November 7, 2020 will forever more be a historic day in the United States of America with Senator Kamala Harris being elected as the first bi-racial woman (the first woman period) Vice President.
Kamala’s story represents the American dream at its best making possible, what to that point, felt unreachable. A bi-racial woman, with immigrant parents and raised primarily by a single mother, ascends to among the most powerful leadership positions across the world.
This historic milestone is also Biden’s story. It’s about Biden elevating a woman – that many considered a controversial choice – to join him on the Democratic ticket. There are two important elements of this male ally story.
1) The first is a powerful man offering a woman an amazing professional opportunity as well as sharing credit and the spotlight. Biden gave Kamala the chance to make history in tapping her to be his running mate.
In his acceptance speech he explicitly recognized the critical support of women of color in securing the win. There’s no doubt Biden recognized Harris’ role in supercharging the existing strong support among women of color for the Democratic ticket.
Departing from tradition, in celebrating their joint victory Biden positioned Kamala as first up in introducing themselves to the American people. Typically, President-Elects accepting the nomination don’t share the spotlight in this way.
2) The second important aspect of this male ally story is the power of change and growth. Most men don’t become male allies based on pure natural ability. Yes, some men are more tuned-in to a sense of fair play and justice and some may have a talent for developing others, but most men develop their skill as male allies through learning and practice.
The seed may be there but like any skill, effectively supporting women’s professional development requires that men learn what works. In many ways the masculine model does not apply. Male allies also learn far more about their own behaviors and demonstrate an ability to be self-reflective and to learn from their mistakes.
Much has been written about Joe Biden’s gaffes and missteps, along with his many accomplishments (like co-sponsoring the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 under the Clinton administration).
It’s hard not to recoil while watching Biden’s conduct during the Senate confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas when he joined the chorus of white male lawmakers in disrespecting and mistreating Anita Hill. It’s challenging not to feel frustrated reading about the small group of women who’ve shared stories of Biden acting in ways that made them uncomfortable. His behavior was characterized as tone-deaf and inconsiderate.
While not excusing Biden’s sexist behavior, it’s helpful to focus on his ability to learn and change for the better. Biden seems far more aware of how his behaviors, including his physically demonstrative style, can negatively affect women. As importantly, he’s been able to move beyond his knee-jerk defensiveness (on the debate stage) to determine what could be learned from a challenging interaction with an assertive woman.
In June of 2019 during the Democratic debate when the candidates were discussing race, Biden used his example of working with segregationist colleagues as evidence of his ability to work across the aisle. Kamala responded:
The media headlines used words like vicious exchange and Harris attacks Biden to characterize the interaction. The fact that just a year later Biden tapped Harris to be his running mate says much about him as a man and as a person.
Biden’s posture, since naming Harris, has demonstrated a clear partnership rather than treating her like a behind-the-scenes extra. Feeling respected for their professional strengths, and being treated as equals, are what women too often find lacking in their interactions with powerful men.
Biden is a great male ally example not because he’s always understood sexism, or recognized it in his own conduct, or because he’s made no mistakes. It is because his understanding of gender (and other forms) of inequity continues to deepen and because he moves beyond learning to positive action.
As a result, history has been made as a bi-racial woman has shattered the second-highest glass ceiling in the land.