Kamala Harris Shows Women Can Thrive In Politics Doing Things Their Own WayRoundup
tags: womens history, 2020 Election, Kamala Harris
Kimberly A. Hamlin is a NEH Public Scholar, an associate professor of history at Miami University in Ohio and author of Free Thinker: Sex, Suffrage, and the Extraordinary Life of Helen Hamilton Gardener.
Kamala D. 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.
Where 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 Douglas Emhoff and became “Momala” to his two children from a previous marriage. During Harris’s 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 news media, 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. These accusations stung not because they were untrue (though some certainly were) but because they were so unfair. “My judges preach against ‘free love’ openly,” she wrote, “and practice it secretly.”
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 her primary job must remain that of wife. 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.” This allowed women to seek power under the guise of fulfilling their husband’s ambitions rather than their own. Their status as widows made them acceptable because they had once been wives and forestalled any discussions of sexuality as press coverage generally presented these women as beyond sex.