Harris looks to make history as the first woman vice president when the gender divide in U.S. politics has become a chasm that some experts said is building to the biggest voting realignment since Republicans captured the South.
The defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016 and what some saw as misogyny in the race touched off a wave of activism further stoked by the #MeToo movement. As a result, women have become an increasingly formidable political force, though they still face hurdles running for office.
Harris will be joined in Wednesday night's lineup by Nancy Pelosi, the first female speaker of the U.S. House and a top foil to President Donald Trump. Pelosi owes her gavel to the female candidates, campaign contributors and voters who flipped the House in 2018. Women could likewise be crucial to Democrats’ attempt to win the Senate this fall.
At the same time, Clinton’s appearance Wednesday night will be a reminder that she suffered a stinging defeat – and that the “highest, hardest glass ceiling” she hoped to shatter is intact.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., another speaker at the virtual convention Wednesday, is among the record number of women who ran for the 2020 Democratic nomination who, like Harris, finished behind Joe Biden.
“It's celebrating and recognizing the important roles that women have played, the ways that they push the boundaries and pushed our expectations of what it means to be a political leader,” Kelly Dittmar, a political science professor who has written two books about women candidates and officeholders, said of Wednesday’s roster. “But I do think, whether or not they explicitly talk about it, it will also be a reminder that there's still this stubbornness at the very top.”
'Still pretty freakin’ excited'
Activists who have been fighting for decades for female candidates said their excitement over Harris’ nomination is not tinged with disappointment that she’s the No. 2.
“Change takes time – and it takes people fighting for it,” said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, who was heartbroken by Clinton’s loss but recalls that it took much longer than expected to grow the share of women in Congress beyond a token few percent. (The record number of women sworn in after the 2018 elections represented slightly less than one quarter of all lawmakers.)
Stephanie Schriock, president of EMILY’S List, a major national force for grooming female Democratic candidates, said she tells women they have to win their primary before they can win the general election. The Democratic presidential primary, Schriock said, was difficult and complicated – and Biden emerged with the winning coalition.
Schriock is “still pretty freakin’ excited” by the prospect of a female vice president.
“We’ve got to get folks to see what this looks like, and if this is the way we're going to do it, I'm just fine by that,” she said. “We're going to see a woman president of this country. We're going to see many women presidents of this country. But we haven't even seen a woman vice president.”
Growing gender gap
If Harris does become the first female vice president, women will be a top factor.
"They are galvanized. They are activated. They have become a vital constituency for anybody seeking to win the presidency," said pollster Joel Benenson, who was a chief strategist for Clinton.
Sarah Longwell, a GOP strategist and Trump critic who conducted focus groups of women who voted for Trump but soured on him, said the unease has spread to the entire party.
Women she’s studied, many of whom are extremely anxious about the coronavirus pandemic, want to listen to scientists and doctors, she said. They don’t want to align with what they see as racism among some Trump supporters or the “kookiness” of those who don’t believe in a vaccines but do believe in conspiracy theories such as QAnon, Longwell said.
“A suburban woman looks at Kamala Harris and feels much greater identification than (when) they look at the QAnon weird conspiracy theories,” she said. “There's a cultural divide happening there.”
The share of female registered voters who identify with the Democratic Party grew to 56% in surveys conducted in 2018 and 2019 versus 48% in 1994, according to the Pew Research Center. The share who identify with the GOP dropped to 38% from 42% over the same period.
Penny Nance, head of the conservative Concerned Women for America, defended Trump's record as she stood by his side at a White House event Tuesday recognizing the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote.
"Women are concerned about their schools reopening," Nance said. "They're concerned about their businesses. And what better man to restart the economy than the one who did it the first time?"
Before announcing he was pardoning suffragist Susan B. Anthony for voting illegally in 1872, Trump talked about the large number of women who run businesses, go to college and vote in elections.
"In other words," Trump said, "women dominate the United States."
A Pew Research Center poll in 2019 showed that 77% of Democrats said it’s harder for women to advance, but only one-third of Republicans agreed that “significant obstacles still make it harder for women to get ahead than men.”
Michael Hais and Morley Winograd wrote for the Brookings Institution that the gender realignment in American politics is the biggest change in party affiliation since the movement of loyal Democratic voters in the South to the GOP.
“It's kind of like a tsunami off the shore,” said Winograd, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School’s Center on Communication Leadership and Policy. “You see it coming, but you don't know the full force of it and can't know it until it actually happens.”
