The Vice President: Role and Gender

My husband and I are having a discussion. Sometimes, it feels more like an argument. though. I understand half of his position but he holds onto a connection that I think is irrelevant. We go back and forth without resolution.

Cheerios and Commentary

It started this weekend when he commented over breakfast that he wished “they” were giving Vice President Kamala Harris more to do. I didn’t disagree with this, although I could have used more specificity on who “they” were, so I kept eating my Cheerios.

Cheerios, cereal, bowl of Cheerios, breakfastMy husband complained that Kamala Harris had been mostly invisible in the new Biden administration. And when she does appear, she’s sitting in the background with nothing to say.

I thought this was a valid position. In fact, Katie Rogers and Michael D. Shear said pretty much the same thing in their Sunday New York Times article, “Biden trying to emphasize partnership with Harris.” Now, I’m not usually talkative over breakfast, especially when I’ve just done an hour of water aerobics, so I kept listening while he elaborated on his position.

Going Sideways

Then the conversation went in a different direction.

Lady Bird Johnson, First Lady, Vice President, highway beautification, wildflowers

Lady Bird Johnson amid wildflowers

My husband began to look around for comparisons. He thinks that, because Vice President Harris is a woman, her particular job has never been done before.

He opined that she should have a project, “like the First Lady.” He mentioned Lady Bird Johnson with her highway beautification project and Michelle Obama’s healthy eating initiative.

I looked up from my cereal. “Kamala Harris is the Vice President of the United States,” I said, “not the First Lady.” My husband’s forehead wrinkled. “You know what I mean,” he replied. (For the record, when he says this, I rarely know what he means.) Then he added, “A woman in government.”

With that, we were off to the races. And we haven’t stopped yet.

Vice President vs. First Lady

Kamala Harris, Vice President, Senator, candidate, president, 2020

Vice President Kamala Harris

Those who know me, know that I am a dedicated feminist, a woman who has fought on the front lines of equality for women, and a career woman who dealt with misogyny in the workplace for generations. I do not let judgment based on gender slip past me without challenge.

Setting down my spoon, I pointed out that:

  1. The First Lady is the President’s wife, not a woman in government.
  2. She is not elected, nor does she have a specific job to do.
  3. The Vice President is elected and has a job to do, although responsibilities often vary by administration.
  4. The job of the Vice President does not change because the person holding that office is a woman.
  5. The only comparison between Kamala Harris and any First Lady is that they are both women.

The Crux of the Matter

That is the crux of the discussion.  My husband acknowledges that Kamala Harris is a woman of education and accomplishment, one who is more than qualified for the position of Vice President. He thinks she is capable of doing much more than she has been able to do so far in the Biden Administration—which is three weeks old.

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, briefing, press conference

President Biden and Vice President Harris

He understands that her gender should make no difference. Yet he continues to search for a comparison based solely on gender. He thinks that, because she is a woman, and there has never before been a female Vice President, we don’t know what she will do or how she will tackle the job.

My position is a lot simpler: her gender makes no difference at all to her role as Vice President.

Projects and the Vice President

No one has ever suggested that a male Vice President be “given” a make-work project to do. (By whom? The President? His Chief of Staff? Some random male advisor?)

Sometimes male VPs have, at the behest of the President, taken on a real project. Mike Pence headed up the Coronavirus Task Force. George H.W. Bush ran the Task Force on Combating Terrorism. Bill Clinton picked Al Gore to guide the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) through Congress. And Dick Cheney, well, many people thought he actually ran the administration of George W. Bush. But those projects were significant work that needed to be done, not activities based on an avocation, or something he thought would be nice to have.

Vice President Kamala Harris, Presiding over Senate, casting tie-breaking vote in Senate

Vice President Kamala Harris casts tie-breaking vote in the Senate

President Biden includes Vice President Harris in public appearances. She is present at the President’s Daily Brief in the Oval Office. They spend four to five hours a day together in the White House. And they have a weekly lunch. In that regard, much of their work together resembles the relationship President Obama had with his vice president, Joe Biden. Both of them are, of course, male. Vice President Harris has also cast her first (but I’m sure not her last) tie-breaking vote in the Senate.

Charting Her Own Course

Kamala Harris will probably take some time to chart her own course as Vice President. This is normal. She may make appearances of interest to women in general and Black women in particular. That would be no different than any politician. President Biden may have her take on a major project that supports the administration’s initiatives.

Whatever approach she takes, however, and whatever work she does, I doubt that how she does it will have much to do with her gender.

BRIEF REJOINDER FROM THE HUSBAND: 
Kamala Harris is the first woman in the history of the United States to be Vice President. Truth be told, if she wasn’t a woman of accomplishment (someone who could assume the presidency), a woman of color, and a woman of Indian and Caribbean descent, she wouldn’t be Vice President. Why? Because the times are such that a Black woman increased the Democrats chances of winning the election.

 

It was bruited about during the campaign that she would be taking on considerable responsibility, as befits someone of her experience and accomplishment. That hasn’t happened. As she is the first woman in her role, I couldn’t find a solid analogy, so I mentioned that First Ladies may have gotten their projects faster than Harris has gotten hers. Aline is a Tiger Mom for women, and I respect and understand that. All I am saying is the situation has more angles than that.

PS FROM ME: Notice the word “gotten” in there? I always thought the First Ladies found their own causes rather than “getting” them from someone else. The discussion continues.

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