As a Black woman on a national stage debating a white man, Sen. Kamala Harris had to do more than offer her vision for America on Wednesday night.
Harris, the first woman of color chosen to join a major party ticket, was expected not only to follow the explicit rules of the vice presidential debate but also the unspoken rules of her gender and race. To be calm and collected in the face of disrespect, to resist emotionality, and as a Black woman, to especially resist anger.
Vice President Mike Pence was not tasked with walking that tightrope. He broke even the most basic rules, repeatedly trying to bulldoze Harris and ignore moderator Susan Page’s authority (who, despite the impression of some viewers, was able to give Harris and Pence nearly identical speaking time).
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Experts in gender and political science say Harris had to temper herself, police herself, to tread carefully in ways Pence did not. Many women who watched the debate saw an all-too familiar spectacle of sexism and racism.
“She had to prove last night that she was qualified to be president of the United States. And that’s one of the challenges that women do face in a different way than men … there is an assumption of qualifications that are given to men who run for office, and women have to prove their qualifications,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “Unfortunately, this is still the case for women, and especially with that racist trope of the angry Black woman, it’s particularly complicated for a woman of color.”
Harris was also facing a challenger who holds conservative views of women. Pence has said he doesn’t dine alone with women and women aides can’t stay late with him at work. In the late ’90s, he published an op-ed arguing women shouldn’t serve in the military.
“Reports about Pence’s practices around women suggest that much like Trump, women for him are not equals,” said C.J. Pascoe, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Oregon. “It is little surprise that he does not seem capable of treating Harris as a professional equal on the debate stage.”
A constant ‘calculus’
Harris’ position was unenviable because the playing field was never level. Harris, experts say, needed to be strong, but appropriately deferential. As a Black woman, she needed to especially avoid appearing bad-tempered. Not only did she need a command of the issues, but she had to also keep close command of herself.
“Here we are in 2020 and women and people of color are still confronted with these stereotypes. You have to think very hard all the time: How is this going to be taken? Am I smiling enough? Am I not smiling? Is my voice too high? Am I talking too fast? Am I appearing to be angry? Is what I’m wearing going to be seen as schoolmarmish or too sexy?” Walsh said. “When you are a woman running at the highest level, and you are a Black woman, there is this overlay of double standards that is really taxing and something that is part of the calculus all the time.”
Academic research suggests that Black women are disproportionately regarded by white audiences as too angry, too loud, or too aggressive. Harris had a fine line to walk.
Experts agree Harris had a solid debate performance – strong, forceful, knowledgeable – but the work of navigating sexist and racial stereotypes means she also could not be completely authentic, something Walsh said can ultimately hold women back since authenticity is often what voters seek.
On social media, users remarked that Pence at times appeared to be “mansplaining,” a term used to describe when a man explains something to a woman in a condescending way when he either doesn’t know anything about it or knows far less than the woman he is talking to.
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When Page asked about the killing of Breonna Taylor, Pence said it was an “insult” to police officers across the United States for Joe Biden and Harris to say there’s implicit bias in the criminal justice system.”
Harris was unequivocal in her response.
“I will not sit here and be lectured by the vice president on what it means to enforce the laws of our country. I’m the only one on the stage who has personally prosecuted everything from child sexual assault to homicide,” she said, referring to her time as a prosecutor.
Walsh said moments like that resonated, especially with women.
“A lot of women around the country could feel a certain level of mansplaining going on, and she responded to it in a forceful and clear way,” Walsh said.
Her body language under a microscope
Harris couldn’t say everything, especially as a Black woman debating a white man, so sometimes her face did the talking.
Her side-eye. Her stares. Her repeated head shakes and head tilts. And when body language would not suffice, when Pence tried to overpower her, she said in a measured voice: “Mr. Vice President, I”m speaking.”
Harris’ body language became the stuff of memes. Some said her facial expressions often conveyed more than her words. They were looks familiar to women who’ve been in the presence of men bent on propping themselves up by putting women down.
But those expressions also made her subject to criticism, with some users on Twitter calling them “immature” and “sophomoric.”
“Take it like a woman. Don’t make faces,” former “Today” host Megyn Kelly tweeted during the debate.
In the replies, journalist Elizabeth Vargas asked her to clarify the comment, to which Kelly replied: “Instead of ‘like a man.’ We can be stoic, too.”
