On March 15, presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden made a historic promise to voters: He will nominate a woman vice president and, if given the opportunity, put an African-American woman on the Supreme Court.
The ground-breaking discussion was in response to a comment from undecided voter Amy Langenfeld, an Arizona-based law professor, who asked candidates how they’ll ensure “women’s physical and financial health,” in light of the war on women’s bodies and the disproportionate impact that cuts to social security and oppressive bail requirements have on women.
In total, Biden made four major, women-centered promises to viewers.
“I commit that if I’m elected president and I have an opportunity to appoint someone to the courts, I’ll appoint the first black woman to the courts,” Biden said—adding, “It’s long overdue.”
(He’s right: Since the Supreme Court’s inception in 1790, 107 of the 113 justices who have served on the bench have been white men. Of the four women appointed, none have been African-American.)
He also committed that his administration will be representative of the overall U.S. population, in which 51 percent of the population are women.
“My Cabinet, my administration will look like the country,” he said.
The third promise had to do with his running mate: “I commit that I will, in fact, pick a woman to be vice president. There are number of women that are qualified to be president tomorrow. I would pick a woman to be my vice president.”
Biden’s fourth commitment was regarding bold action on policy that impacts women, including closing what is known as the “boyfriend exception”—a glaring loophole in American gun legislation that allows physically abusive ex-boyfriends and stalkers with previous convictions access to guns—and “a codification of Roe v. Wade.”
Biden’s Historic Commitment
Given both presidential candidates’ ages—both in their late 70s—the public discussion of vice presidential selections has been especially salient.
“Biden’s firm public commitment that he would select a woman as his running mate in the event he stays atop the Democratic race and is the party’s 2020 nominee is historically unprecedented,” writes Politico’s John Harris. “No major candidate has ever made such a pledge based on demographic characteristics, nor has one narrowed the field of potential vice presidential nominees this early in the year, several months before the decision is usually made.”
Kelly Dittmar, professor of political science at Rutgers University and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), echoes the historic nature of Biden’s commitment:
“While it seems to many that gender balance on a presidential ticket should not be exceptional, it is,” she writes. “All-male tickets have been the norm in presidential politics for over 200 years. Only three women have ever appeared on major-party presidential tickets, with two as vice presidential running mates to male nominees. In the past 100 years, just three of 100 names on major-party presidential tickets have been women.”
Geraldine Ferraro Sets the Stage as the First Woman Vice Presidential Candidate in 1984
The first woman ever to grace the presidential ballot of a major party was Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic nominee selected as Walter Mondale’s running mate in 1984.
Many, like Dittmar, attribute Ferraro’s selection to be the result of feminist activism and lobbying, as well as a response to the gender gap in women’s voting patterns that emerged in the 1980 election—in which noticeably fewer women than men voted for Ronald Reagan.
“Over the course of discussions among feminist activists and organizational leaders, the idea emerged to push for the selection of a woman as a vice-presidential candidate in 1984 as ‘an attention-getting device’ to build on the momentum generated by the gender gap and ‘keep women’s issues on the front burner of American politics and that meant the front pages of the newspapers and on the evening TV news shows,'” writes Susan Carroll, political scientist and longtime advocate of women’s political participation.
While the Mondale-Ferraro ticket was ultimately defeated, Ferraro’s candidacy was “a substantial net plus in activism,” according to Gloria Steinem. Ferraro raised $4 million and attracted 10,000 volunteers, and 1.8 million new women voters registered to cast their ballot prior to the election.
Bernie Sanders, who is also running for the Democratic nomination, did not commit in as bold terms as the former vice president—he said he’d “in all likelihood” follow suit in nominating a woman, so long as she shares Sanders’s progressive views.
“It is the former vice president, however, who is increasingly in command of the nomination fight,” writes Harris, “and so it was his forthright declaration of his intentions—with little of the usual stoke-the-drama coyness that usually surrounds such picks—that echoed in such a revealing way.”
Feminists React to Biden’s Promise
After Sen. Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race earlier this month, women’s groups like EMILY’s List had pressured the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to become more women-centric—calling for a woman running mate, a majority-woman cabinet and a larger discussion of progressive, women-focused policies like paid family leave.
“Democratic victory in 2020 will depend on record-breaking participation by women,” top officials at EMILY’s List, the American Federation of Teachers, Working Families Party and several other groups wrote in a March 11 letter to the DNC. “Women are the backbone of the Democratic party. Women are a majority of Democratic voters, volunteers and donors.”
Unsurprisingly, reactions to the former vice president’s commitments toward women have been celebratory—a welcome bright spot during a confusing time for the nation.
Below is a roundup of some of the best feminist responses.
Maria Teresa Kumar, Emily’s List board member, proved that Biden’s news had a major impact women, regardless of age (or voting ability).
Chief strategist for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, David Axelrod, anticipates the news will excite many.
Reporter Ana Navarro-Cardenas wants to ensure the woman chosen is a “full partner.”
Dittmar echoes this sentiment, writing, “The white men who will top presidential tickets in 2020 need to do more than tapping women to make clear that they not only understand the distinct experiences, needs and demands of women, but will value and integrate them into their policy plans and priorities. They will also need to demonstrate their capacity to recognize and address the full diversity among women, and thus the diversity of women’s needs and demands.”
NARAL Pro-Choice America also welcomed Biden’s announcement.