As Vice President Harris has taken office, I have been reminded of Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own.” Woolf argued that if women were to become authors, they required space, both literally and metaphorically. Each woman writer needed a room of her own in which to hear herself think and generate her work. Woolf further argued that these women deserved a dedicated space in the male-dominated canon of English literature.
Last month, Kamala Harris moved into the vice president’s office in the West Wing of the White House, still adorned with former Vice President Pence’s decor. For the first time in history, a woman has earned her place in the previously exclusively male role of Vice President of the United States. Yet it remains highly uncertain whether Harris will be given, or will take, the space to shape her Vice Presidency.
Vice President Harris’s quest is complicated by several factors, the first of which is President Biden’s own experience on Capitol Hill and in the White House. Obama relied on then-Vice President Biden’s counsel for a wide array of topics, ranging from critical foreign policy questions on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Russia to major domestic initiatives, including the economic Recovery Act of 2009. Biden exercised the power of what Joel Goldstein calls the “White House Vice-Presidency:” “the West Wing office, the weekly lunches [with the President], the right to attend Obama’s meetings, and inclusion in the paper flow.” Goldstein details in The White House Vice Presidency, “Biden wanted to be ‘the last person in the room’ to advise Obama and to retain flexibility to dedicate his time to ‘its highest and best use,’ an arrangement that Obama accepted.”
Now as President, Biden must make the same arrangement with Vice President Harris. While she has reportedly been accorded the same access as Biden had as VP, initial signs are not confidence-inspiring regarding her true vice presidential power. In terms of international relations, so far, he has given her the lowest-hanging fruits: a conversation with the head of the World Health Organization and another with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In Biden’s much-discussed speech on foreign policy at the State Department on Feb. 5, he said nothing about her possible role in international diplomacy. He only mentioned her name once in oblique fashion when he referred to the “Biden-Harris administration.” Not much room for Vice President Harris there, it seems, not even in name.
Domestically, her engagements are equally unclear. She has given some interviews (with embarrassing hiccups) on the America Rescue Plan for COVID-19 relief. While she cast the tie-breaking vote on the relief plan’s $1.9 billion budget, Harris has said that she would prefer not to use her vote and that the evenly-split Senate could “instead find common ground and do the work of the American people.” Many attributed the demise of her campaign in the Democratic primary to this same type of soft-stepping — failing to articulate clear positions on key issues and to assert leadership in her divided campaign team. To hold the same degree of authority in domestic policy as her predecessors, she will need to change tack.
As a Black, South Asian, daughter of immigrants, Vice President Harris also faces gender biases, racism and xenophobia. Harris can certainly speak to these forces since she has triumphed over them time and again in the course of her successful career. Yet, even here, Biden has stepped out in front of her, appearing as the primary advocate in these issues when signing the Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government on Inauguration day and addressing the disproportionate economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women (particularly women of color).
In her 1983 book “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” African-American writer Alice Walker critiqued Virginia Woolf’s feminist essay as white and privileged. Acknowledging the barriers posed by racism, sexism and classism, Walker rightly celebrated the largely private ways that Black women expressed themselves, created beauty, and fostered good in the world. But Vice President Harris is not, and should not be, confined to express herself in the private sphere as Black women have for centuries. She is the first woman Vice President of the United States. She must be bold in voicing her definition of the “highest and best uses” of her time. She must confidently take her space in the White House and on the world stage. She must strategize on her strengths and growth objectives, then chart a path forward that allows her to flourish in her role. She must insist that Biden and others — in fact, all of us — say her name. Empowered by the American people, by those around her including President Biden, and by herself, she should inhabit the Vice Presidency in a way that is uniquely her own and that paves the way for the many women, and women of color, who will hold this public office in the future.
Dr. Christy Pichichero is an author, activist, and professor of History and French Studies at George Mason University with more than 20 years of experience in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and anti-racism work. She is a thought leader and influencer in higher education through her diversity consulting.