No men allowed: With Biden’s VP shortlist, women are finally gaining political ground

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Amid all of the speculation about Joe Biden’s pick for vice president, we know for sure who is not under consideration: men.

The 2020 race marks the first time that the vice presidential contenders vetted for a major party ticket will be entirely female. Biden’s shortlist establishes women as unquestionably qualified for positions of leadership and power.  

During the nation’s first 200 years, a woman’s name on a presidential ballot was unthinkable. The universe changed in the 1970s. Rumors spread that Gerald Ford might consider Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Carla Hills as his running mate. But Hills quickly dismissed the idea when questioned by a reporter for The Washington Post in December 1975: “I don’t think you have to hold your breath on that.” 

Walter Mondale wouldn’t take no for an answer. He was the first presidential nominee to choose a woman for the Democratic ticket, after courting five finalists: Tom Bradley (then mayor of Los Angeles), Henry Cisneros (then mayor of San Antonio), Dianne Feinstein (then mayor of San Francisco), Geraldine Ferraro (then House of Representatives member for New York), and Gary Hart (then Senate member for Colorado). When Ferraro’s selection was announced in the summer of 1984, the country took a halting step forward, recognizing that no good case could be made for exempting half the population from access to reins of power.

Decades later, when John McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for his running mate in 2008, pundits were stunned. Before that fateful moment, McCain’s slate had included only men. Both major parties now were on record that a woman was qualified to serve a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.

There is good reason to ask why women have rarely been shortlisted — let alone selected — for this vital role.

It’s not as if women had historically shunned political life. Marietta Stow, the first female vice presidential candidate to appear on an official ballot, joined the National Equal Rights Party ticket with Belva Lockwood for president in 1884. Lockwood, the first woman admitted to practice law before the United States Supreme Court, and Stow, a politician and civil rights activist, garnered some 4,000 votes, all from men. Ironically, they were barred from casting a vote for their own candidacies. The 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote, was not ratified until decades later, in 1920.

Shortlists are often generated not to vet candidates sincerely but to create the appearance of diversity as an end in itself. One of the most glaring examples resides in the chronicles of President Nixon’s Supreme Court appointments. Faced with two simultaneous vacancies in 1971, Nixon leaked six names, including two women: Sylvia Bacon, a judge in Washington, D.C., and Mildred Lillie, a judge in California. Publicly, Nixon asked the American Bar Association (ABA) to assess Lillie’s qualifications, which was customarily a precursor to nomination. But Nixon’s motive was cynical, seeing her merely as a tool to entice women’s votes for his re-election.

Privately, Nixon had already written Lillie off: “I don’t think a woman should be in any government job whatever. I mean, I really don’t … because they are too ‘erratic’ and ‘emotional,’” he told his advisers. He also declared, “I don’t think a woman should ever be allowed to vote even.” (We know this thanks to the release of Oval Office tapes and White House counsel John Dean’s book recounting these conversations.) Nixon hoped the ABA would “take us off the hook” by rating her as “unqualified” (which it did). 

Ultimately, two men were confirmed: lawyer Lewis Powell and assistant attorney general William Rehnquist, who had carried Mildred Lillie’s suitcase for her when she interviewed with Nixon for a seat on the court. Nixon boasted in a speech before the National Federation of Republican Women on Oct. 22, 1971, that his consideration of women was, itself, a modicum of progress: “While I know that a great number in this audience, including my wife, felt very strongly that not only should a woman be considered but that a woman should be appointed, let me say that at least we have made a beginning.” 

Biden has assured that his shortlist will not be manipulated that way. His running mate will be a woman. No men need apply. After more than 40 all-male shortlists for vice presidential candidates, it is about time to have one comprised only of women.

Biden’s list will arguably include the most qualified cohort for the vice presidency ever. Among the names frequently mentioned, all are lawyers. Three are United States senators, each of whom excelled before serving in that elite body. Elizabeth Warren oversaw the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and taught at Harvard Law School. Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris were prosecutors, and Harris was California’s attorney general. Gretchen Whitmer, a frequent target of President Trump, rose through the Michigan House of Representatives and Senate before her decisive win to secure the governor’s office in 2018.

There’s a lesson, here, for anyone crafting a shortlist — whether it’s vice presidents, judges, CEOs, or other positions of power. Women have entered professional life in numbers equal to men for decades but there has been no corresponding ascension at the top of these fields. Biden’s all-female shortlist makes the case that now is the time to intentionally champion women for high echelons of leadership.

Renee Knake is a law professor and an award-winning author. She holds the Doherty Chair in Legal Ethics at the University of Houston Law Center where she teaches ethics, constitutional law, and a seminar on gender, power, law and leadership. Her book “Shortlisted: Women in the Shadows of the Supreme Court” (New York University Press) will debut in May 2020. 

Tags 2020 presidential election Amy Klobuchar Democratic Party vice presidential candidate selection Dianne Feinstein Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Gretchen Whitmer Joe Biden John McCain

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