Kamala Harris’s Nomination Reopens the Wounds of 2016

Why having a woman vice-presidential candidate is historic—and painful for young feminists

John Locher / AP

The morning before Kamala Harris became the Democratic nominee for vice president, I met Amanda Litman at the Javits Center in New York City, a mammoth building near the Hudson River made almost entirely of glass. Four years ago, Litman spent Election Night here, waiting excitedly in a holding area with other staffers on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The intended metaphor was not subtle: Clinton was to declare her victory as America’s first woman president beneath a literal glass ceiling, shattering the most notorious gender barrier in politics.

When Clinton lost, Litman, who served as Clinton’s email director, felt more than just professional defeat. She believed the election was about proving that a woman similar to herself—often described as too ambitious, too much, or too loud—could succeed in America. “If you had asked me the next morning, ‘Will we ever have a woman president?’ I would have stopped crying hard enough to tell you to fuck off,” Litman told me. “It felt unimaginable.”

These days, the Javits Center—still glass, still not shattered, and what happened to all those Election Night balloons that never dropped?—has become even more of a poisoned metaphor. This spring, as New York City became the global epicenter of the pandemic, the Army Corps of Engineers retrofitted the conference center into a temporary field hospital, where doctors treated more than 1,000 COVID-19 patients. Most entrances to the building have now been sealed shut. Men in military fatigues guard a formidable-looking security area off 34th Street. On the morning I met Litman there, the wide avenues around the building, normally chaotic with honking taxis and daredevil drivers, were apocalyptically empty. The city, and the country, felt resigned to a collective standstill.

Harris’s nomination is historic: She is the first Black woman, the first Asian American woman, and the first graduate of a historically Black college or university to join a major party’s presidential ticket. If Joe Biden wins in November, she’ll be America’s first woman vice president. But this milestone is bittersweet for people like Litman, who can’t help feeling cynical after living through Donald Trump’s presidency, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic collapse that followed. “I haven’t really wrapped my head around how it will feel to watch a woman accept the nomination for vice president,” Litman told me as we sat on a bench by the river, tears welling over her black face mask. “I can’t let myself think about it. It’s too hard.”

Since she was a little girl, Litman has been obsessed with getting women elected to national office. In high school, she wrote a paper about Geraldine Ferraro, who in 1984 became the first female major-party candidate for vice president. Litman wrote her college thesis about women running against other women. When she graduated from Northwestern University in 2012, she made every career choice with an eye toward getting a job on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign. But after Clinton’s loss, she began to see the country’s focus on national elections as misguided. Litman and a fellow political operative, Ross Morales Rocketto, started Run for Something, an organization that recruits and promotes progressives under 40 who want to campaign for state or local office. The group expects to have roughly 500 candidates on ballots across the country this November, and a majority of them are women. “The possibility for one of the women that we’re working with now to become governor, to become senator, [or] to become president feels so much more realistic” than a woman winning at the national level right now, she said. “I have to imagine that in two or four or 10 years, we’ll be ready for her.”

And yet, despite her scars from 2016, Litman found herself getting her hopes up during the Democratic presidential primary. She was inspired by Kirsten Gillibrand’s short-lived campaign, which focused explicitly on promoting women and families. She loved all the selfies Elizabeth Warren took with young women, making them pinkie promise to remember that running for president is “what girls do.” But as time went on, it became clear to Litman that the Democratic nominee would once again be a man. “The day Elizabeth Warren dropped out was devastating. I cried,” Litman said. She wrote an op-ed in Cosmopolitan, cheekily titled “Stop Lying, America: You Were Never Gonna Vote for a Woman President.”

Biden seemed to realize that voters like Litman will not be thrilled to cast a ballot for yet another white guy in 2020. In March, he promised to pick a woman as his vice president. But that seemingly well-meaning gesture backfired. “Will she be short or tall, big or small, black or white, left or center? Who is to say, really,” wrote New York’s Rebecca Traister this spring. “She will be A Woman™.” Litman similarly saw Biden’s pledge as “deeply fucked up.” By declaring he would pick a woman from the outset, Biden opened the way for his opponents to claim that his running mate was on the ticket just “because she’s a lady, and not because she’s good at her job,” Litman told me. Now Litman fears that Harris will have to endure a fall full of racist and sexist attacks, only to risk being blamed by the pundit class if Biden loses. “I think it’s going to be miserable for her, miserable for her staff,” Litman said. “I wouldn’t wish that job on my worst enemy.”

Harris isn’t the only woman carrying a disproportionate burden this election season. Reporting and polling suggest that women have generally taken on more child care and household duties than their male partners since the onset of the pandemic. Women are more likely than men to work as nurses and elder-care aides, some of the professional roles most affected by COVID-19. More women than men have also lost their jobs in the recession caused by nationwide shutdowns. When November arrives, women voters might decide who wins the presidential election: Women’s political activism helped flip the House of Representatives from red to blue in 2018. Since then, women’s anger has only escalated, putting Trump well behind Biden in recent polls.

“It does feel like a consolation prize,” Litman told me of Harris’s VP nomination. “But it also feels like a consolation prize I will happily take.” She finds it easier to be optimistic, and to live with the daily rage she feels about the state of American politics, because she is helping cultivate the women who will one day serve in state legislatures, governors’ mansions, and maybe even the White House. Her ultimate goal is to make a woman’s being named to a presidential ticket unremarkable. “I hope there is a day when it is so deeply boring that women are running for office and winning, and there can be just as many mediocre women as there are mediocre men,” she said.

Still, in spite of herself, when Litman heard that Harris was the one, she felt excited. Recently, she ordered the new all-woman Barbie campaign-team set that Mattel debuted in honor of the 2020 election, a ploy the company has used to capitalize on feminist despair in nearly every presidential-election year since Bill Clinton was in office. “[I] can’t stop thinking about the photos of [Harris] with the little girls she met on the campaign trail, and how meaningful this will be to them,” Litman texted me. “To all of us, but especially to them.”