Ladies’ Night at the DNC

Kamala Harris’ big night was also the Democrats’ invocation of girl power. In the hours before the Democratic National Convention began on Wednesday, all I could think of was that stupid glass ceiling.

You know the one: Hillary Clinton put 18 million metaphorical cracks in it back in 2008. Her face symbolically shattered it at the 2016 convention. It hung over everyone’s head at the Javits Center on the night of Clinton’s presumed victory, until state after state turned red and those almighty symbolic roof panels started to feel more like a cruel joke: Nope, not broken.

Democrats are, notably, not running a female nominee this time around, and the memory of that much-talked about ceiling is probably why: Reportedly, even when Democratic primary voters preferred female candidates, they were more likely to vote for men, explaining that they didn’t believe their neighbors would vote for a woman. The heavy-handed symbolism of the Clinton campaign seems like hubris now. Yet the Democratic ticket does include a female VP — Kamala Harris, who would not only be the first female VP, but the first black and Asian VP as well — and the night leading up to her acceptance speech was pretty transparently (ahem) centered around girl power.

The Women’s Caucus met beforehand; a panel on “Bold Leadership: Women Governors Leading” was part of the pre-show. The night itself was stacked with some of the most high-profile female leaders the Democratic party has ever produced — Elizabeth Warren, Nancy Pelosi, Clinton herself — leading in to Harris’ address. (Also Billie Eilish, because no gathering of feminists over 40 is complete without someone’s teenage daughter wandering through and rolling her eyes at it.) It says something that, at first glance, Barack Obama’s presence on the schedule almost felt tacked-on — a little something for the fellas.

So how, exactly, does the DNC build a night around female leadership without evoking 2016, or all those ceilings left uncracked? How do you get Democrats hype to vote for a half-female ticket, without simultaneously reminding them that Clinton’s suffragette-white pantsuits and campaign videos about the women’s rights movement were a prelude to disaster? Could the symbolism, this time around, possibly be any more over-the-top?

The convention showed a smarter and more complex understanding of women’s political role.

The answer, it seemed, was to steer into the skid. The glass ceiling was invoked for the first time a little before the midway point, when Kerry Washington mentioned Hillary Clinton cracking it; Nancy Pelosi’s intro mentioned the “marble ceiling” she had split to become the first female Speaker of the House. There was a long and earnest segment praising women as “troublemakers,” with lots of unrelated clips — the Women’s March! Ruth Bader Ginsburg saying something! — and an over-enthusiastic narrator all but saying “you go, girl.” Both Pelosi and Clinton delivered their remarks in suffragette white pantsuits.

Yet, in between those more obvious appeals, the convention showed a smarter and more complex understanding of women’s political role. There were long nods to women’s movements and “women’s issues,” particularly during a sobering segment on domestic violence and Biden’s role in cosponsoring the Violence Against Women Act. But it did so most convincingly by pointing to the key role women play in all social and political movements. In particular, it focused on mothers: The segment on gun control centered DeAndra Dycus, whose son was disabled by a gunshot to the head. The segment on immigration policy told the story of a mother who had been separated from her daughter. This is smart stuff — politically engaged “rage moms” drove the midterms and will be necessary to any Democratic victory — but it also pointed to a future where “women’s issues” aren’t siloed off from “serious” politics.

Pelosi’s and Clinton’s speeches were both overtly aimed at women who care about female representation, an attempt to reassure women of a certain age and demographic that, despite giving the nomination to a man, Democrats were very much #StillWithHer. Yet both speeches were also backward-looking moments. Clinton pleaded with her audience not to make 2020 “another shoulda-woulda-coulda” election. In a strangely tragic touch, she was not only wearing her 2016 pantsuit, but had reverted to the flip haircut she wore as America’s most-loathed First Lady, as if every incarnation of Hillary were speaking to us at once. When she mentioned Kamala Harris facing “slings and arrows” from the press, you remembered her vowing not to bake cookies.

Then, there was that Obama speech. Barack Obama made his career with a speech at the DNC, as a young man, and tonight, he too was backward-looking, visibly near tears as he pleaded with voters not to be cynical about the system, to keep voting no matter how many times it failed them. Recalling the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, Obama said that “if anyone had a right to believe this democracy didn’t work & couldn’t work, it was those [Black] Americans.” It was impossible to forget that the man who is currently in the Oval Office rose to political prominence by spreading a racist lie about him. For the moment, you could believe that no-one felt the tragedy of Trump’s victory more than Barack Obama.

Yet tragedy doesn’t compel votes. Hope does, as Obama knows full well. To my mind, there was more power in Gabrielle Giffords talking about the “grit and determination” it took to recover from a gunshot wound to the head, or Elizabeth Warren making the case that “child care is part of the basic infrastructure of this nation,” than in any peppy montage intended to reassure us that women are people. Feminists have been forced to debate the question of whether women deserve power for so long that we’ve forgotten what women might do with it.

Which leads us to the woman of the hour, Kamala Harris. Her introduction was not at all subtle about the representational gains: We saw little girls of color talking about how Kamala was a “role model,” and a mother with her little girl asking her if she would be “the next Vice President of the United States.” (It’s a little depressing that aspirations for our girls stop at “Vice” now, but that’s 2020 for you.) Yet when Harris took the stage, her nods to feminism and gender were integrated into a much broader vision. Her mention of the Black maternal mortality crisis, a “women’s issue” that is doubly invisible for affecting Black women, was radical — it was the sort of issue that would not have made it to a major convention speech even a few years ago — but also casual, being mentioned within a larger point about systemic medical racism. Harris wasn’t just there to be “the woman” or “a woman,” but to be her own specific self.

Seeing women speak to their political issues with passion serves the cause more than watching them justify their right to be there. The greatest representational gains often don’t feel radical in the moment, because they rest on decades or centuries of social progress. Democrats still think in terms of glass ceilings and marble ceilings, and yes, for the foreseeable future, the big one will stay unbroken. Yet, rather than forcing women to keep symbolically ramming their heads against it, we might one day enter a future where we don’t honor the existence of the limit at all.

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