For this bonus episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Nick Hirshon spoke to political historian Teri Finneman about the election of Kamala Harris as the first female vice president of the United States and the legacies of other women politicians.
Teri Finneman is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas. She is the author of Press Portrayals of Women Politicians, 1870s-2000s.
This episode is sponsored by Taylor & Francis, publisher of Journalism History.
Featured image: Kamala Harris speaking with attendees at the 2019 California Democratic Party State Convention at the George R. Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, California. (Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Nick Hirshon (00:11):
Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman (00:21):
I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon (00:27):
I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward (00:31):
And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Nick Hirshon (00:36):
And together we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
Today, we have a special episode of the Journalism History podcast. We’ve just learned that Joe Biden has been elected the 46th president of the United States, and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris of California, will become the first woman to serve as vice president. And so for the first time we are recording and releasing an episode of the Journalism History podcast on the same day as history is unfolding.
I’m excited to talk today with a voice that will sound familiar to our listeners, the executive producer of the Journalism History podcast and one of our hosts, Dr. Teri Finneman of the University of Kansas. Teri’s research focuses on news coverage of U.S. first ladies and women politicians, as well as the U.S. suffrage movement. And she is the author of Press Portrayals of Women Politicians, 1870s-2000s, published in 2015 by Lexington Books.
So Teri, Biden has just captured the battleground state of Pennsylvania and the TV networks have announced that puts him over the top for the 270 electoral votes he needed to ascend to the White House. Kamala Harris becomes the vice president. She is 56 years old, the daughter Indian and Jamaican immigrants. A moment in history. So as someone who has studied women in politics, what does this moment mean to you?
Teri Finneman (02:11):
It’s really overwhelming quite honestly, and I don’t know if the emotional impact of it has, has really sunk in yet for me and for other women across the country. One of the things that I think it’s important to point out from the get-go is that my research is non-partisan. I study sexism that Republican women and Democratic women have faced in their journey to rise in American politics. So I want that to be clear, that I’m speaking from not a partisan view today, but from a women’s history perspective today, and what this means to finally have reached this. We haven’t hit the presidency yet, right? But I think a lot of the emotion that you’re going to see pour out from this is going to be tied to the extreme disappointment that so many people had in 2016, when it was expected that Hillary Clinton was going to break that barrier. I think you’re going to see a lot of that emotion pour out with this election. Obviously the vice presidency isn’t the presidency, but this is just such a monumental moment in American history, which is why we’re doing this show.
Nick Hirshon (03:19):
And certainly I want to get emotion with you a little bit later on, talking about what this moment may mean to you personally. I’d like to just point out I grew up in New York City, in a neighborhood in the borough of Queens named Forest Hills, and that’s where I’m recording the podcast today. And one of the favorite daughters of Forest Hills is Geraldine Ferraro, who was the first female vice presidential nominee representing a major American political party. She served in the House of Representatives from 1979 to 1985, and she was the Democratic Party’s vice presidential nominee in 1984, running alongside Walter Mondale. I know, Teri, you’ve studied many women in politics long before Geraldine Ferraro and some after, too. So could you provide us with some of that historical context – who are some of the women pioneers who have gone through this political movement who have led up to this historic moment?
Teri Finneman (04:07):
Well, we’re going to talk about the suffrage movement and go back to 1840 a little later in the show, I know. But I want to start out talking about 1872 in particular, when Victoria Woodhull was the first woman to run for president in this country. This is a fact that a lot of people don’t know for a variety of reasons, which is the whole purpose of our podcast, right, is to bring to light these people who have been written out of history, who weren’t included in the first place and bring them to light. And so it was actually in 1872. And I’m going to say that again, 1872, that we had the first woman run for president in this country. And my book chapter on her is called “Media Villainization of Victoria Woodhull.” And she was completely demonized by the press. One of the articles written about her.
This is what it said, “Her connection with a movement damns that movement. She may be mad, but she’s impure in thought and depraved in expression. Her ideas are not merely preposterous; they are revoltingly indecent and nasty.” So this gives you an idea of how women who ran for political office way back then were vilified for even the thought of it. Now, some people may think, well, Victoria Woodhull, she was probably some third party no-name, right? And she was a third-party ticket, but she wasn’t a no-name. She was extremely well known by people of that time period. She was the first woman to testify in front of Congress that women should be given the right to vote. She was very involved in the suffrage movement with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and with Susan B. Anthony. So this was a pretty prominent woman for her time.
And she was referred to as being the Satanic ticket. She was referred as a fit subject for a lunatic asylum. And so women have been enduring these barriers dating all the way back then with them not seeming to be credible and, and being vilified in having sexist tactics used against them. And throughout my book, I go from 1872 up until the present. And I take a look at media coverage of, for example, Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, of Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman placed in nomination at a major political party’s convention for the nomination of presidency, and then of course, I take a look at Sarah Palin as well, of course have, have studied media coverage related to Hillary Clinton, related to Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, and study some of the more recent women.
And, and throughout history, these women have had to endure these double standards, the sexism of their appearance and what they look like, and if they look proper enough. Of, if they’re competent enough to have a role in politics. If they’re too masculine and then they get the “bitch” word thrown at them, or if they’re too feminine and then they’re deemed incompetent. There is just always, always these extra barriers that they have had to overcome after all of these years, which is just why it is such a major moment to finally break these barriers.
