Our New Vice President and The Revealed Fragility of Women’s Empowerment

Vice President Kamala Harris.

Her name is basically a loaded term at the moment (although I think the initial social media mayhem has subsided a little). The mere mention of her name seems to invoke a reaction. I have been asked quite a few times, ‘What is your opinion about it all?’ When presented with the open-ended inquiry, I have no doubt there is a more specific underlying question embedded in that, depending on the person. What do I think of her as a person? A politician? Her policies? OR are we talking about something else? Like the fact that we have the first woman POC as Vice President? My guess, based on what I have seen, is it’s the latter.

One thing to keep in mind as we venture into this territory is that I believe culture moves politics, not the other way around. Therefore, blaming policies for a culture we have created isn’t the best way to enact lasting change (personal opinion). This is not to say that we shouldn’t still advocate for righteous policies – we should (especially if they are to the detriment of the vulnerable, disenfranchised, poor, marginalized, and innocent), BUT we also need to reach the hearts and minds of those that supported the justifications for unjust policies to begin with. I know tyranny of the government is a huge topic right now and I don’t disagree in many ways BUT we must also remember that the power and influence they hold was started in a culture that handed it to them. By the time issues reach a level of creating policies and becoming political platforms, those ideologies that supported their creation have been swirling and accepted in culture for a long time prior to that. Therefore, my focus here is not specifically on political policies or a specific politician per se but rather the wider cultural narratives that their policies and/or persona bring to light. In the case of our newest Vice President, the conversations surrounding her new position have revealed a blind spot in the ‘women’s empowerment’ movement that I believe is worth addressing.

Now, let me start with, I hope y’all understand that I am a huge supporter of women. I believe sexism is real and exists. I believe women are capable of so much. I know brilliant women in so many different influential roles and I am grateful they are there. I grew up with a mother who was the primary breadwinner of the household and worked the 9-5 finance job while my dad was the teacher who loved working with kids and was home with us most of the time. I didn’t even UNDERSTAND stereotypical gender roles until I was older and someone had to explain it to me. I have been blasted for supporting the term ‘Catholic feminism’ and have gone to bat on more than one occasion in defense of the capabilities of women (most of the time, when I have had disagreements about this with someone, it typically ends in a difference in opinion about the use of the terminology as opposed to differences in actual ideology, which is fair – but that is a whole OTHER conversation).

Have I established some sense of credibility in that I… you know… support women?

Alright, so I think we all know to some extent that the swearing in of Vice President Harris created a whirlwind of media attention and widespread, overwhelming praise. Now, I know some of that attention can simply be attributed to the fact that it was a historical event – undoubtedly. And, of course, there were certainly voices of dissent as well – some rooted in purely sexist/racist attacks that I do very much recognize and don’t want to trivialize. However, when I look to define and speak to the dominant narrative, I turn my attention to the big money makers. I look at the billion dollar companies who know their alignment with the dominant narrative will either make them or break them. Money speaks volumes in that way. So just google ‘Kamala Harris’ and you will have your answer on where the dominant narrative stands. Every major magazine and most media outlets gave way to an avalanche of praise-worthy headlines, posts, gifs, memes, and articles that ranged from ‘Vice President Harris – The Champion of Women’ to ‘Kamala Harris: Giving Hope to Little Girls Everywhere,’ and pretty much everything in between. I know my personal social media is a very shallow litmus test but from my personal visibility, I know my feed was bombarded with posts and re-posts painting Vice President Harris as a super woman whom all women must deem worthy of our thanks, praise, and admiration.

I believe there is a very fragile and dangerous line to walk in the name of women’s empowerment that Vice President Harris’ widespread, overwhelming celebration represented and consequently, made very clear to me. I am not sure where the wrong turn took place, but in our quest to uplift women we took a wrong turn somewhere (actually A LOT of wrong turns but that is way outside of the scope of this one blog). AGAIN, I support women. I celebrate women – especially those who have had to overcome racism, bigotry, sexism, and anything else BUT at the same time, the overwhelming pressure to blindly celebrate a woman in an influential leadership role regardless of policies/ideologies gives me huge pause in a couple ways:

First, we can recognize how far women have come in the public sphere but that’s just that… the public sphere. It is not all encompassing of WOMEN but rather our external accomplishments that we can quantify in our ‘race against men’. By doing this, we have completely degraded the private sphere (women in the home). We are valuing the public sphere above that of the private sphere by screaming ‘FINALLY! We did it!’…when the question to ask is… ‘Wait, were we not doing ‘it’ before?”. We have somehow adopted the public sphere (created for men, designed for men) and taken it up as the mantle and measuring stick we want to aspire to prove our worth. By doing this, we are inherently saying that men have always had the more worthwhile, valuable, and praiseworthy role. That men have set the golden standard that we want to be. That the women before us were nothing more than oppressed, unenlightened fools who didn’t know any better and ‘only had babies’ because they were told they weren’t ‘capable’ of doing anything else (I have some words on THAT whole bit of degrading-motherhood-sexist nonsense… but I digress…). Women were smart and capable and did so much to contribute to society well before there was a glass ceiling to break.

Secondly, even outside the whole issue of private vs. public sphere, if we ARE discussing and focusing just on women in the public sphere for a moment and the glass ceilings we hope to break, I think the next question it leads to is… why? Honestly. Why do we care? Why is it important for women to break these glass ceilings? Why does that mean something? And unless you want to give a cop out answer of ‘because men are evil and women aren’t’ (which… yes, that’s a cop out answer), you will have to give some substance beyond that. You could say, ‘So my daughter/niece/sister/mother can follow in their footsteps.’ Again, you will have to continue down that rabbit hole. Why does it matter if your daughter can follow in their footsteps? At some point you have to reach the conclusion that it matters because we recognize WHAT women can bring to the table. We recognize that our daughters, nieces, sisters, mothers all have unique gifts to contribute to the world to make it a better place and you want that opportunity for them. We recognize that women ARE unique (which means DIFFERENT from men) and that there must be something of SUBSTANCE we want a woman to bring to the wider world through various positions in the public sphere.

So there it is… it IS about WHAT women bring and not simply the fact that it is a woman bringing it.

That is why the glass ceiling matters and why it is even worth breaking to begin with. It means NOTHING if we don’t care who, what, or why they broke it. That HAS TO MATTER. Having a woman lead a culture of death is no more progress than the men before her leading the charge. Our silencing of criticism of ANY woman simply because we feel the need to stand in awe of their prowess sells us so entirely short. If we stop caring about WHAT it is that women leaders bring, can we really call that positive change? Or do we call that blind progress for the sake of… progress? WHAT women bring to the table matters and we MUST be able to criticize and dissent when necessary. This concept that criticizing any trailblazing woman in leadership (no matter WHAT it is they are trailblazing…) is somehow undermining their empowerment is an ’empowerment’ so fragile, I am not sure we can call it empowerment anymore. The WHAT matters.

It has to matter.

** Keep in mind in this discussion, I am bringing up the glass ceiling – meaning that I am referring to women in high up leadership positions. High up leadership positions that consequently have direct influence on thousands/millions of individuals. This is different than speaking of simply giving agency to women, particularly those who are marginalized as a means to support themselves. Which yes, there could be a case made to say that those in higher leadership positions open a pathway for agency to marginalized women simply by holding the visible positions that they do BUT I think we do a GREAT disservice by disregarding the responsibilities that come with high leadership positions that have influence beyond just representation but whose policies/ideologies/beliefs have a direct and concrete impact on thousands.