How Women Might Change the Role of the Vice President

Kamala Harris broke the glass ceiling but is she in danger of being pushed off the glass cliff?

Kamala Harris’s is among the stories of the leading political figures of our time. And yet, history shows us that women’s progress is often met with obstacles to success.

As white men made the vice president’s office more powerful, they likely inadvertently increased the obstacles facing women aspiring to that post. The vice presidency is no longer just a symbolic role. As a result, women have to present stronger credentials than their male counterparts to run for the slot. All female candidates that Biden considered for vice president were among the most qualified individuals, male or female, considered for the number two office.

While Harris has a historic opportunity as the first female vice president, the potential for failure is also unprecedented. Last week, President Biden announced that Harris will be in charge of managing the border refugee crisis, and that she has been deputized to act unilaterally: “When she speaks, she speaks for me,” Biden said of Harris. If Harris does well, her deft management of a human rights crisis and hot-button issue will strengthen the vice presidency and her future campaign for president. If she fails, she will be blamed for the calamitous situation she inherited. Also known as the “glass cliff,” when women are promoted to positions of authority during moments of crisis when failure is statistically more likely.

Similar evolutions have occurred in other fields. As women have made inroads into higher education and traditionally male professions, their presence has repeatedly diminished the prestige and wages for those positions. For example, wages fell for designers, ticket agents, recreational positions, and biologists when women filled these occupations in high numbers. The reverse is true as well. Women used to compromise the majority of computer programmers, and the job was considered a menial one, but as male programmers increased, they garnered higher wages and more respect.

For most of U.S. history, vice presidents were selected to provide geographic or political balance to the ticket. Still, little thought was given to their governing abilities or their capacity to serve as a partner. In the twentieth century, the position of the vice president began to shift from an official backup to a real player in the executive branch. Biden’s selection of Harris as his running mate, when the vice president is more powerful than ever, will prove to be a pivotal moment for the office. The next several years will prove whether the country will accept a powerful VP who is a woman of color. She is in charge of the most politically controversial issue in American politics.

As the first vice president, John Adams hoped that he might serve as a partner to President George Washington and guide the senators as they debated important legislation. Disappointed, he confessed to his wife, Abigail, that the vice presidency was “the most insignificant Office that ever the Invention of Man contrived, or his Imagination conceived.” One hundred and forty years later, during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, Vice President John Nance Garner, shared similar sentiments, describing his office as “not worth a bucket of warm spit.”

While some presidents gave their number twos few responsibilities, Walter Mondale, Jimmy Carter’s vice president, was the first to adopt a more substantive role. Mondale visited the president for weekly lunches, received regular intelligence briefings, and enjoyed office space in the West Wing. With this increased access, Mondale helped negotiate important Middle East peace treaties and spoke on behalf of human rights at the United Nations.

But it was Dick Cheney, George W. Bush’s VP, who fundamentally changed the office in the modern era. He served as the president’s closest advisor during the first term, provided military heft and expertise on the ticket, and wielded significant influence over foreign policy. President Barack Obama famously promised his vice president, Joe Biden, that he would always be the last person in the room before every major decision. But Cheney was the first vice president to remain in the Oval Office after all other advisors had left.

Joe Biden and Mike Pence followed, creating a modern expectation for a powerful vice president. But if history teaches us anything, it’s that our society doesn’t always respond well to women in power. Just because a white man can wield significant power in office doesn’t mean a woman, especially a woman of color, will be granted the same opportunities and deference.

Now that Harris is vice president, warnings regularly appear in the news urging her to proceed with caution, lest she appear too ambitious. But there is another equally pernicious possibility. After Harris leaves office, the vice presidency might again be relegated to obscurity because it is held by a woman, harming both women politicians and the presidency. The responsibilities and demands facing 21st century presidents are so enormous; no person governs alone. Biden needs a strong vice president to serve as his partner, as do all modern presidents.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works —and how to make it work better. More than fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

YES, I'LL MAKE A DONATION

Lindsay M. Chervinsky

Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D. is a presidential historian and Scholar in Residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College and the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.