A Token for Vice President?

by Julie Graber | on 25 Mar 2020

I ran across this headline recently and it irritated me to no end: “Joe Biden’s pledge to pick a female vice-president smells like tokenism.”

The article was written by Arwa Mahdawi for The Guardian. Mahdawi goes on to say: “Of course I want him to choose a woman as his running mate. But his grand gesture feels more like pandering than policy.”

Do we really have to go there?

You want him to nominate a woman - but if he does, you won’t be happy about it because he did exactly what you hoped he will do?

And I ask the question again - DOES THE REASON REALLY MATTER if Biden ends up picking a woman as his running mate? Am I going to care why he did it if the result is the first female to actually serve as the vice-president? Would it be so bad to be pandered to - at least occasionally?

And let’s talk about the word “token.” Can you really look at any of the women on a list of potentials and call any of them a “token?” The names include:

  • Kamala Harris
  • Elizabeth Warren
  • Amy Klobuchar
  • Stacey Abrams

I looked up the word “tokenism” - “the policy or practice of making only a symbolic effort.” Take out the word “only” and it becomes a symbolic effort - and isn’t that true of any instance of “the first?” Were we all guilty of “tokenism” when we elected Obama as the first African-American president? Was Katharine Graham a “token” when she took over The Washington Post in 1972, becoming the first woman to lead a Fortune 500 company? Or Thurgood Marshall who was the Supreme Court’s first African American justice? Or Sandra Day O’Connor, the Supreme Court’s first female? This list could go on and on and on. And who cares now whether or not they were a token then if they were the first and they paved the way for more to follow?

Biden was asked a thoughtful question from Amy Langenfeld, a voter and law professor at Arizona State:

Women are the canaries in the coal mine of the Conservative agenda. Our access to healthcare is at risk from the Federalist Society’s remaking of the courts. Our lives are threatened by abusive partners’ access to guns. Women are disproportionately affected by bail requirements, Social Security cuts and cuts to public education. How will your Cabinet ensure the best advice on issues that affect women’s physical and financial health?

Biden’s answer, which included not only a commitment to pick a female running mate but to also nominate an African-American woman to the Supreme Court if given the opportunity (damn, more tokenism):

Number one, I committed that if I’m elected president and have an opportunity to appoint someone to the courts, I’ll appoint the first black woman of the courts. It’s required that they have representation now. It’s long overdue.

Secondly, if I’m elected president, my cabinet, my administration will look like the country and I commit that I will, in fact, appoint a — I’d pick a woman to be vice president. There are a number of women who are qualified to be president tomorrow. I would pick a woman to be my vice president.

Mahdawi calls it “tokenism,” Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn if it is. Bring it on.