Michal Rosenoer calls them “purity tests,” the harsh, unyielding judgments leveled at women in politics, particularly women of color, in an attempt to slap them down and hold them back.
“They’re running for office within systems that are racist and sexist and they are going to face more criticism from both sides of the aisle no matter what positions they take,” said the executive director of Emerge Colorado, an organization that provides training and a network of support for Democratic women seeking public office.
“They have to thread an impossible needle.”
Enter Kamala Harris.
The U.S. senator from California and former district attorney in San Francisco and California attorney general, is the daughter of immigrants. Her father, a Stanford University economist, was born in Jamaica. Her mother, born in India, is a cancer researcher and long-time civil rights activist.
Harris dared to aspire to be president, and her story should be a symbol of all that is good about America.
Alas, it’s just another excuse for a slugfest.
Within moments of Joe Biden’s announcement that he had chosen her to be his running mate, critics from all sides launched a fusillade of cheap shots.
“Joe Biden picked the cop,” the left-leaning Gravel Institute tweeted bitterly.
“Kamala Harris’ extreme positions … show that the left-wing mob is controlling Biden’s candidacy,” said Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel.
Briahna Joy Gray, press secretary for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign, said picking Harris showed Biden’s “contempt for the base.”
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And, reprising some of his favorite adolescent taunts for women who dare to engage in public life, Trump called Harris “nasty,” “mean” and “disrespectful.”
And we’re just getting started.
For the next 10 weeks, she’ll be slammed for being too tough, or not tough enough, Rosenoer said. Too ambitious or too restrained. Too opinionated or not opinionated enough. Too beautiful or not representing someone’s (white) ideal of beauty.
“When men see someone questioning their hold on power and authority, they lash out,” she said.
And women can be just as cutting. Several on the left have criticized Harris for failing to advocate vigorously for criminal justice reform when she was a prosecutor in California.
But, Rosenoer said, they are ignoring the political reality of the past 30 years.
“If Kamala had come out as a mixed-race woman of color early in her career swinging as leftist as she does now, she never would have been district attorney, let alone the VP candidate,” she said. “We all should give more grace to candidates who had to negotiate a power system built to keep them out.”
And maybe even more important, Harris should be permitted, no, expected to evolve.
“We want our leaders to grow and change, and then we hold it against them,” Rosenoer said.
As women candidates for public office all know, this hypercritical treatment happens at every level. It’s the very reason Emerge exists.
“A lot of what we teach women is about finding your ‘why,’ ” Rosenoer said.
Candidates are taught to focus on why they are running, what they want to achieve and what their core values are. Then, they tap into that reservoir of purpose when things get ugly.
“When people scream that you’re not good enough every day of your campaign, you need to draw on that inner strength,” she said.
Emerge alumni also can reach out to a network of women who can provide counsel, advice and support.
“Folks don’t talk much about that, but it’s one of the great strengths of Emerge. When you’re going out there and people are calling you a b—–, it’s easier to handle if you can pick up the phone and talk to someone who knows what that’s like.
“It’s not easy and it’s not pretty, but that’s what women face, particularly women of color.”
Harris will be a role model for how to navigate that hostile environment and, Rosenoer said, she is uniquely qualified to be an agent of real systemic change.
“She is a child of immigrants, a Black woman who knows intimately the way the system is built to oppress people,” she said. “One of the most important parts about representation is that you can’t fix problems you can’t see.”
She sees the realities. Nobody has to tell her that women of color are disproportionately affected by such things as income inequality and the failures of our health care system.
So, Rosenoer suggests Harris’ critics – particularly those on the left – need to respond to her VP candidacy with empathy, understanding and a clear-eyed recognition of what it takes for a 55-year-old Black woman to arrive at the place where she stands today.
“She is going to get criticized in a way that men never have to deal with,” she said. In addition to her professional choices, “her personal life will be dragged through the mud. Her family life represents a very beautiful modern family dynamic and we can expect it to be criticized at every turn.”
Along the way, as the first Black Asian-American woman to run for vice president on a major party ticket, Harris will “inspire a whole generation of young women,” Rosenoer said.
So, enough with the purity tests. It’s time to celebrate.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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