clock menu more-arrow no yes

Female politicians are scrutinized for their looks. Kamala Harris is ready to fight back.

Why does America not know how to talk about women who run for office?

Democratic vice presidential nominee Senator Kamala Harris speaks from behind a podium on the third night of the Democratic National Convention in Wilmington, Delaware.
During her Wednesday speech at the Democratic National Convention, vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris briefly condemned President Trump saying, “I know a predator when I see one.”
Win McNamee/Getty Images

On Wednesday night, Kamala Harris accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to be its vice presidential candidate, becoming the second woman to be featured in that slot on the party’s presidential ticket and the first woman of color.

Dressed in a plum-colored suit, Harris brought attention to the generations of Black women who worked in politics before her, attributing her success to theirs and highlighting her unique background as a child of immigrants. Instead of donning suffragist white as some convention speakers did before her, such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and former Congress member Gabby Giffords, the vice presidential candidate opted for a shade of purple, a color that is internationally recognized as a symbol for women.

Throughout her career, first in law and then in politics, Harris has tended toward darker neutral colors, generally wearing very sleek, prosecutorial-like clothes. Even her accessories, notably her pearl necklaces, are muted, and she mainly sticks to navy, gray, and black blazers and suits. As a result of these sartorial choices, Harris’s political uniform doesn’t usually invite comment from critics. But the kind of considered, uncontroversial style that many female politicians wear as a suit of armor has never stopped President Trump.

In 2020, one might expect that our society has evolved beyond the need to discuss a politician’s appearance. In fact, some critics believe the media should avoid explicitly mentioning gender altogether, as if ignoring this aspect would change how politicians are publicly perceived or written about. The unfortunate truth is that isn’t the case — especially when Harris will be on a ticket against a man who has a history of making cavalierly gendered comments about women, usually based on their appearance.

While Trump’s unpleasantness will likely largely be directed toward Biden, Harris is someone relatively new he can take a swipe at. Within hours of the VP announcement, Trump tweeted a video condemning Harris of being “phony,” which said that “Phony Kamala” and “Slow Joe” would be “perfect together” but “wrong for America.” He has also referred to her as “nasty” during her questioning of Attorney General Bill Barr in May 2019, although in late July, Trump said that Harris would “make a fine choice” as Biden’s second-in-command. Last February, he also remarked that Harris had the “best opening act” when it came to candidate announcements.

That facile politeness, however, will likely fade as election season heats up. In 2016, Trump put into question whether Hillary Clinton has the “stamina” to be president, remarking: “She doesn’t have the look. She doesn’t have the stamina.” In a separate Rolling Stone interview, he mocked Republican candidate Carly Fiorina’s face, asking, “Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president?” From calling his alleged former paramour Stormy Daniels “horseface” to referring to staffer Omarosa Manigault-Newman as “a dog” to claiming Heidi Klum was “no longer a 10,” there are too many instances of Trump’s unabashed misogyny and casual racism to list. His tendency to brusquely tweet about his opponents means that we’ll likely have to discuss the kinds of lowball attacks women are susceptible to — again.

For decades, pervasive sexism has trailed the trajectory of women in politics, from gendered media coverage to outright harassment on social media. And when directed toward women of color, these attacks generally take a nastier, racist turn. For Harris, a Black and South Asian American woman, she has to grapple with sexist and racist attacks.

Following the announcement of her candidacy, Harris’s Blackness has been put into question (she is the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants). Conservatives, including the president, have amplified bizarre birtherist claims that she isn’t a natural-born US citizen. Fox News host Tucker Carlson purposely continued to mispronounce her first name, despite being told how to correctly pronounce it. Then there are the claims reportedly made by Democratic insiders that she is “too ambitious” for the job.

We don’t have to look that far back to recognize how sexism surfaced on the campaign trail: During the 2020 primary, female presidential candidates (including Harris) received more attacks on character and identity issues than their male competitors, usually from right-wing sites, fake news accounts, and bots, according to an analysis by researchers in collaboration with Marvelous AI. Plus, there is this focus on certain character traits perpetuated by pundits and the political press, who unduly zoom in on a female politician’s tone, perceived “shrillness,” ambition, attractiveness, and overall “likability” among voters — characteristics that are rarely criticized, if not applauded, in their male counterparts.

Double standards have plagued women in the short time they've held positions of power. What’s notable today is that Americans — who are largely comfortable with our society’s patriarchal systems — still seem to be confused about how to talk about gender: Narratives tend to either fluctuate between needlessly valorizing a politician for their womanhood or improperly demonizing them through sexist attacks or criticisms of their appearance.

