First, Trailblazing Women are Celebrated—Then, They’re Criticized

Amanda Hunter | Dec 20, 2021


Earlier this year, I wrote about the outsized criticism of Vice President Kamala Harris since she was sworn into office in January. Unfortunately, since then attacks on the Vice President have continued and have even seemed to ramp up. Recent criticism of the Vice President ranges from questioning her qualifications, implying she is a bad manager and casting doubt on her accomplishments, to scrutinizing details about how she works.

For example, in one piece, Vice President Harris’s relatively mundane use of wired headphones was treated as a headline-worthy topic—and coverage used a negative tone about her choice, describing her as “Bluetooth-phobic.” In another, the Vice President’s office was described as “dysfunctional” and “in shambles” due to staff changes. Yet another described her as “overly cautious,” and portrayed the Biden-Harris relationship as one characterized by “exasperation.” And in an echo of the critiques of her first foreign trip to Central America, the Vice President’s recent trip to France became fodder for knocks— calling her “Kamala ‘Cringe’ Harris,” and comparing her to the terrible titular character on the TV show “Veep.”  These are just a few specifics among many.

Criticizing the Vice President, questioning her staying power for the 2024 elections, and nearly declaring her historic tenure a failure after less than a year has become so common that a recent piece opened up her work as Vice President to advice from a range of (mostly male) consultants and advisors offering her tips on how to “right her political ship.”

It is true that a recent poll showed Vice President Harris in low standing—so there could be worthy questions about voter perceptions of her role. And we know that many past Vice Presidents were reduced to one-note characters and punchlines—from Dan Quayle misspelling “potato” to Al Gore allegedly claiming to have invented the internet. But two factors are markedly different about critiques of Vice President Harris. One is the sheer volume and frequency. Even since before she was selected as Joe Biden’s running mate, there were accusations that Kamala Harris was “too ambitious” to be VP and racist claims that she was not eligible to serve as Vice President. She has been subject to undermining narrative after undermining narrative.

The other is the racially-charged and gendered nature of many of the criticisms. To illustrate: at the end of his tenure as Vice President, Dick Cheney’s approval rating was in the same range as Vice President Harris’s—yet it’s difficult to imagine a news outlet soliciting various expert opinions to offer Dick Cheney advice about how to improve.

Finally, this situation isn’t just about noise that can be easily dismissed. As I said to Jim Lokay at Fox5 DC, notions that the Vice President is a bad manager who can’t handle the challenges of our time, or that she is already failing to have an effective term in office, are damaging because they hurt perceptions of her qualifications and her likeability. And Barbara Lee Family Foundation research shows that both of those are non-negotiables for women in office.

The implication in much of this criticism is that Vice President Harris is learning as she goes along, and we know from our research that voters disapprove if they think women are learning on the job. Again, this is a different standard than men face. A recent Daily Beast column called these criticisms “whisper-fueled analyses of her management style” that “fail the laugh test when set alongside the behavior of men in top jobs or her level of achievement throughout her career.”

When a woman is a barrier breaker, we often see her celebrated then quickly criticized because the way she does her job is different from those who came before her. Looking ahead to the one year anniversary of the Vice President’s historic inauguration next month, I hope that she can be recognized for doing the work of the role, whether it is visiting a member of the “sandwich generation” at her home in Washington to hear firsthand about her challenges; contributing to repairing a diplomatic rift with France; playing “the central role in re-establishing a working dialogue with Mexico’s president;” or convening a summit to address maternal health. We all owe it to the next generation of trailblazers to prove that double standards and racist, sexist views can be eliminated.

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