Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be the first woman to hold the second-highest office in the land, and President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet nominations and other staff picks include many “first women,” too.
He’s nominated Janet Yellen, who previously became the first woman Federal Reserve chair, to be the first woman treasury secretary. Avril Haines would be the first woman director of national intelligence. Michèle Flournoy, long anticipated but not yet confirmed as Biden’s pick for defense secretary, would be the first woman in that role. His senior communications staff are all women (women have filled top communications roles before, but not simultaneously), and some lesser-known positions, like chair of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, will go to women for the first time as well.
All things being equal, I am glad to see women breaking so many hyaline ceilings. Given a choice between equally qualified candidates for an office a woman has not held, I’d choose a woman if I could. But there is a fine line here which, when crossed, can make these announcements feel patronizing, like the menfolk have generously offered us a prize undeserved.
The Harris pick does not cross that line. Ticket composition matters for electoral outcomes, and choosing Harris was strategic. Our electoral system means we vote for people, not platforms, as one significantly does in other systems, like party-list proportional representation. That makes being a woman a qualification (or, with some electorates in some times and places, a disqualification) in and of itself.
“Biden wants to capture the energy of female voters,” Jay Newton-Small wrote at The Washington Post this past summer, when Biden hadn’t selected Harris but had committed to picking “a woman” for veep. That strategy didn’t work with past female vice presidential nominees, Newton-Small continued, but “[f]ar from patronizing women, [Biden] hopes his ticket will succeed where others failed, in a political era where old memes are being turned on their head.”
I haven’t yet seen polling data which shows whether the strategy was effective nationwide, but it certainly seemed to pay off in my neighborhood, where many yard signs emphasized Harris as the real source of enthusiasm. “KAMALA HARRIS! and also Joe Biden” reads a particularly pointed one.
But Cabinet and other staff picks aren’t quite the same. Biden and Harris have already won. Their nominations will be subject to Senate scrutiny and approval, but they are not directly submitted to voter opinion. There may still be some strategic value in choosing “first women” with an eye on public appeal, because approval ratings matter for sitting presidents, too. Yet even so, the strategic rationale is far less pressing. Being a woman is not a qualification for a Cabinet post in the same way it is a qualification for elected office.
There may still be other ways being a woman is a qualification for these positions. Because of how household labor, childcare, and the mental load are distributed in our society, “first women” are likely to bring a new perspective to roles involving housing and urban design; programs for childcare, health care, and other social welfare arenas; foreign policy decisions with consequences women and children suffer most; and certainly anything involving paid family leave.
“What would our cities be like if mothers had more of a role in designing them?” asks Christine Murray at The Guardian. “There would be ramps everywhere, for a start. Schlepping a [stroller] around makes you think differently about stairs.” (It’s true. Also, doors could be a little wider for those of us with double strollers.) This is not an exhaustive list, nor are these “women’s issues” (like Harris, I’m not a huge fan of the term, but understand its usefulness as a shorthand) the only places in which a woman by virtue of being a woman might bring new ideas to old problems — or new attention to old problems all-male teams never noticed at all.
So where is the line I see? It runs between explaining how being a woman is among a nominee’s qualifications and touting the mere fact that she is a “first woman.” It’s the difference between, “I’m nominating X, who will be excellent in this role, and also will be the first woman to fill it,” and, “I’m nominating X to be the first woman in this role, and she’ll be excellent.” Biden’s announcement of Haines was closer to the latter category. He led with the “first woman” bit, then never mentioned it again when explaining her qualifications. His Yellen announcement was better, detailing her many achievements before adding this second “first woman” designation to the pile.
The patronization is in the expectation that I would be glad to see a woman nominated even if, as in Flournoy’s case, I believe her policy perspective to be dangerously flawed. (I’d take a male dove over a female hawk any day.) It’s in some of the reporting I’ve encountered on the all-woman communications team, which has treated as big news what feels to me like a nice piece of trivia.
There is a real luxury in this opinion, of course. It is an extremely post-20th century view. We are not far past a time when women ascending to any of these offices was unprecedented and achieved with great difficulty. We did not easily reach the point where even a president as grossly and frequently misogynistic as Donald Trump puts women in his Cabinet and on the Supreme Court. In living memory, it was thought appropriate for news outlets to describe women holding offices for the first time as “blonde and petite,” or “a deadpan little lady” who looks “more like a harried suburban housewife than a political Wonder Woman.”
Compared to that, the distinction I’m drawing is a quibble, a nothing, an extravagance. It is also a distinction which, sooner than later, will happily be rendered null, as every “first woman” spot will finally be claimed.
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