Female Representation, Emancipation or Placation?

Earlier this year, the forty-sixth president of the United States, democrat Joseph Biden, was inaugurated at the Capitol—however, at the same time, on that same stage in front of the Capitol, occurred a rather more historically significant event. That is, on January 18th, Kamala Harris became the first woman, and first black person, to ever take office as vice president of the United States. Her inauguration was the culmination of decades of women fighting to participate in politics, and a victory for the emancipation of women all over the world. Or is it? Harris’ inauguration, despite the joy and the tears shed by so many women on that day, has a caveat—and the caveat is that it might not be a victory for women at all.

Let it be known that vice president Harris is nothing if not a competent woman. A seasoned politician, she served as a United States senator and as attorney general of California prior to taking office as vice president. However, that is precisely the issue—despite her accomplishments and despite her competence, she was not elected. In fact, Harris initially ran as presidential candidate during the primary election, and wasn’t appointed as Biden’s running mate until after her poll ratings dropped down to single digits, essentially forcing her to drop out of the primaries. At its core, Harris’ appointment as vice president is the opposite of a triumph for the women’s cause; it is a bitter reminder that for women, the highest offices are unattainable unless given to them by men. 

Biden campaign field organiser Naava Ellenberg puts it eloquently in her own piece discussing the same issue: “Don’t tell me that Harris is proof that women can do anything. She is proof that, for now, we still can’t. If a woman as brilliant and qualified as she is can still only achieve her power by aligning herself with a white man, how are young women such as myself supposed to believe that the sky is the limit?” This nuance cannot be underestimated in its importance—until women are able to attain the highest government office through their own merit and not at the behest of men, can we truly say that the glass ceiling has been shattered? It is important that the feminist movement does not let the rush of a first female vice president of the United States placate it, or let us believe that the end of women’s oppression has been achieved.

This critical view of the situation begs consideration for another perspective; that is, the worth of the representation that Harris offers to the majority of women, to the working class. Much as the likes of Harris may be a source of inspiration for young girls and women, their oppression does not end with the admission of a handful of women into high governmental positions. Harris’ inauguration cannot, must not serve to distract us from the billions of women struggling across the world, for it is the fight for their emancipation upon which the foundations of the feminist movement rest. From a socialist perspective—a movement historically and intrinsically tied to feminism—democrat women often hailed as “sheroes”, seated comfortably among the upper echelons of society, scarcely represent the interests of the majority, i.e. the working class.

Much more remains to be said, but in essence, feminism cannot claim itself to champion women until it reaches out a hand to the most vulnerable women in our society—and modern feminists must be careful not to let its establishment idols shift the focus away from them, not even if they are considered a milestone for the women’s cause.