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The #GirlBoss Contradiction: Holding Kamala Harris Accountable

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at MSU chapter.

I remember where I was and what I was doing when Joe Biden announced his Vice Presidential pick: I was at work, checking the time on my phone and seeing a landslide of news notifications proclaiming Senator Kamala Harris as the Democractic nominee for Vice President of the United States. My initial reaction was one of disappointment and the dim vindication of having your expectations fulfilled when you were wishing for something else. I didn’t support Kamala during the primaries, finding her to be too moderate for my taste and concerningly defendant of a less than satisfactory prosecutorial record. Similar to many progressive women on that day, I found myself wondering how to balance celebrating the history making achievement of the potential first female, black, and South Asian VP with my hesitations and worries about someone with Harris’s track record being a heartbeat away from the presidency. Now that the election is all but certified and the Biden/Harris ticket is on its way to the White House, that question still sits in front of me whenever I see a headline or a social media post about the glass ceiling being shattered.

The delicate step sequence of holding female politicians accountable didn’t start with Kamala Harris – it goes back to Hillary Clinton and – less notably – Sarah Palin. Governor Palin, widely considered to be the Founding Mother of the American Tea Party movement, was Senator John McCain’s running mate against Barack Obama in the 2012 election cycle. Known for her extremist views on everything from foreign policy to the separation of church and state, very few Americans were celebrating Palin as a political advancement for women. In the case of Sarah Palin, the nation was wondering if it should acknowledge the step forward that was putting a woman close to the Republican nomination or if it should devote itself solely to critiquing her wacky behavior and policy stances via an SNL skit. In 2016, people were wrestling with whether to throw a party for the possibility of the first female president or if they ought to keep Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings in their minds and conversations about politics. This is all relatively new territory for American women – we haven’t had female politicians, let alone women of color, get this close to the highest office in the country prior to a little under ten years ago. So what is the answer? Do we celebrate when women get this far, or do we keep our wits about us and react with the measured realism of people who know that there’s no such thing as a perfect politician? The answer is both.

Achievement is integral to social justice movements: people are more motivated to fight for change when they get to celebrate a victory every now and then that shows how their work is paying off. It’s normal and valid to want to take to the streets (or to party from home with your bubble!) in the wake of the election results giving us our first female Vice President. I didn’t want Biden or Harris to be the names heading to the White House, but I still baked a cake and popped a bottle of sparkling grape juice with my friends at home to celebrate the Democratic victory. I feel motivated and optimistic about the future of progressive organizing, because it’s much easier to make change under an administration that views you as an ally than one that views you as the subject of a widespread conspiracy to instate authoritarian socialism in the United States. I’m relieved, I’m reassured, I feel like I’m finally able to take a break. But it’s also important to remember that the people we’ve elected to office, especially the Vice President-elect, are more than their achievements and broken glass ceilings. 

In the days following the election results, social media was doing what my friends call the “girlbossification” of Kamala Harris. Inspired by the #GirlBoss trend, it refers to when people on social media, in their effort to celebrate powerful women, gloss over the realities, mistakes, and negative aspects of female leaders. In the case of Kamala, it was Instagram, Twitter, and Tiktok lighting up with videos of the new Veep stepping off of planes in her signature Converse, photos of little girls dressed up as Senator Harris for Halloween, and women from all walks of life putting Kamala Harris on the shaky pedestal of a #GirlBoss. And while we all deserve to celebrate our achievements, it’s not fair to ourselves or to women in politics to treat female leaders as two-dimensional figures of victory. Women in positions of power need to be held accountable the same as men. It’s not anti-feminist or anti-progressive to grill Kamala Harris on her prosecutorial record – it might actually be one of the most feminist, progressive things we can all do. We cannot assume that just because a woman holds power in the political sphere that she is going to use it for the good of all women. Yes, it is a massive victory when we install women in high offices of government, but how they govern is arguably much more important than how they were elected. It’s smart and pragmatic to hold Kamala Harris to the same high standards to which we plan to hold Joe Biden. Madam Vice President doesn’t get to skip the hard questions or the awkward conversations just because we’re happy she’s there at all. So knowing all of this, what should people, especially women, do to make sure that Kamala Harris is more than just a #GirlBoss, but a well-rounded and accountable leader?

Our work starts with learning. Learning about Harris’s record in both state office and the US Senate, learning about the decisions she’s made, the convictions she’s held, and how she has used her positions of power. When we see something that we think is inequitable or wrong, it is our responsibility to bring it to light and to make sure that people include it within their holistic understanding of the Vice President. We can do this through social media, through activism and organizing, and simply through our conversations with the people in our lives. If they’re doing their jobs (or even if they aren’t), elected officials take note of the voices of dissent and protest within society. If enough people are informed and expressing concerns to female leaders, those women in power will react to it in some way. It’s worth it to balance accountability with celebration. Hopefully, come January, Vice President Harris will respond to women holding her accountable with action that benefits all of us and which rectifies her past shortcomings.

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