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The role we ALL play in keeping sexism out of presidential politics

"None of this is about partisan politics," says All In Together CEO Lauren Leader. "…Judging women candidates on their policy, career, character, readiness and skills are fair game. Judging much else is not."
Image: Democratic Presidential Candidates Attend Forum On Wages And Working People
Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at forum on wages on April 27, 2019 in Las Vegas.Ethan Miller / Getty Images

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden made history on Tuesday with his announcement that Sen. Kamala Harris will be his running mate. Nearly 100 years after the ratification of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote (but leaving black women disenfranchised for decades more) a black woman is now in contention to take one of the most powerful seats in the world. It’s a moment that women and girls everywhere should celebrate.

But as we celebrate, we must also commit to disrupt the epic minefield of racial and gender bias that pervades American politics.

Afterall, bias against women, especially black women, is insidious and everywhere. It is an affront to human dignity and to all women. And so, in this historic moment (no matter what side of the political aisle you are on) it’s time that every American take stock of these ugly ideas we hold against women, especially women of color, and upend them.

There are many sexist and racist tropes that consistently reappear, that will most certainly get hurled at Sen. Harris. We already heard some:

1. She is too ambitious – the term meant as a slur not a statement. The idea that women should not be ambitious is tired and broken and must be permanently put to bed. Biden, by picking Harris helped shut this notion down, but it most certainly will reemerge.

2. She is not likeable gender and racial bias twists all of us into discounting women, no matter how qualified or accomplished if we don’t think they are nice and likeable. This judgement is heaped on visible women leaders in both business and politics. It has followed Sen. Harris with insidious whispers. We expect women to be impossibly warm, kind, motherly, but also hard working, capable and deferential to men. It’s a minefield of impossible standards no woman can meet.

3. We disapprove of her life choices – Sen. Harris does not have biological children (she has two step children) which will certainly be held against her by some, but even when women candidates do have children, we ask incessantly how she balances career, family and marriage. We judge women no matter what family choices they make. It is not relevant, and we should drop this broken trope forever.

4. We don’t like how she looks – Many critique her hair, clothes, shoes endlessly. She has to be attractive but not too pretty, put together but not too perfect. Enough.

5. We call them aggressive – Like ambition, aggression is a gendered double standard, extra loaded for black women who must also battle the label of being "angry. " Why can she not be angry? Why is she not allowed to be aggressive? This trope must die.

Let me be clear: None of this is about partisan politics. We should have done a better job checking the rampant sexism Republicans Sarah Palin and Carly Fiorina endured too. Judging women candidates on their policy, career, character, readiness and skills are fair game. Judging much else is not.

So, who is responsible for disrupting these tropes?

The media has the loudest voice and will have the most visible choice to either amplify and reiterate sexist and racially biased tropes, or not. For years activists have called on the media to do better on this front. After the 2016 election and during the 2020 democratic primaries, many people recognized and called out the double standards women candidates endured. Studies showed that the media either covered women candidates less or covered them more negatively. That must immediately and completely change. Women, and especially women of color, remain underrepresented in print and digital newsrooms, as editors and in cable and broadcast TV so it’s imperative that editors insist that women and women of color get the bylines and also review the work of male peers to ensure it does not reinforce stereotypes men may not see. For on air talent, the networks must take swift and immediate action if an anchor says something sexist or racially biased. The media must raise the bar and keep it held high.

But it’s not just the media that must do better. We all must. Americans of all political affiliations and backgrounds have a role to play in leveling the playing field. Just as the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor inspired many white Americans to reevaluate and root out their racial bias in language and action, now is also a moment for all of us, male and female, Democrat and Republican to go further and ensure that we disrupt racial and gender biases. When someone complains that they “just don’t like her” – ask if they think she’s qualified. Ask why they need to like her. Push back. When tempted to criticize Sen. Harris’s looks or dress, check yourself and others. Call it out. Challenge it. If someone questions her life choices, ask the questions back, why does that matter to the vice presidency?

Whatever party or candidate you support, we must all be united in ensuring that we force a more level playing field. It has nothing to do with any one candidate, and it’s not just about Sen. Harris, this election or any party. It’s about a future where all of us have a real chance to succeed. That goal is about all of us, and it’s about time.

Lauren Leader is co-founder and CEO of All In Together, a non-partisan, non-profit women’s civic education organization.