Media Supermajority Education Fund

What Biden’s VP Can Learn From The Women Who Ran Before Her


The only thing we know for sure about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s vice-presidential pick is that she will be a woman, making her the third female vice-presidential candidate from a major party in United States history. She will follow in the footsteps of fellow Democrat Geraldine Ferraro and Republican Sarah Palin, who ran in 1984 and 2008, respectively (although neither won). 

While Geraldine Ferraro was the first woman ever to be included on a major-party presidential ticket, other women had tried to clinch this honor in the past. In 1964, Senator Margaret Chase Smith — who was the first woman to be elected to both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate — became the first woman to run for the Republican presidential nomination. “When people keep telling you, you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try,” she said of her candidacy Smith didn’t gain her party’s endorsement, nor did Representative Shirley Chisholm, the first Black Congresswoman who also became the first Democratic woman and first major-party Black primary candidate in 1972. 

Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale selected Ferraro as his running mate in large part due to pressure put on him by leaders of the feminist movement. Many considered Ferraro a surprising choice, as she had just a few years in Congress under her belt, but her Democratic colleagues liked her. Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) said that Ferraro “manages to be threatening on issues without being threatening personally.” Even the House of Representatives’ archives refers to her as a “charismatic pragmatist.” 

Still, others view Ferraro as the downfall of the Mondale-Ferraro ticket, most notably because her husband, John Zaccaro’s, finances were called into question. She was forced to release their tax returns and undergo a two-hour-long press conference just a month after her nomination. The tax-returns showed a net worth nearing $4 million, which shined a new light on Ferraro’s attempts to pass herself off as a working-class mother from Queens. Barbara Bush, the wife of the Republican contender in that election, George H.W. Bush, said at the time, “[she’s] a four-million-dollar — I can’t say it, but it rhymes with rich.”

Twenty-four years later, the late Senator John McCain selected Sarah Palin, the then-Governor of Alaska, as his running mate for the Presidential election. Palin, who, as she put it, could connect with “normal Joe Six-pack American,” was selected and vetted five days before the Republican convention. Steve Schmidt, a senior McCain adviser, pushed for Palin’s nomination to bring more women voters to the Republican party while appeasing the party’s conservative base, who were struggling to adjust to McCain’s “maverick” style.  

While Palin touted her status as a “Washington outsider” as a strength, it quickly became the subject of media ridicule. In the years since Palin’s run, reports show that Palin’s quick vetting had not been rigorous, and her knowledge of international politics was lacking. For instance, Palin reportedly told aides to McCain that she thought Saddam Hussein organized the 9/11 attacks and that the Queen of England ran the British government. 

Ferraro and Palin both faced plenty of sexism throughout their campaigns. Denver Post columnist Woodrow Paige wrote in 1984 that, “Ferraro has nicer legs than any vice-presidential candidate.” Jim Buck Ross, then-Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner, asked Ferraro if she could bake a blueberry muffin. Palin was asked about when her amniotic fluid broke when giving birth to her youngest son and her teenage daughter’s pregnancy. The press also evaluated her physical appearance, referring to her as “by far the best-looking woman ever to rise to such heights,” and “the first indisputably fertile female to dare to dance with the big dogs.” In fact, a 2009 study from Utah State University found that both Ferraro and Palin faced more negative media coverage than the men who ran for Vice President on the opposing tickets during their respective elections.

To be clear, though, while Palin faced sexism, she also perpetuated it in her policies. When Palin was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, women had to pay for their own rape kits at a cost of near $1,200. As Governor of Alaska, she cut funding to a transitional home for teenage mothers, as well as to an organization providing breastfeeding and nutrition support to low-income rural women, and another providing daycare and housing for mothers enrolled in vocational school. She was not quiet about her stance on abortion and worked to limit access to the procedure across the state. 

While we don’t know who Biden’s running mate will be, we know she will likely face plenty of sexism herself. As a rigorous 2020 study published in the Journal of Communication found, “women politicians receive more attention to their appearance and personal life [and] more negative viability coverage…” than male candidates overall. We also know, since this woman will likely be a woman of color, she will face attacks different in tone and severity than what Ferraro and Palin faced as white women. A 2018 study by Amnesty International found that Black women were 84 percent more likely, Latinx women are 81 percent more likely, and Asian women are 70 percent more likely than White women to be targeted for toxic harassment on Twitter. 

The women on Biden’s short-list have already endured comments such as former Democratic Party chair Ed Rendell noting that Susan Rice’s smile is “something that she doesn’t do all that readily,” but is “actually somewhat charming.” Senator Kamala Harris has been called “too ambitious” and accused of “rub[bing] people the wrong way.” Let’s not forget Kellyanne Conways’s take: “You’ve seen the long short-list of Joe Biden’s VP choices. They all happen to be female, he sounds like a co-ed at the end of a frat party: ‘I need a woman!’”