A former co-worker was put off by Kamala Harris’ performance in the vice presidential candidates’ debate last week. “It was her tone that I didn’t like ... and her smirk when she said it,” she wrote on Facebook. “It came off very condescending and disrespectful.”
I’m pretty sure there is nothing that Harris could have said, or any way she could have said it, that would persuade this very conservative 30-something mother to vote for the Democratic ticket. But the fact that, when the Republican Party persists in glorifying Donald Trump, master of the insult, name-calling and slanderous lie, anyone would be put off by Harris’ “tone” underscores the persistent double standard for women who seek or achieve positions of influence.
This is an Opinion
I didn’t find Harris to be particularly fiery (or particularly effective) in that debate, other than to use a grown-up woman tone to remind the vice president that she was, in fact, speaking when he interrupted her. Repeatedly. Pence was vastly more civil than his boss had been in his debate against Joe Biden the previous week, but — believe me on this — the fact that he kept talking over Harris and the female moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, was not lost on women watching the debate.
The phenomenon of women being bulldozed by men is universal. I suspect it’s even more common than the #metoo experience of being sexually harassed (or much worse) in the workplace. That’s why “mansplain” is a word recognized by leading dictionaries since the early 2010s. That’s why a cartoon by Riana Duncan has become a classic: The man running a business meeting says to the only woman at the table, “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.”
As with sexual harassment, I like to think that our cultural norms are improving. After all, Miss Triggs is at the table — and Kamala Harris is on the presidential ticket that, at this writing, is heavily favored to win on Nov. 3. (You don’t have to remind me what happened to the woman who was favored in 2016.)
But there is still much work to be done. Just last week, the Washington Post published in its opinion section an analysis of an online smear campaign suggesting that Harris — a woman chosen by voters to be San Francisco’s district attorney (twice), California’s attorney general and then a U.S. senator — had used sex to climb the ladder of success.
Yes, as a young, single lawyer in the 1990s, Harris had a relationship with a prominent politician, former California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. But that was over years before she first ran for office and won. And won. And won. And won. (She received 7.5 million votes when she ran for the U.S. Senate in 2016, which is more than the population of 37 states. And her opponent was another female Democrat, because California uses an open primary system in which the top two finishers compete in the general election, regardless of party affiliation.)
Can you even imagine such a smear against a successful male politician for a consensual relationship decades earlier? Yet the Post’s analysis found that, in the first week after Harris was named to the ticket on Aug. 11, “the sexualized hashtag #heelsupharris appeared 35,479 times in Twitter posts” and “false claims about Harris were being shared at least 3,000 times an hour on Twitter.”
And it got worse. A former Republican legislator commented on Facebook that Harris “slept her way into powerful jobs,” which was bad enough before it morphed into a smear campaign that even the original source ultimately disavowed. “Ultimately, it would be seen more than 630,000 times on Twitter alone, adding fuel to sexist attacks being made on Harris by leading right-wing figures and even the president of the United States,” the Post reported. (The Post, like the leadership of the Time’s Up Now women’s advocacy organization, concluded that Harris’ long-ago relationship with Brown was what President Trump was referring to in August when he told a rally crowd, “I don’t want to see a woman president get into that position the way she’d do it, and she is not competent.”)
Vice President Pence didn’t come anywhere near that level of personal vitriol toward Harris. He just kept interrupting her, requiring her to either accept that treatment or demand that he stop. How obvious was that to female viewers? A friend said her 3-year-old granddaughter asked, “Can I call that boy stupid?”