Will Kamala Harris be the first female president of the United States?

Posted on: 28 October 2020 by Dr Cheryl Hudson in 2020 posts

Kamala Harris in a crowd
Image: Wikimedia Commons

US political history expert, Dr Cheryl Hudson, gives her view on the Democratic vice-presidential candidate and the possibilities for her future in the corridors of power.

"Regardless of who is elected as the 46th President of the United States, they will be male. Just as the previous 45 were. Not a single American woman has served as head of state and Commander in Chief.

There have been plenty of First Ladies who have made a mark on history: from Abigail Adams and Mary Todd Lincoln to Betty Ford and Michelle Obama, but there has been no Ms. President. 

Of course, women couldn’t even vote for the president until 1920, let alone be one. But it might give pause to those who imagine a female president a symbol of victory for progressive politics to consider that the first president women’s votes helped elect, the 29th, was the corrupt, adulterous Republican Warren G. Harding. Plus ca change. POTUS 30 and 31 were also conservative Republicans. 

The arduous climb to the top

Political inexperience plus straightjacketed gender roles meant that for much of the twentieth century, few women entering politics made the arduous climb to the top. There were exceptions: in 1916, even before passage of the nineteenth amendment, Montana sent suffragist and pacifist Jeanette Rankin to Congress. Yet while Rankin was the first woman to hold federal office, she remains the only woman ever elected to represent Montana. In the interwar period, a handful of widows served out their deceased spouses’ terms in the US Congress and in 1931 one such widow, Hattie Carraway (Democrat, Arkansas), became the first woman independently elected to the US Senate, following a feisty populist campaign alongside Louisiana’s notorious Huey Long. The following year, FDR appointed progressive reformer Frances Perkins to serve as his Secretary of Labor, the first and only female cabinet member until the 1970s. 

It wasn’t until the daughters of second wave feminism decided on political careers in the 1970s and 80s that women provided a large enough candidate pool to make selection for the top job feasible.

Still, before 2000 most women who rose to the highest ranks of US politics were still associated by name with a successful male politician. Although female office holders became increasingly independent after 2000, Hillary Clinton rose alongside Bill and came closer to winning the presidency in 2016 than any woman before her. Her failure hinged, in large part, on her insider status. With an electorate seeking real and meaningful change, a female establishment candidate did not offer enough of a shake-up for many. Moreover, Hillary’s personal sense of entitlement to the office alienated plenty of voters, especially in the Midwest; instead of seeking to win them over, she famously made the error of disparaging them as ‘a basket of deplorables.’ These voters, many of them in swing states, were a larger barrier than they might otherwise have been in a more democratic electoral system. The Electoral College dashed Hilary’s hopes. 

Biden-Harris 2020

There is a palpable sense that the presidential glass ceiling will fall imminently. Yet it would be baffling, to say the least, if Kamala Harris turns out to be the woman who smashes through it. The least inspiring among the six female presidential hopefuls in the Democratic primaries, Harris is nevertheless poised to become the first female Vice-President of the United States. Understood as a “safe choice,” despite her appalling showing in the primaries, her selection as VP was carefully weighed to do three things consecutively: to underscore the left’s defeat as the Bernie Sanders challenge turned to dust; to signal that the identity politics of race and gender is still part of the Democratic Party arsenal; and to strengthen the Democrats against Trump’s ‘law and order’ onslaught in response to the summer’s urban protests, riots and looting. 

While Harris does much to bolster Biden as the ‘continuity-Obama’ candidate, he actually polls much better than she does among African American voters. Many young Democrats, black and white, hoped Biden would select a more progressive candidate for his running mate. Harris’s record has included progressive positions but, at heart a centrist triangulator, she has flip-flopped as political exigencies demanded. As a tough state prosecutor, she embraced the tag of “top cop” but in the new political mood surrounding the Black Lives Matters protests, she has distanced herself from her own record. On the primary debate stage, progressive candidate Tulsi Gabbard took Harris to task over her “lock ‘em up” stance as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general between 2004 and 2017.  During those years, Harris mounted a draconian war on drugs against mostly young, black Californians, blocked DNA evidence that kept an innocent man on death row and kept nonviolent prisoners (mostly minorities) in overcrowded jails in defiance of a Supreme Court order to release them. Both Harris and Biden have vowed to reform the criminal justice system to reverse the mass incarceration of young black men that the 1994 Crime Act he drafted and she enforced helped to create. Her accusations against Biden of both racism (in his support for busing) and sexism (following sexual harassment allegations against him) have been set aside in order to become his running mate. 

America deserves better

It seems unlikely that in a post-liberal age, Harris’s brand of liberalism will give her access to the political power of the presidency. She is widely held to be the personification of political mediocrity and her poor performance in the primary campaign meant she was forced to drop out early on. Her political triangulation has been so inexpert that she reversed her position on Medicare for All on the day after declaring she was in favour of it. It is therefore doubtful that she will become the first female president under her own steam in 2024. If she is going to get there, it will depend upon Biden beating Trump and then handing the job to her by either dying in office or resigning in order to ‘achieve’ this historic first. Far from being an achievement for women, this would represent a retrograde step back to the interwar period of political widows taking office. Wouldn’t we rather wait for a woman capable of doing it on her own?

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