California Senator Kamala Harris’s selection for the vice-presidential spot is an historic moment. Selecting Harris as a running mate appears to be a pretty reasonable choice for Joe Biden. She’s eminently qualified for the job with her professional background as a prosecutor and her electoral background. She worked her way up to be District Attorney of San Francisco, then won election and re-election to statewide office as California Attorney General, and then won a seat to represent California in the Senate. Despite these objectively solid qualifications, Harris may still have a difficult time overcoming sexist (and racist) ideas about what it means to be qualified to hold political office.
The problem for Harris, and for all women in politics, is that voters view candidate qualifications through a gendered lens. The notion of a qualified political leader is bound up with perceptions of masculinity and being a man. Presidents, and vice presidents, have always been men. Voters assume that being a man automatically makes a male candidate qualified for office. Voters tend to have more doubts about the qualifications of women. Voters will assume that women, because they are women, lack the masculine qualities tied up with these stereotypic perceptions of political leadership. Assumptions will be made that a woman lacks the right experience or enough experience in politics or that she doesn’t have the grit or stamina needed for the job. In other words, voters assume that women do not have the qualifications needed for political office simply because they are women. This means Kamala Harris will have to work harder than a typical male VP candidate to overcome these perceptual barriers.
Of course, as Harris makes the case to voters that she is tough, assertive, and aggressive she also must let voters know that she is not too tough, too assertive, or too aggressive. While voters want masculine qualities in leaders, voters also get uncomfortable when a woman strays too far from feminine stereotypes. Finding the right balance between masculine and feminine stereotypes, is a difficult tightrope to walk. During her presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton contended with alternating criticism for being too cold and then too emotional. Media coverage of Kamala Harris during the selection stage already shows how balancing multiple stereotypic expectations when it was revealed that some in the Biden camp though she was too ambitious. Ambition is a stereotypically masculine quality, and rarely a deficit for a man.
The road to the White House will not be an easy one for the Biden-Harris ticket But, Kamala Harris being on the presidential ticket is also an exciting and important moment in presidential politics. Harris will have to overcome deeply entrenched sexist, and racist, beliefs about what it means to look like and be a qualified presidential candidate.