If Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) is selected as presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s running mate — as many are now speculating — she could be the first biracial vice president of the United States.
But even then, the former presidential candidate would likely be dogged by the all-too-familiar charge levied against successful women, that she’s guilty of being “too ambitious.”
The charge is anything but new to Harris — it’s something that’s cropped up throughout her career, like that of any female politician.
On Wednesday, CNBC published a story reporting that a contingent in Biden’s camp had embarked on a last-minute effort to knock Harris from the top of the list.
“Some remain bitter about her attacks on Biden during primary debates last year, saying they bring into question her loyalty to the former vice president,” the CNBC story said. “Others argue that she’s too ambitious and that she will be solely focused on becoming president herself.”
The rationale that Harris, a recent presidential candidate, was regarded as “too ambitious” to be on the ticket with a former vice president himself immediately triggered exasperation.
Women have historically been appreciated as mostly supporting and background players, says Catherine Clinton, the Denman Chair of American History at the University of Texas in San Antonio.
“Outspoken and accomplished women are often criticized for their ‘ambition’ because political movements thrive on women behind the scenes who defer to male leaders. From abolition to civil rights to Black Lives Matter, groups flourish only through women’s organizational efforts,” Clinton said. “But in the spirit of Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Kamala Harris is sidestepping the pretense of modesty and deference during the 2020 contest.”
Danielle M. Winterhalter, a political consultant for SpeakEasy Political, agrees that part of the problem is deep-rooted.
“Seeing women in the forefront of the political arena is still something our society is becoming accustomed to, and whether folks like to admit it or not — it causes a decent amount of discomfort, and that discomfort is often quantified in terms like ‘overly ambitious’ and ‘quite sure of herself,’” Winterhalter said. “We need to support women running, working and getting involved in all levels of government to make our participation in the norm.”
Even when women do decide to run for office, they are encouraged not to get too ahead of themselves and put off their own ambitions to let men go first, Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, said, noting parallels in her home state.
“We’re about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment and unfortunately women are still fighting for equal treatment in the political arena. If men are lauded for their ambition when they angle for higher office then it’s nothing short of sexist when women like Kamala Harris are derided for doing the same,” Swecker said. “We should be welcoming women of color like Sen. Harris into positions of power, not putting them down or telling them to wait their turn.”
For Harris, who often identifies as Black and whose parents are Jamaican and Indian, there’s an extra layer of nuance in remarks about her ambition.
For many Black women, the lens through which Harris is judged is one of misogynoir — racism and sexism — that they see themselves judged by.
“It’s offensive particularly for Black women because we also have to deal with the trope of being considered lazy and stupid,” said Camonghne Felix, who formerly worked in communications for Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) presidential campaign. “My mother has always warned me against it, saying ‘You have to work 10 times harder because they won’t notice it.’”
“So as we’re dealing with that trope and those assumptions, then we’ll be penalized for being the opposite, for being visibly ambitious, visibly talented, visibly hard-working. To be penalized for that ambitiousness is the other side of the double-edged sword that continues stabbing us in the back,” Felix said.
“It really makes you ask the question: Where is the middle ground for Black women? When are we too ambitious? But when are we not doing enough? What is the sweet spot? Where do we get to be both ambitious and also normal and human and be respected for that? That’s something I think about all the time,” Felix said.
“The whole argument about the ambitious Black woman, really what they’re saying is: This woman has the audacity to be smarter than us and to be better than us and who does she think she is?”