This election’s only vice presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris reflected the storied dichotomy between women and men in a professional environment.
While similar to the first presidential election which was marred by constant interruptions and lack of professionalism, the Pence-Harris debate focused on more substantive issues. The dominant issue of the debate was COVID-19 and what responsive plans were or are going to be implemented. Harris criticized the Trump Administration’s handling of COVID-19 alongside other racial and economic issues, and Pence defended Trump’s response to these issues.
While the different themes of the debate should be further analyzed and discussed, gender needs to be factored into each of these discussions because of the sheer significance it served during the debate.
Gender was not a specific debate topic, but it did provide context towards Kamala’s stance on the Supreme Court. When moderator Susan Page and Pence questioned Harris on whether or not she would pack the Supreme Court, she refused to answer. Biden, when asked the same question in the first presidential debate, did the same. In the past, Harris has expressed fear that Roe v. Wade might be overturned by conservative justices. While her answer does not explicitly reference gender, her silence conveys support towards the appointment of liberal justices.
This question has been motivated by Donald Trump’s decision to nominate Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court to fulfill a promise he made back in 2016 to appoint justices that would overturn Roe v. Wade. Many Democratic politicians have questioned Barrett’s Catholic faith and how much it influences her decision making even before her Supreme Court nomination. Back in 2017, California Senator Dianne Feinstein pressed Barrett on her faith and influences on her perception of law.
Outside of this context, gender served an important role for how each figure — Pence, Harris, and Page — would conduct themselves throughout the debate. Since there is only one vice presidential debate, Harris had to actively fight for speaking against Pence. Pence on the other hand, made sure to fill as much time as possible to limit Harris’ speaking time. Finally, Page was left in the awkward position of trying to enforce the debate rules for both candidates.
According to Business Insider, Harris was interrupted twice as much as Pence. While this number is significantly less than the amount of times Trump interrupted Biden, Harris was quick to address Pence’s tactic.
“Mr. Vice President, I am speaking,” Harris said, following one of Pence’s earlier interruptions during her response on the coronavirus pandemic.
Unfortunately for Harris, Pence would continue to interrupt her with often long winded responses. Even the moderator was unsafe from Pence’s interruptions as Pence often disregarded her enforcement of time constraints. In addition, Pence avoided answering questions asked by the moderator and chose to fill time by thanking the American public for their patience during the pandemic.
Women on social media were quick to point out the gender imbalance displayed during the debate. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted about this imbalance by pointing out Pence’s insistence for Harris to answer his questions while simultaneously refusing to answer Page’s questions.
“She had to prove last night that she was qualified to be president of the United States,” Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said.
It was evident that Harris was in a difficult position debating Pence as a Black woman, and her presence depicted intersectional stereotypes pertaining to both her race and gender. Walsh also remarked on how complicated it was for Harris to dispel the racist stereotype of the angry Black women. Chair of the Sociology Department at Wesleyan University Robyn Autry noted how the facial expressions, tone, and body language have been long used to characterize Black women like Harris or Michelle Obama as hostile and aggressive.
Though Harris was likely trained beforehand on how to handle interruptions, her identity increased the complexity of handling a debate like this, which would have never been present in any of Biden’s training.
Harris’ smiles seemed forced. While Biden’s smiles during the presidential debate reflected a combination of disbelief and anger, Harris’ appeared more constrained, reflecting her poise and equanimity. It was clear that Harris had done this before. The only difference was that this stage was being watched by millions, examining every facial expression and listening to every word articulated. Unlike Pence, a privileged white politician, Harris had little room for error.
Interrupting is common among many people, myself included, and gender does factor into how much people interrupt. A 2014 George Washington University study on this exact topic found that women are interrupted 33% more often when speaking to men compared to when men were when speaking to women. A 2018 Women in the Workplace survey stated that while 40% of Black women were questioned in their respective area of expertise, men were only questioned 27% of time.
In addition, women are placed in a double bind when fighting to be heard. A Stanford study suggested that women are often punished more harshly than men for speaking out, while another study suggested that powerful women receive greater backlash for speaking more than men.
A roundup of CNN reporters post debate best reflected the wide range of sentiments that focused predominantly on Harris’ performance. Since it was evident that Pence would just be reiterating Trump’s platform, Harris was the main figure of praise or scrutiny among viewers.
Most CNN commentators were proud of Harris’s performance with host Van Jones commenting on how “she cleared the bar” and was able to start strong and finish strong.
Other commentators were less keen on Harris’s performance and focused more on the impact of the overall debate. Senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Aaron David Miller, called it “the most important vice presidential debate in history that won’t change a thing,” reflecting his pessimism to the overall presidential campaign. CNN political commentator SE Cupp commented on how Pence’s disrespect for Harris or Page would likely drive away white suburban women.
Of the list of commentators, CNN contributor Scott Jennings stood out to me, specifically regarding one question and his response to that question.
“Is Harris any good at this?” questioned Jennings. “Tonight, we found out the answer (again): No.”
Though the answer clearly insinuates gender and racial biases, the question’s wording illustrates Jennings’s biases towards Harris. “Is she any good” implies that Jennings has most likely heard her speak before, but was not swooned by the style of her debate. “Is she any good” does not question the quality of her words, but her capacity as a speaker. As an accomplished senator, Harris has utilized speech for the majority of her adult life, reflecting pride in her hard work. She reflected the struggles of her own parents during her DNC speech and claimed that this motivated her to excel academically and professionally.
Jennings’s statement not only demeans her performance during the debate, but belittles her capacity to hold any position in the professional world. It is a shameful example of the unjustified questioning men of power have over women. It assumes women have to outperform men in order to be perceived as an advisory – style over substance.
For many voters that value style over substance, Jennings’s commentary might guide their discussions. But it is important to remember that style over substance tricks people into focusing on tangential issues. It assumes the viewer does not care about issues or how they may affect them, but will focus on minute details such as Pence’s voice or Harris’s smile. While these are certainly factors to consist when analyzing a performance, they should hold much less weight than the quality of a speaker’s words.
The debate proved that Harris could stand her own. She outdid Pence while experiencing her own limitations as a Black woman. Though it was not a perfect debate, she more than proved her capacity to be a member of the presidential cabinet.
Last updated 10/17/20
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