What the Vice Presidential Debate reveals about how women are treated in politics

By Nafina Raha

The discussion of management of the Covid-19 crisis was a major topic for both candidates, along with climate change, economic plans, taxes, law enforcement, and abortion. While both candidates engaged in evading certain questions and overexaggerating the negatives of their opponent’s ticket, Harris arguably provided many more clear, direct answers than Pence did. A CNN poll conducted immediately after the debate found that 59 percent of the polled viewers thought that Harris won, while 38 percent thought Pence did. 

However, the discussion of these major policies and issues were eclipsed by the glaring presence of skewed, discriminatory gender dynamics at play between Pence and Harris. Most obviously, Pence continually interrupted Harris while she was talking, and then argued that she needed to answer the questions he was aiming at her, all while ignoring or dodging the questions posed by the moderator, Susan Page.

These interruptions were constant throughout the debate. For example, when Pence asked if the Democrats would “pack” the Supreme Court, meaning that they would expand it and add more justices onto it, and Harris started to answer, Pence proceeded to immediately interrupt her mere seconds into her answer to proclaim that she wasn’t answering the question. Pence’s demand that she answer his own personal question and then immediately interrupting her generally exemplifies the experience many women undergo in the political field. 

“Pence demanding that Harris answer his own personal questions when he won’t even answer the moderator’s is gross, and exemplary of the gender dynamics so many women have to deal with at work,” Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in a Tweet after the debate.

The way Pence acted towards Harris is a very obvious reflection of how women in high-level professions, and politics in particular, are treated. 

Women in politics are confronted with a wildly discriminatory, prejudicial setting that puts them under a microscope and picks apart every possible aspect of their presence, appearance, actions, personality, and more. They are judged extremely harshly, and usually for things that have nothing to do with their merit or their policies. They have to deal with comments about their body, their clothing choices, their cleavage, and their tone of voice, which is oftentimes described as “shrill,” among a plethora of other things. 

Female politicians are judged by media outlets for being “too attractive,” leading to comments along the vein of being “distracting,” and also judged for not being attractive enough because a woman’s worth is often judged based on her appearance. Meanwhile, male politicians often have nothing said about their physical appearance in media outlets or are applauded and even idolized if they are found attractive. 

News outlets dedicate entire front pages to every minor detail of female politicians’ appearances. During the 2020 primaries, when Harris initially made a bid for the presidency, she and all of the other female presidential candidates received far more attacks on character, appearance, and identity than their male counterparts. This excessive scrutiny and criticism is something that female politicians are uniquely and unfairly confronted with. 

And before they can even encounter this harsh judgement when they make it to the candidacy or position that they are working for, they must first “prove their worth” to make their way into the political world. Women have to work much harder in order to make it to the same position a man could receive with much less work. Their work is held to much higher, closer scrutiny. This stems from the structural barriers and uneven expectations that women are faced with in the field of politics. They are held back from positions that men could more easily attain. 

The media speculation that has still persisted about whether or not Harris is a “good fit” for the vice presidency despite her long career as a prosecutor, a district attorney, an attorney general, and a Senator. This is a resume that would no doubt put a male candidate in a spotlight, and exemplifies these uneven expectations and barriers. 

When women enter the political field, they must then focus more on their likability than their actual contribution to the political world. This is because when a woman is competent, she is perceived to be less likable. Female politicians are expected to be likable before they are politicians. They are expected to be pleasing to the eye and pleasant before they are allowed to engage in anything substantial. Female candidates can talk about their accomplishments and policies, but only if they come across as likable while doing it. This is because the electability of female politicians is directly tied to their likability and appearance. 

Harris had to uphold pleasantry throughout the VP debate, smiling and remaining cordial towards Pence, even as he repeatedly talked over her and ignored the moderator. 

They are judged based on the way the public perceives them–because society teaches us to perceive the actions and words of women through a far more critical lens from that which we perceive men. 

For example, President Trump has vilified Harris for being a strong, firm politician by calling her “nasty” on multiple occasions, a word that has often been used to degrade women for championing and fighting for what they believe in. He has also criticized her for being “mean” to his appointees in the past, most notably Brett Kavanaugh, whom she questioned while on the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2017. Meanwhile, if she had been a man being “mean,” no one would have said a thing. 

If female political figures ignore the stereotypical norms that delineate “femininity,” they are immediately vilified. For example, if a female politician or political candidate loses her cool and verbally lashes out or interrupts someone else, she is immediately labelled as “too emotional,” thus tarnishing her public image and lowering her electability. Meanwhile, male politicians and candidates can lose their cool all the time without it affecting their image. In some cases, it causes people to even view them as stronger. 

For example, at the first Presidential debate on September 29, candidates Donald Trump and Joe Biden were constantly lashing out at and talking over one another. While the public was annoyed by the immaturity expressed during the debate, the candidates were not publicly bashed the way they would have been if they were a pair of women, which would have surely brought about headlines of a “cat-fight,” in the way women are often pitted against each other in the media and popular culture in general. 

This form of stepping “out of line” was very apparent during the Vice Presidential debate. When Harris responded to Pence with the very civil and calm phrase, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking. If you don’t mind letting me finish, then we can have a conversation,” she was immediately vilified for violating the stereotype that women are expected to fall into, in which they have to be submissive and allow men to talk over them. Here, Harris was violating the patriarchal delineations of the rules that dictate how women should act. 

Furthermore, as a Black and South Asian woman, Harris faces misogyny along with racism. Harris experiences a specific form of misogyny, called misogynoir, a term coined by queer Black feminist Moya Bailey in 2010 to describe the intersection of racism and sexism uniquely experienced by Black women, deriving from the words misogyny and noir, which means black in French. 

One of the most apparent forms of misogynoir is the stereotype of the “Angry Black Woman,” a trope that has been weaponized against Harris. She has been constantly painted in this light, and was most especially portrayed this way in her statement, “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” She was immediately vilified for being rude and overbearing, for being too “angry” even as she was cordial and formal in her reminder that she was still within her allotted time.

If anything, the fact that she had to be polite and respectful when reminding Pence that she should be able to speak uninterrupted during her allotted time, in calling him by his formal title “Mr. Vice President” and wording her reminder as “I’m speaking” rather than “Stop talking over me,” shows yet another facet of this forced need for women to be more likable. 

A focus group of undecided voters organized by political consultant Frank Luntz were asked to describe the candidates in one word. To describe Pence, many of these voters chose words like “calm,” “bland,” “presidential,” “typical politician,” and “comfortable.” Meanwhile, to describe Harris, many of these voters chose words like “evasive,” “abrasive,” “snarky,” “too rehearsed,” and “unpresidential.” The relative positivity of words chosen for Pence in comparison with the total negativity of the words chosen for Harris highlights a glaring prejudice. The words “abrasive” and “snarky” have long been weaponized against intelligent, firm women to construe their strength in a negative light, as it contradicts stereotypes about how women should act. 

Luntz also told Fox News that this focus group also found Harris’s reactions to Pence, like her smiling, to be “annoying” or to “cause them anger.” The fact that Harris’s smiling, a necessity for her to appear more likable and pleasant and thus not be publicly trashed for being rude, is being construed as “annoying” or anger-inducing goes to show how strong female politicians and strong women in general will be vilified for whatever they do. 

“This shows that when white men are running for elected office, their identity is viewed as the ‘default’ for leaders in our society,” the report added. 

While Harris’s “I’m speaking” statement was used against her, it became popularized very quickly in many liberal and leftist feminist organizations, and is now being used by women as a way of fighting against the skewed gender norms that govern their day-to-day lives.

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