By Jill Filipovic* – The Guardian
As a black woman on the national stage, she knew she had to walk a thread-thin line. She did so perfectly
There was no real contest in the vice-presidential debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence. Harris wiped the floor with him. Pence ignored, patronized and talked over the two women in the room. Her strategy was cool competence. His was sexist entitlement.
This debate was less high-pitch without Donald Trump ranting and raving on stage. But it was frustrating in its own way – especially for any woman who has ever been in a room with an interjecting, condescending man. Pence repeatedly interrupted Harris, something she rarely did to him; he repeatedly talked over moderator Susan Page of USA Today when she told him his time was up; he repeatedly flouted the rules he had previously agreed to. The disrespect of women was tangible, and it happened over and over.
Harris had no such leeway to bulldoze either her opponent or the moderator. As a black woman on the national stage, she knew she had to walk a thread-thin line: Be likable, but authoritative; strong, but not “aggressive”. Interrupting Pence or even Page posed serious – and sexist – consequences with an electorate that has never seen a woman in the White House. But for better or worse, Harris is used to the Trump circus, and so she walked that tightrope deftly. She was tough, assertive, funny and charming, while Pence was patronizing and stiff.
Still, their interactions were enraging to watch – and familiar. If Pence and Trump want to win women, it was a bad showing for the vice-president. Already, Trump faces the largest gender gap since pollsters began recording the gender gap, with women overwhelmingly throwing their weight behind Joe Biden and Harris. Black women continue to be the steadiest Democratic voters out there. For all of the talk of Trump doing better with Hispanics, he’s actually doing better than he did in 2016 with Hispanic men – Hispanic women are overwhelmingly for Biden. And Trump has lost significant ground with white women. College-educated white women support Biden by huge margins, but Trump is also down among the working-class white women who, in 2016, were his strongest female supporters. Women know, viscerally, what it’s like to be in a room with a man like Mike Pence.
If Pence and Trump want to win women, it was a bad showing for the vice-president … Women know, viscerally, what it’s like to be in a room with a man like Mike Pence
Of course, Pence was on the vice-presidential ticket in 2016, too, and women also know, viscerally, what it’s like to be in a room with a man like Donald Trump. And while Hillary Clinton won women handily, a disturbing number of women – most of them white women – nevertheless cast their ballots for an aggressive, incompetent accused sexual assailant. Living through sexism may make you more attuned to it, but it can also make you more accepting of it as “normal” or “just the way men are”. This certainly seems to be the case among many conservative women. Pence, memorably, does not permit himself to be alone with any woman who is not his wife, a woman he calls “mother”. That certainly prevents women who work for Pence from having the same opportunities as men. And it suggests that Pence does not believe he can trust himself – a disturbing insight into his psyche and his ability to perform the duties of his job.
At the debate, Pence was also cowardly and avoidant. Page asked remarkably pointed, straightforward questions; Pence barely answered a single one. Instead, he offered word salad or tangents related to previous questions or just flat-out lies. On everything from abortion to national security to Covid-19 to healthcare, Pence was congenitally incapable of giving a direct answer to a direct question. Harris, by contrast, was lucid, clear and straightforward. She’s a politician, too, and she also danced around the answers to some questions. But as a general rule, she answered. As a general rule, Pence did not.
No, Pence did not shout and sputter and bluster and refuse to shut up like his boss did at the presidential debate. But consider how low we’ve set the bar, and that Mike Pence barely cleared it.
*Jill Filipovic is the author of the The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness
Kamala Harris and Mike Pence spar over COVID-19 and economy
Democrat Kamala Harris and Republican Vice President Mike Pence have clashed over the country’s response to coronavirus and President Donald Trump’s economic policies. The pair also argued over foreign policy.