There’s a delicate balancing act — one rooted in sexism — that’s expected of female candidates in regard to their appearance and attitude, a standard expressed since Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to be a vice presidential nominee of a major party. Ferraro, then a 48-year-old Congress member, was selected to add momentum to Walter Mondale’s dwindling 1984 campaign, and as the Washington Post’s Style section observed, she “managed to walk the fashion tightrope without falling off.” In other words, by the standards of the time, she wasn’t too glamorous, flashy, masculine, or assertive; her blonde cut was reminiscent of Princess Diana’s hair, giving Ferraro a “sporty and sophisticated” vibe, according to the Post.

While modern-day coverage has become more policy-oriented for female politicians, their appearance, from mannerisms to sartorial choices, still matters, simply because their job requires them to be in the public eye. The excessive criticism or scrutiny toward their self-presentation, however, seems to be a problem women are uniquely expected to grapple with.

One thing Harris and Ferraro have in common is a great deal of political and legal experience — Ferraro had also previously been a prosecutor — but this didn’t stop male politicians from patronizing Ferraro during the ’84 campaign. During one debate, Vice President George H.W. Bush offered to teach Ferraro about foreign policy and kept referring to her as “Mrs. Ferraro,” instead of her title as a member of Congress. Harris has butted heads with Biden on the debate stage (which critics say she is “not remorseful” over), notably over historic issues like school busing.

By now, most Americans are familiar with the image of women standing side by side with men on debate stages and during stump speeches, especially after the diverse range of candidates in the 2020 cycle. Yet unnecessary scrutiny — which has arguably been made worse by social media — is still often assigned to women’s words, clothing choices, and personal life in a way that doesn’t come close to what their male peers experience.

When Sarah Palin was selected to be on the Republican ticket with John McCain, she suddenly became the subject of feverish media attention; she actually received more coverage as a VP candidate during the GOP convention than Barack Obama after accepting the nomination, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. The nature of that coverage, however, focused on her family and personal life instead of her political experience and public record. Palin’s appearance, which prompted a wave of sexist comments on her electability and looks, became the topic of constant discussion. Granted, certain cultural strides have been made since 2008, and fewer people willingly lean into the misogynist tropes that Trump casually jokes about.

Whether we choose to ignore a politician’s gender or highlight their feminine qualities, it’s a crucial (albeit superficial) factor that voters acknowledge, consciously or not. Women running for office are especially aware of these pitfalls and the supposed “trap” of speaking about sexism. As The Cut’s Rebecca Traister wrote in January, shortly after Sen. Elizabeth Warren withdrew from the presidential race, “The chilling fact that talking in any kind of honest way about marginalization becomes a trap for the marginalized. … You will be understood as trying to leverage the bleak unfairness of it all to your benefit: as if you are the one to enter the arena with the advantage of getting to cry ‘Sexism!’ and not with the multiple disadvantages of sexism.”

But given the emphasis and publicity Biden has put toward gender as the main qualifier for his nominee, as Washington Post’s Monica Hesse observed, he “has preemptively set up his candidate for pushback,” since any political weakness could be attributed to how Biden was set on selecting a woman for the role. Hesse went on to address how Biden’s running mate has to be “a complement” to his candidacy, not a figure in her own right: “In other words, she’ll be expected to perform the tedious emotional support that women have spent the past five to 50 years raising awareness of, responsible for not only her own work, but also the work of making this older white man look good.”

This is, after all, part of the job of the vice president — a role that was comically described in HBO’s Veep as a “fate worse than death.” The vice presidency is a coveted and powerful position, and Biden (similar to Mondale) must feel that there’s political urgency, as well as a benefit, to nominating a Black woman. However, his campaign is bracing for an onslaught of gendered and racist attacks; several other national feminist groups have also crafted a defense plan to protect Harris’s reputation, independent of the campaign. The Washington Post reported that this mounting defense is intended to be “far more aggressive than the way gender attacks were dealt with in 2016” with Hillary Clinton.

In her speech at the Democratic convention on Wednesday, Clinton acknowledged “the slings and arrows [Harris] will face,” but praised how formidable Harris is. “And believe me,” Clinton said. “This former district attorney and attorney general can handle them all.” And Harris, in her acceptance speech Wednesday night, proved that she is ready to call Trump on exactly the kind of behavior that would demean her and women like her. “I know a predator when I see one,” she said.


Will you become our 20,000th supporter? When the economy took a downturn in the spring and we started asking readers for financial contributions, we weren’t sure how it would go. Today, we’re humbled to say that nearly 20,000 people have chipped in. The reason is both lovely and surprising: Readers told us that they contribute both because they value explanation and because they value that other people can access it, too. We have always believed that explanatory journalism is vital for a functioning democracy. That’s never been more important than today, during a public health crisis, racial justice protests, a recession, and a presidential election. But our distinctive explanatory journalism is expensive, and advertising alone won’t let us keep creating it at the quality and volume this moment requires. Your financial contribution will not constitute a donation, but it will help keep Vox free for all. Contribute today from as little as $3.