Kamala Harris shattered numerous glass ceilings with her historic election as vice president. In addition to becoming the first woman, the first Black American and the first Indian American elected to the second-highest office in the nation, media coverage of her campaign may just signal another historic first: a sea change in the way we evaluate female politicians, especially when it comes to their personal lives.
Whereas previous generations of female candidates have often been judged according to their family status — as spinsters, mothers or widows — Harris managed to be elected as none of the above. Instead, Harris remained single until age 50 when she married her husband, Douglas Emhoff, and became “Momala” to his two children from a previous marriage. During Harris’ presidential campaign, various conservative media outlets sought to discredit her candidacy by floating headlines about her love life and premarital relationships. But these exaggerated and false stories failed to gain traction and, thankfully, did not resurface after her nomination. In other words, Harris lived her own life as an autonomous human and the press, by and large, has covered her as such.
This is historic. For the past 150 years, not only has media coverage of female candidates focused on their appearance, their voices and whether they seem “likable,” so too has it emphasized their marital status and sex lives, in tacit and explicit ways. Every woman thinking of running for political office knows that if you dare to campaign, your sexual history will be publicly dissected and you will also be judged according to your performance as a wife and mother.
Since 1872, when Victoria Woodhull became the first woman to run for president, public scrutiny of the private lives of female politicians has limited women’s access to power and even squelched their desire to run for office. After her parents married her off at the age of 14 to an alcoholic man nearly twice her age, Woodhull began to question patriarchal marriage and eventually championed “free love.” In 1872, she declared her candidacy for president and faced wrath for challenging both gender and sexual norms. Newspaper coverage of Woodhull’s historic campaign focused on her multiple lovers.
As part of her demand that men and women be held to the same standard of sexual morality, Woodhull exposed the lengthy affair that Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe and “the most famous man in America,” had been having with one of his parishioners. Exonerated in a church investigation and civil suit, Beecher returned to the pulpit. For daring to publicize Beecher’s affair, Woodhull was arrested for violating anti-obscenity laws. The first woman to run for president spent election night 1872 in a New York City jail.
Even as women continued to make gains in public life and politics, antiquated views about their private lives limited their options. If a woman were married, customs and laws demanded that her primary job must remain that of wife. And if she were single, she was considered a sexual threat. For much of the 20th century, the most successful female politicians were widows who ran to complete the unexpired terms of their deceased husbands, in what was termed “the widow’s mandate.”
Take for instance Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine, who first ran to finish her deceased husband Clyde’s unexpired term in the House in 1940. In 1948, she was elected to the Senate (the first woman to be elected to both chambers of Congress) and then sought the Republican nomination for president in 1964. Smith had successfully managed Clyde’s Washington office for years and long harbored political aspirations of her own, but it was her status as his widow that enabled her first campaign. Even though she was only 43 when Clyde died, she never remarried.
Even during the so-called “Year of the Woman” in 1992 — the year that 117 women ran for Congress after watching Anita Hill’s testimony before the all-male Senate Judiciary Committee — the most memorable campaign was that of Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who ran as “just a mom in tennis shoes.” To bolster her outsider credentials, Murray included that signature line at nearly all of her campaign appearances. After her unexpected primary win, The New York Times reported that Murray had “succeeded by playing on a nonpartisan image of a harried mom — caring for two children and aging parents, while holding a job and making dinner several nights a week.”
The lesson: For women, political careers demand downplaying sexuality yet emphasizing their maternal role and adherence to traditional wifely duties.
What if voters and pundits treated the private lives of female politicians the same way that they do male office seekers? This was the premise of the 2000 Rod Lurie film “The Contender” starring Joan Allen as Sen. Laine Hanson, a woman with presidential aspirations, and a sub-theme of the 2019 Charlize Theron film “Long Shot.” In both films, the female candidates refused to answer or apologize for their sexual histories or explain their personal lives, insisting instead on women’s right to privacy and to do as they please, within the limits of the law, marital contracts and mutual consent.
Imagine if real life had this Hollywood ending. For the past 150 years, women have often been motivated to enter politics with the goal of rewriting laws related to sex and gender, but the sexual double standard has continued to limit their political opportunities.
As a prosecutor and lawmaker, Harris worked to dismantle the sexual double standard by holding men accountable for their actions and, as a vice-presidential candidate and vice president-elect, she is helping to revolutionize public perception of the private lives of female politicians. Her election is historic in many ways, not the least of which is showing us what is possible when we evaluate women on their own terms.