Let’s normalize women’s leadership

“If representation matters, so do narratives. Political journalism can shape those narratives — and, in turn, voters’ imaginations about who is electable and who should govern — by reporting on women as politicians.”

In her speech after being declared vice president-elect, Kamala Harris repeated something her mother Shyamala said: “You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last.”

When she’s inaugurated on January 20, 2021, Harris — who already made history this year as the first woman of color nominated for vice president by a major U.S. party — will be the first Black American, the first Indian American, and the first woman to serve as the second-most-powerful person in the country. It’s a remarkable and significant milestone in our politics, but being The First should be neither a defining nor potentially damning characteristic of her tenure.

On the campaign trail, Harris often said her candidacy was about convincing voters of “what can be, unburdened by what has been.” As she joins Joe Biden as his governing partner, the political press corps tasked with covering their administration must not burden her with the weight of history.

The expectations of being exceptional loomed over the first Black president of the United States, Barack Obama, as well as the first Black First Lady, Michelle Obama. In the spotlight for eight years, the public and the press held them to a standard that left little room for error — lest the door close behind them to those who looked like them for another generation or longer.

If representation matters, so do narratives. Political journalism can shape those narratives — and, in turn, voters’ imaginations about who is electable and who should govern — by reporting on women as politicians. That Nancy Pelosi wields the gavel as speaker of the House is news to no one at this point.

As the next vice president, Harris will confront challenges that include a public health and economic crisis, a deeply polarized electorate, systemic racism, and climate change. These priorities and how effectively she confronts them should be the media’s focus, because they’ll be the focus of those elected to run our government — including Harris, who cannot afford to be fixated solely on her role as a trailblazer with so much at stake for Americans.

Indeed, Harris’ political resume already features her experiences as The First or The Only: as district attorney in San Francisco, as California’s attorney general, as the lone Black woman currently serving in the U.S. Senate. In each of those roles, it was her power, not her novelty, that mattered.

If confirmed, there will be other women who’ll be the first in their positions, and they also deserve to be held accountable and treated not as a spectacle, but scrutinized as the capable, qualified, and talented public servants they are, who have earned the seats they will occupy just as the men who came before them — and the right to succeed or fail without their actions having consequences for their entire gender.

Women are the majority of the U.S. population and the American electorate, yet our underrepresentation in our politics can lead to lingering over barriers broken that stood for far too long. Other countries have long since normalized women’s leadership: According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women’s Power Index, 64 of the 193 countries surveyed have elected a female head of state. There are currently 22 countries with a woman leader.

To see and report on Harris as a powerful politician and not a pioneer is to be truly groundbreaking in our coverage of politics — to show the role of gender in governing, rather than to obsess over it. That Harris will become one of only 49 people in the history of our country to ever serve as vice president is extraordinary; that she is the first woman to do so is overdue.

Errin Haines is editor-at-large at The 19th.

In her speech after being declared vice president-elect, Kamala Harris repeated something her mother Shyamala said: “You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last.”

When she’s inaugurated on January 20, 2021, Harris — who already made history this year as the first woman of color nominated for vice president by a major U.S. party — will be the first Black American, the first Indian American, and the first woman to serve as the second-most-powerful person in the country. It’s a remarkable and significant milestone in our politics, but being The First should be neither a defining nor potentially damning characteristic of her tenure.

On the campaign trail, Harris often said her candidacy was about convincing voters of “what can be, unburdened by what has been.” As she joins Joe Biden as his governing partner, the political press corps tasked with covering their administration must not burden her with the weight of history.

The expectations of being exceptional loomed over the first Black president of the United States, Barack Obama, as well as the first Black First Lady, Michelle Obama. In the spotlight for eight years, the public and the press held them to a standard that left little room for error — lest the door close behind them to those who looked like them for another generation or longer.

If representation matters, so do narratives. Political journalism can shape those narratives — and, in turn, voters’ imaginations about who is electable and who should govern — by reporting on women as politicians. That Nancy Pelosi wields the gavel as speaker of the House is news to no one at this point.

As the next vice president, Harris will confront challenges that include a public health and economic crisis, a deeply polarized electorate, systemic racism, and climate change. These priorities and how effectively she confronts them should be the media’s focus, because they’ll be the focus of those elected to run our government — including Harris, who cannot afford to be fixated solely on her role as a trailblazer with so much at stake for Americans.

Indeed, Harris’ political resume already features her experiences as The First or The Only: as district attorney in San Francisco, as California’s attorney general, as the lone Black woman currently serving in the U.S. Senate. In each of those roles, it was her power, not her novelty, that mattered.

If confirmed, there will be other women who’ll be the first in their positions, and they also deserve to be held accountable and treated not as a spectacle, but scrutinized as the capable, qualified, and talented public servants they are, who have earned the seats they will occupy just as the men who came before them — and the right to succeed or fail without their actions having consequences for their entire gender.

Women are the majority of the U.S. population and the American electorate, yet our underrepresentation in our politics can lead to lingering over barriers broken that stood for far too long. Other countries have long since normalized women’s leadership: According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women’s Power Index, 64 of the 193 countries surveyed have elected a female head of state. There are currently 22 countries with a woman leader.

To see and report on Harris as a powerful politician and not a pioneer is to be truly groundbreaking in our coverage of politics — to show the role of gender in governing, rather than to obsess over it. That Harris will become one of only 49 people in the history of our country to ever serve as vice president is extraordinary; that she is the first woman to do so is overdue.

Errin Haines is editor-at-large at The 19th.

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