As the vice presidential nominees sparred on a debate stage this week, feminists took to social media like it was their own spin room. The moderator was letting Vice President Mike Pence talk over Democratic nominee US Senator Kamala Harris, they argued. A Fox News guest commentator had posted a sexist tweet about Harris, and they demanded his ouster. Even journalist Katie Couric pushed back at male pundits questioning whether Harris came off as “likable.”
“Are you guys serious? Have you learned nothing?” Couric asked on Twitter. "Was @Mike_Pence “likable”?
Female voters have learned quite a bit since 2016, they revealed this week, as they pounced on any whiff of unequal treatment of Harris, the first woman of color on a major-party ticket. Having watched Hillary Clinton get pummeled by misogynistic tropes and memes four years ago when she was the first female major-party nominee for president, many women are making it clear: This time, they’re not having it.
Anticipating that Harris will face even more vicious attacks due to the double-barreled biases that Black women experience known as misogynoir, women’s groups banded together this summer to bolster her. Combining their efforts and $10 million in digital advertising, four political action committees — BlackPAC, Planned Parenthood Votes, PACRONYM, and WOMEN VOTE!, an affiliate of Emily’s List — are amplifying positive Harris messaging in key battleground states.
“This level of collaboration is new,” said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC. “These are the lessons from 2016, without a doubt.”
They have their work cut out for them.
President Donald Trump, known for belittling caricatures of his opponents, already has described Harris as “angry” and as a “madwoman” and called her primary debate performance “nasty,” the same term he memorably flung at Clinton in 2016.
In a phone interview on Thursday morning on the Fox Business Channel, the president called her “totally unlikable,” and even, twice, a “monster.”
“It’s obviously an attempt to dehumanize her," said Shropshire. "It’s an attempt to play into the stereotype of the loud, brash, mean, Black woman that is unhinged and scary.”
To try to counter Trump’s images before they solidify, the political action committees began running positive ads over the summer in key battleground states. Prominent women in politics put media outlets on notice as well, urging them to give thoughtful consideration to their coverage of women and candidates of color and avoid perpetuating stereotypes.
TIME’S UP Now, the political arm of the advocacy and legal-defense organization formed in response to the #MeToo movement, launched a nonpartisan, rapid response movement, the “We Have Her Back" campaign, aimed at defending Harris and other candidates from sexist attacks and calling out media organizations that perpetuate stereotypes.
Last week, to illustrate its argument, TIME’S UP Now released a report examining the media coverage of male and female vice presidential announcements, comparing coverage of Harris’s nomination this year with 2016, when Pence faced off against Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine.
One quarter of the coverage of Harris included racist and sexist stereotypes like the “angry black woman” trope, the report found. Adjectives used to describe Harris — including “nasty,” “extreme,” “phony,” and “mean” — skewed more negative than those used to characterize Pence and Kaine, who were portrayed as “safe” and “experienced” — if uninspiring — choices. And 36 percent of media coverage on Harris’s nomination focused on her ancestry — alluding to the false birther allegations Trump attached to former president Barack Obama and potentially creating misunderstandings about who is “legitimately American," the report pointed out.
Women watching this week’s vice presidential debate came away with very different reactions than men, according to a CNN Instant Poll. Sixty-nine percent of women said Harris did the better job in the debate, compared with 30 percent of women who favored Pence. Men polled also favored Harris, but barely — 48 percent compared with 46 percent of men who thought Pence won.
That said, many viewers — including some notable women — expressed negative reactions to Harris’s facial expressions, and found her squinting, eye-rolling, and head-shaking off-putting. Former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly urged Harris mid-debate on Twitter to “Take it like a woman. Don’t make faces.” (That criticism also prompted a flurry of criticism, including hateful attacks against Kelly and references to the sexual harassment complaints at Fox News.)
But liberals were primed to react protectively, after four years of resistance to Trump’s presidency and a newly honed awareness that women face different standards in politics — including the oft-mentioned but very subjective quality of “likability” that dogged both of Hillary Clinton’s campaigns for president. By this election cycle, when US Senator Elizabeth Warren was hit with the same question immediately upon announcing her candidacy for president, voters and political analysts were prepared and challenged the premise as sexist. Warren turned it around to raise money.
Throughout the vice presidential debate, women piped up on social media, complaining that Pence was steamrolling the conversation, ignoring the moderator’s questions, and interrupting and talking over his opponent. But by the night’s end, CNN reported that the candidates' speaking time was nearly exactly equal.
“Even though Female Twitter was ready to jump, I don’t think they had to jump too much, which was refreshing,” said Betsy Fischer Martin, executive director of the Women and Politics Institute at the American University School of Public Affairs. “Yes, there were interruptions, but there wasn’t anything major. She managed to hold her own, which was her job to do.”
Despite the gendered viewing, said Fischer Martin, Harris was able to navigate the minefield of double standards for women in politics — to be confident but not arrogant, and firm but not angry. Though Pence often exceeded his time limits, Harris demanded more time, posing a lesson for women in all fields, she said.
“You’ve got to stand up and say, ‘I’d like equal time on that,'” she said. “She did a really good job of doing that and sticking up for herself.”