In over two centuries of American presidential politics, just three women and only one person of color have ever been on a major party presidential ticket. This year’s Democratic nominee for vice president will join this small club and has a very real shot at becoming the first woman to hold one of the top two most powerful positions in U.S. politics. The attention to — and celebration of — this potential milestone is merited. But we should take this moment to celebrate the woman nominee, not the act of nominating a woman.
Selecting a woman nominee is not an act of sacrifice for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. The pool of potential women vice presidential nominees is rich and diverse. Women are some of the most effective and most responsive members of Congress, have been among the most prudent leaders of major cities and states through current crises, and continue to demonstrate the value of their distinct perspectives on politics and policymaking.
There’s opportunity even in the potential challenge the Biden campaign faced in identifying women, especially women of color, in traditional feeder offices to the vice presidency. Because women of color have been and continue to be especially underrepresented in the Senate (only five have ever served there) and among governors (New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is the only Democrat to ever hold the job), Biden’s team has expanded the boundaries of where it looks for candidates and thought differently about the credentials and qualities we should expect and value in the next vice president.
Short on vision, not qualified women
Nominating a woman to the presidential ticket isn’t a revolutionary act. Women first waged their candidacies for president and vice president in the late 1800s, and despite the persistent hurdles to equal representation, women have been serving in the U.S. Congress for over a century and as governors for nearly the same amount of time. There has not been a shortage of women who could serve as vice president during this time, only a shortage of recognition and imagination by those empowered to make the selection.
This year’s nomination should remind us of the opportunity costs our country has endured by not selecting women for so long. Just as we’ve reckoned with this across industries and institutions, the costs of forgoing women’s contributions to politics in service of maintaining a white, male status quo have been high.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris at a Democratic debate in Houston in 2019.
The privileging of white men in American politics is something that Biden knows well. For nearly a half-century, he has navigated a political space that was built for men like him. In doing so, he has been free of the hurdles that have confronted many of his opponents and colleagues, including the man who tapped him as the vice presidential nominee in 2008.
The 2020 presidential primary election illuminated this persistent privilege. For example, early polling of Democratic primary voters revealed that Biden fared best — while women candidates fared worst — among Democrats with the most sexist beliefs. Biden also benefited from Democratic voters’ focus on electability as a primary concern and their long-term conditioning to assume a white man was the safest bet.
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On the campaign trail during her own presidential candidacy, Sen. Kamala Harris told an Iowa audience, “I have faith in the American people to know that we will never be burdened by assumptions of who can do what based on who historically has done it.”
Her faith may have been premature. Biden’s profile matched all but one of the 45 men who have held presidential office in the United States, while the women who ran had to make the case that they could become the first.
Biden recognized his own privilege at a January town hall when he included sexism among the factors leading to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss and assured the audience, “That’s not going to happen with me.” He can’t shed his privilege, but the least he can do is use it to bring a woman with him into presidential power.
Eroding white male dominance
Women are the ones who have brought Biden to power for his many decades of public service. Three decades ago, Biden won reelection to the Senate with 66% of Delaware women supporting him, compared with 58% support from men. Six years later, a 16-point gender gap emerged in Biden’s Senate race, with women playing an even more pivotal role in his success.
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It was women — and most specifically Black women — who proved to be the most reliable voters in the coalition that sent Barack Obama and Biden to the White House in 2008 and again in 2012. So when Black women voters call for a return on investment, it’s important to recognize that their investment has not only been in the Democratic Party overall, but also in Biden specifically.
When Biden names his running mate, we will celebrate her, the recognition of her accomplishments and the work she will do to further chip away at the white male dominance in presidential politics. What we should be cautious about celebrating, however, is Biden’s decision to nominate a woman. That’s the least he could do.
Kelly Dittmar (@kdittmar) is an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden and director of research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers-New Brunswick. Debbie Walsh (@DebbieWalsh58) is director of the center.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden’s vice presidential pick will chip away at male dominance in politics