining away past praise for the church of Scientology and Fidel Castro. But even defenders among the so-called Biden allies diminish her accomplishments. In their eyes, she is deemed more amenable and less threatening than some others on the veepstakes list. It’s a compliment that comes with thorns and ignores her years of activism in the pursuit of social justice. (And anyone who thinks Bass is a pushover has never bothered to look at her campaign debates.)
I know that scrutiny is traditionally part of the vetting process for such a high-level job. This is after all a job review for the person who will work a heartbeat away from the presidency. The moment Biden pledged to put a woman on his ticket, we should have girded ourselves for scrutiny that is steeped in sexism.
I had hoped for better. A moment that represents so much progress feels retrograde. The Democrats are trying to unseat a bully. They need to stop using a bully’s tactics in pursuit of that goal.