Experts say this is a classic double standard.
“She can’t respond to every comment and it should be noted that he made faces, too, when there were things he disagreed with,” Walsh said. “He would mutter, he would shake his head. That’s what you do in a debate.”
Karla Holloway, who has taught African American studies and women’s studies at Duke University, said Kelly’s tweet was deeply offensive to Black women. She was endorsing silence under the guise of “stoicism.”
“Sen. Harris is too experienced in exercising her full personhood and making her perspectives apparent, in word, deed, and facial expressions,” she said. “The question is, can the Megyns handle it? There’s no room for silence anywhere on our bodies in 2020.”
Pence repeatedly interrupted Harris and Page. According to CBS, Pence interrupted Harris 10 times, twice as often as Harris spoke over him. Numerous studies show women are interrupted more than men and that men dominate conversations.
“Pence repeatedly violated the rules,” said Tali Mendelberg, a political scientist at Princeton University and author of “The Silent Sex: Gender, Deliberation and Institutions.”
“He regularly took significantly more than his allotted time and talked at length over the moderator and Harris,” she said. “Men are often socialized to display dominance in public, and taking more than their share of floor time is part of that package.”
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Pascoe said Pence’s gendered behavior is familiar to women. Women encounter it in workplaces and board rooms, at home and at school. But there is also a racial dynamic at play.
“Research indicates that white male students in classrooms take up a disproportionate amount of verbal space, dominating classroom discussions,” Pascoe said. “What we saw last night in the debate is a logical extension of how we socialize our children regarding whose voices matter and whose don’t. It also means, that like many women of color, Harris likely has a long history of developing strategies to counter white men who interrupt, talk over, or otherwise dismiss her ideas.”
Debates are defined by denials and attacks, but there were elements of Pence’s debate performance that for some women felt like psychological abuse.
“That was quite the display of gaslighting, with his repeating ‘you’re not entitled to your own facts,’ immediately followed by making up his own ‘facts,'” said Sherry Hamby, a University of the South psychology professor and founding editor of the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Violence.
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Gaslighting is a form of emotional manipulation in which the perpetrator attempts, consciously or not, to make their victim feel crazy. Kate Abramson, an associate professor of philosophy at Indiana University Bloomington, wrote in a 2014 paper that while gaslighting isn’t necessarily sexist, women are more frequently the targets of gaslighting and men more often engage in it.
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research report “The Status of Black Women in the United States” found black women “experience significantly higher rates of psychological abuse – including humiliation, insults, name-calling, and coercive control.”
Sociologists said Pence’s behavior can also be understood through the model of DARVO, an acronym used to describe a strategy of abusers to gaslight their victims, standing for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender.”
“There were some breathtaking moments, even by debate standards,” Hamby said. “When Pence refused to move on to the next topic and Susan Page tried to get him to stick to the ground rules, he portrayed himself as not being allowed to respond – the victim – instead of someone who was openly flouting the debate rules and who knows full well that, according to any standard debate rules, he wasn’t going to get the last word every time.”
What voters think
Political experts said the real test is what happens next.
“The ultimate arbiter is the public,” Mendelberg said. “Most people do value playing by rules of reciprocity and fairness. Some voters will ask themselves whether they’re willing to tolerate leaders who bulldoze over the rules of electoral competition.”
Jaclyn Friedman, an educator and author of the book, “Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All,” said post-debate coverage was as problematic as the debate itself.
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“Today the talk is about how ‘normal,’ ‘civil’ and ‘polished’ (Pence) was, and how men especially found him convincing,” Friedman said. “Meanwhile Sen. Harris, a Black and Indian woman, is being framed as ‘aggressive’ and ‘abrasive’ for staking a claim to her time and to the truth. The disparity lays bare how much credibility we offer white men even when they are in the middle of proving they don’t deserve it, and how much we punish women – especially women of color – for daring to lead.”
Walsh said what the debate ultimately showed was just how out of touch the Trump-Pence ticket remains with women. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday found the biggest recent declines for Trump were among seniors and suburban women, who are now backing Biden 62%-35% and 58%-33%, respectively.
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On Thursday morning, Trump called Harris “a monster.”
“This just reinforces the feeling that these two white men don’t understand, don’t see women, don’t give women the respect that they deserve,” Walsh said.