President Biden’s joint address to Congress was always going to be primarily about optics: The emptied chamber and masked audience hopefully tempered by the image of an energetic president with big ideas. And Biden delivered at least one optical triumph: For the first time the two people seated directly behind the president were women — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on his left, Vice President Harris on his right.
Biden pointed out that fact in the first line in his speech, raising it as cause for celebration. "Madame Speaker. Madame Vice President. No president has ever said these words from the podium — no president. And it’s about time!” Of course, he’s right: This is positive change. Representation matters, and the more women we see in the upper echelons of politics, the better. But it’s also a sign of how far we have to go.
After Hillary Clinton’s bruising loss to Donald Trump in 2016, and Trump’s wildly misogynistic term as president, to see women in power feels like a balm.
Kamala D. Harris: only the second Black woman elected to the Senate, and the first female, Black and Asian American vice president, a daughter of immigrants whom her transition chief has called the “voice of gravitas” in the president’s inner circle.
Nancy Pelosi: a formidable leader and prodigious political talent known for her discipline and her flair, who before Harris’s ascendance had risen to become the highest-ranking female elected official in U.S. history — and who has stuck it out at the top despite numerous challenges to her control. Stephen K. Bannon called her a “total assassin.” She refers to herself as a “troublemaker with a gavel.” “Nobody ever gives away power,” she once said. "When you get it, you must use it.”
Together the two represent nearly back-to-back generations of women fighting to win power and succeeding, against the odds and despite an establishment that would rather they have stayed in the shadows.
So, their presence on the dais was inspiring. Yet it also feels darkly symbolic that the story of female political progress has culminated (so far) in the image of two accomplished, top-of-their-game women standing behind a collegial White man, your archetypal average Joe.
That’s not a knock on Biden — it’s just a fact. We all know Biden became the 2020 Democratic nominee, outlasting more than two dozen other major candidates (including his vice president), in large part because his Whiteness and maleness made him a plausible contender against Trump. Among other perceived virtues, he was the sort of candidate to whom the sexist and racist attacks leveraged against other Democratic candidates wouldn’t stick. This is also a good part of the reason his first 100 days have been comparatively successful, and why his joint address is unlikely to raise real ire from conservatives, despite his laying out remarkably progressive policy plans.
From the 2020 primary up until today, polling has borne out the truth of how Biden’s benign White-maleness helps buttress his appeal. On Tuesday, an NBC poll found that Americans see Biden as more moderate than they saw President Barack Obama at the 100-day mark, despite Biden’s passing a stimulus bill approximately 2.5 times bigger than Obama’s. (Voters similarly saw Biden as more moderate than Clinton.) Biden’s approval ratings hover comfortably in the mid-50s, while Pelosi’s unfavorability numbers surpass her positives by double digits.
Republicans’ attacks on Biden were often really directed at the women and people of color nearby — the fear that he would turn over governance to the “harpies” Kamala and Nancy, that he would be unmanned, an empty husk controlled by wicked witches. So this week we can rejoice that Pelosi and Harris were on the dais, while realizing that Biden got to be the address-giver because he was not them: not “nasty,” not “crazy,” not “angry,” not seen as radical or controversial because of his gender or race.
Women held up Biden from the beginning of his campaign through his 100th day as president, and they will most likely do so beyond. His wife, Jill, literally tackled interlopers who rushed him onstage during the electoral season. Harris went from being a primary-season antagonist to his friendly second-in-command, lending him feminist credibility and boatloads of fundraising dollars. And Pelosi deftly held the fractious Democratic caucus together, deflecting fire from Biden to allow him to present himself as the candidate of peace — and, once his term began, to pass a historic stimulus on a party-line vote.
And yet, for their troubles, there the women stood in their nonthreatening pastels: cheering Joe on from the back, masked and silent while he spoke.
It’s easier for America to support women who are supporting a man, it seems, than it is for America to support women, period. What the joint address underscored is that women are inching closer to the seat of ultimate power — but they still don’t get to sit in it.
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