Though Trump accelerated the allegiance of women to the Democratic Party, Winograd said, “it is also important to recognize that it was Hillary Clinton's defeat that provided the spark.”
Historian Nancy Cohen, author of “Breakthrough: The Making of America’s First Woman President,” said there was a “real complacency” around Clinton’s campaign that probably grew out of a sense that women had reached full equality.
Clinton’s loss was a wake-up call that led to women’s marches and a record number of women running for, and winning, office, Cohen said.
“What strikes me is that history is full of examples like this,” Cohen said. “Movements often arise out of dashed expectations.”
Before Clinton won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, the largest number of women who had reached out to EMILY’S List about running for office was less than 1,000 – a record set in the 2016 election cycle that the group said was inspired by Clinton’s campaign.
Since her defeat, more than 55,000 women have contacted the group.
“Women are more politically engaged than ever,” said Amanda Hunter, research and communications director for the Barbara Lee Family Foundation. “And women report that they have no plans to slow down.”
More politically engaged
A survey conducted at the end of last year for the foundation and American University’s Women & Politics Institute found women of all ages – but particularly millennials and women of color – had become more politically engaged since 2016. More than one-third of Democrat women said they’d gotten more involved in politics compared with 27% of Republican women and 23% of independents.
Clinton’s loss made women’s groups put the issue of supporting women candidates higher on their agenda, said Smeal of the Feminist Majority Foundation
“They were furious. All of us were brokenhearted. And so we just doubled down,” she said.
Not only did female candidates help Democrats flip crucial House districts in 2018, but women voters played a more consequential role than in any previous midterm election, according to Susan Carroll, a senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. About 6 out of 10 women reported voting for the Democratic congressional candidate in their district, compared with 47% of men.
Polls in some of the most competitive Senate races show equally large gender gaps that put Democrats ahead of GOP incumbents in Arizona, Iowa and Maine, according to Winograd and Hais.
“It's because of women's overwhelming preference for the Democratic candidate,” Winograd told USA TODAY. “It's kind of like, two years later, the Senate's first reckoning with this shift.”
In the Democratic presidential primary, Biden benefited from voters’ concern that a woman might have a harder time beating Trump, said Dittmar, director of research at Rutger’s Center for American Women and Politics.
Biden acknowledged his advantage during a town hall in January when he said that although sexism was among the factors that contributed to Clinton’s loss, “that’s not going to happen with me.”
Research by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation shows female candidates still have to satisfy gender stereotypes. They have to show that they’re strong enough to handle difficult situations but must do so without jeopardizing likability.
“We have found, repeatedly, that likability is a nonnegotiable for women candidates,” said the foundation’s Hunter. “Voters will vote for a man that they do not like, if they think that he’s qualified, but they will not vote for a woman if they do not like her.”
Before Biden chose Harris as his running mate, she faced accusations that she was “too ambitious.”
After Biden announced his pick, Trump called Harris nasty, angry and a madwoman.
In a shift from 2016, observers and advocates said, there’s been a greater pushback against such comments. Advocacy groups warned the media to watch out for sexist coverage, Black women pressed for a Black female nominee and called out anything they viewed as unfair, and Biden said in his announcement of Harris that “we need to have her back.”
“The hurdles don’t go away,” Dittmar said, “but maybe there’s greater assistance to these women in pushing them over these hurdles and calling out the folks who try to put those hurdles in the way of their political success.”
In another break from the past, Harris – only the third female running mate in history – is the first who wasn’t added as a “Hail Mary,” said Caroline Heldman, co-editor of “Rethinking Madam President: Are We Ready for a Woman in the White House?”
The odds were against Walter Mondale beating Ronald Reagan when he tapped Geraldine Ferraro in 1980.
John McCain hoped Sarah Palin would shake up his 2008 race against Barack Obama.
Biden, by contrast, is ahead in the polls and called himself a “transition candidate.”
“The previous two bids, I would argue, were pretty crass attempts to boost the ticket,” Heldman said. “In this sense, it almost feels like Biden is the gateway between an old guard of politicians who have almost exclusively been white men and the next generation of leaders.”
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who was Clinton’s running mate, said the worst part of the 2016 campaign was “seeing just the misogyny and double standard applied to the first woman nominee.”
“We have a bad track record of electing women to higher office,” Kaine told Fox News. “What it's going to take to have the first woman vice president or president is to kind of get over a hurdle that many other nations have been able to get over, but we haven't yet.”