For those of us who believe that a female president is long overdue, the past few years have been bitterly disappointing. From Hillary Clinton’s surprise loss to Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election to the failure of the Democratic Party to choose a female candidate this year despite an abundance of qualified women, it’s been one setback after another. And though there’s abundant evidence that women can win elections in lower races, a slim majority of American men, and just over 40 per cent of American women, still aren’t “very comfortable” with the idea of a female president.
Could a female vice president help to change this troubling situation? While there’s reason to regard Joe Biden’s pending selection of a female running mate as a step in the right direction, it’s ultimately a small one. And far from challenging the prevailing biases against powerful women, a female vice president would in some ways reinforce them. We misunderstand the nature of patriarchy if we think that merely having power and influence are verboten for women. Women are allowed to have power, so long as that power is deployed in ways that are not threatening to a patriarchal order — in the service of a male president.
Even Trump, a notorious misogynist, is comfortable having women in positions of considerable power and authority when they act as his subordinates, and serve him deferentially — think of Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Betsy DeVos. But Trump is liable to be vicious, even by his admittedly dismal standards, when a woman crosses, thwarts or challenges him — as with female reporters like Weijia Jiang, Abby Phillip and Megyn Kelly, the latter of whom he infamously said had blood coming out of her eyes and her “wherever,” after her tough questioning of him over his history of misogyny. Still, even Trump will allow a woman power — just so long as she does not threaten him and remains dutiful and loyal.
Being dutiful and loyal to the president is the very essence of the vice presidency. We saw this when Biden himself apologised to President Barack Obama for speaking out in favour of same-sex marriage before Obama had announced his shift in policy; there is a tacit understanding that a vice president should be unfailingly supportive of, and deferential to, the president. A female vice president in itself thus poses no real threat to patriarchy.
Research also shows that the prevalent biases against a woman in power dissolve if she is perceived as exceptionally communal — that is, exceptionally oriented to helping and serving others. In a landmark 2004 study of such biases, researchers had participants evaluate two personnel files for an assistant vice president of sales at an aircraft company. Each file was marked “James” or “Andrea,” and the two, similar files were alternated — meaning that, on average, the participants received identical information about the two employees. The study found that Andrea was judged less competent than James by some 86 per cent of participants, unless evidence of their both having excelled in their roles was explicitly included. In that case, Andrea was judged less likeable than James by 83 per cent of people. Notably, these gender biases were demonstrated in young people (they were undergraduates) and were equally prevalent in both men and women.
How can a woman in a male-dominated leadership position succeed, given the reality of such prejudice? A further study provides an answer. When information was included that depicted Andrea as both highly competent and communal — kind, caring, considerate of her employees, and so on — these biases disappeared (and even reversed, in some cases). Suddenly, she was deemed even more likeable than James, and just as desirable as a boss. For James, on the other hand, the inclusion of such information made no difference.
Similarly, when Andrea was described as a mother, participants’ attitudes toward her softened; for James, being depicted as a father was neither here nor there. The lesson? The combination of being a woman and being powerful can be rendered palatable — but to be so, she must be perceived as communal, as a team player and focused on supporting other people. And that sounds a lot like the vice president’s job description.
All in all, Biden’s commitment to have a female vice president serve under him is hardly revolutionary. It would remain incumbent on him to enable her to play more than a symbolic role in his administration — a robust position along the lines Biden himself occupied under President Obama. (The image of “Veep’s” Selina Meyer, doing photo ops for the president while being completely ignored by him, serves as comedic warning here.)
That being said, a female vice president under Biden might well end up playing an enormous role in the future of the Democratic Party — because of not only her own achievements but also the fact that, given his age, Biden would most likely be a one-term president. She could end up being the next Democratic Party nominee and the default leader of the party; she could even find herself unexpectedly assuming the role of president. But these contingencies do not touch the fact that in and of itself, the vice presidency is an unthreatening role for a woman to occupy.
There’s also no doubt that a female vice president could do a lot of good in this position if she and Biden are elected in November. The field of likely contenders — which includes Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams, Karen Bass, Susan Rice, Val Demings and Tammy Duckworth — is rich in skill and talent. There are even reasons to celebrate the fact of female representation, inasmuch as it may provide inspiration and solace to those who might otherwise justifiably feel that American politics remains ineluctably a boys’ club at the highest echelons.
But we shouldn’t overestimate the extent to which a female vice president would be breaking down extant barriers and challenging harmful stereotypes. We still aren’t collectively comfortable with women in positions of highest power, or ultimate authority — as opposed to serving under, and at the pleasure of, men like Biden. And we still hold women to higher and sometimes downright unrealistic standards of “niceness” and communality, which is a recipe for misogyny as soon as they make the slightest misstep. Until we recognise the fact that women are just as entitled as men to hold power, we will have our political work cut out for us.
Dr Manne is an associate professor of philosophy at Cornell University. NYT© 2020
The New York Times