Nick Hirshon (07:31):
Well, and then as you study all this media coverage, and you’ve identified the major narratives that are used to vilify these women politicians over the years, with Kamala Harris, I’m sure you’ve been paying close attention since she was selected as the vice presidential nominee. What do you make of the media coverage of her so far and what should we be looking out for in these days and weeks and maybe years to come?
Teri Finneman (07:52):
Well, I mean, you’re certainly seeing some of these same things play out with her, the, you know, vilification related to her policies. We had the article that was written about the shoes that she wore. Never have I come across an article about what a male vice president’s shoes were. The, the rhetoric that she’s angry, that she’s a monster, which plays into the racist stereotypes of angry black women. And so she has certainly endured these same kind of things.
And this is not something that just because we now have a female vice president will suddenly go away, right? Because this is something that is very much ingrained into our culture. We certainly have made progress since 2008 when both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were in the national spotlight. And there was suddenly much more recognition of the sexism that women in politics have to endure. And there’s been a lot more discussion about how to deal with that especially since then. But look, when, when you have this since 1872, when you have the first woman elected to Congress in 1916 and that level of sexism didn’t go away just before that, this is something that we, as a society, as a, as a culture really still need to come to grips with and deal with.
Nick Hirshon (09:16):
And you mentioned that you also study the history of suffrage and this year is the 100th anniversary of the adoption of the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution, which granted women the right to vote. So what do you think is the significance of Kamala Harris being elected in this year of all years, this anniversary year of the 19th amendment?
Teri Finneman (09:34):
I mean, that’s certainly something that makes us even more emotional and, and adds an extra layer to it. I spent the past three years talking across the country about the history of the suffrage movement. I was focused actually specifically on the anti-suffrage movement, taking a look at the rhetoric of people who fought against giving women the right to vote, to try to understand why it took so long.
The inklings of the movement actually began in 1840, although 1848 in Seneca Falls tends to be the main, you know, starting point that most people recognize. And from that point, right, 1848 to 1920, that’s how long it took just to give women the right to vote in this country. And then at that point, of course, not all women got the right. It still ended up just being white women because women of color were still excluded for various reasons to try to, to suppress their vote, therefore leading to 1965 before the Voting Rights Act. And even until today, we still see voter suppression happening.
But still regardless, the 19th amendment in 1920 was a major historical moment. And so for us to have the first woman as vice president elected in the same anniversary year is just amazing. I mean, this is almost like a movie, right? Like, you can’t write this. And especially coming off of last year, 2019 was marking the 400th anniversary of slavery in this country. And so to have this extra pivotal moment of Kamala Harris, a black woman, receiving the vice presidency after, you know, essentially black women being excluded in 1920, all of the additional barriers, not only the sexism, but the racism that they have endured throughout our nation’s history. I just can’t overstate it enough, what a significant moment in history this is today.
Nick Hirshon (11:46):
And you’ve obviously studied many women politicians over the years in the United States. And I wonder if you see some direct correlation, maybe some of the ancestors who led to, you know, what we’re seeing today, because I mentioned before Geraldine Ferraro, who was the first woman to run as vice president on a major American political party ticket. You brought up Sarah Palin, of course, Hillary Clinton running for president.
Now we have some rumors that Kamala Harris herself, right, might ascend to the presidency. Joe Biden has said that he views himself as a bridge to the next generation. She is 56 years old. He’s in his late 70s. He’s going to be one of the oldest people, right, to get into the White House. And so we look at what the future could hold and there’s politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who are being viewed as potential nominees in the future. So do you see direct correlations between certain people in history that led to this moment with Kamala Harris? Or how do you see this maybe playing out in the future? Are there certain people you’re looking at to be the next maybe presidential candidate as a woman?
Teri Finneman (12:55):
Well, I mean, certainly I should’ve mentioned by now Shirley Chisholm, who was an absolute pioneer for black women in this country becoming the first black woman in Congress in 1968. And then of course launching her own presidential campaign in 1972. I think that she deserves way more analysis and attention than she has received in the past. And she is definitely an icon and a pivotal person to point to in this time. I also think that you have to give, and, and it is being given, you have to give a lot of credit to Stacey Abrams and what she did in, in Georgia to help with voter turnout there. I know that it was ultimately Pennsylvania that has tipped it today, but Stacey Abrams is definitely going to be an up-and-comer and somebody to watch in the next few years. But from the Republican side, you absolutely cannot count out Nikki Haley. I think that she is going to be a force to be reckoned with as well in the next presidential election.
Nick Hirshon (14:02):
And as we wrap up here, you know, you mentioned earlier the emotion that people are feeling, and I was just watching CNN and seeing Van Jones choking up as he’s describing what this moment meant for him and meant for black Americans across the country. But for you as a woman who has studied the history of women politicians and seen how they’ve been vilified, what kind of emotions are you just experiencing today?
Teri Finneman (14:27):
Yeah, you’re trying to make me cry, aren’t you? Clearly. I mean, it, it sounds really weird. But as a historian, you spend so much time studying these women and studying their biographies and, and you get attached to them. You feel like you know them. And so you almost feel the, the, the weight of Victoria Woodhull and Jeannette Rankin and Shirley Chisholm and Margaret Chase Smith and all of these women, the suffragists. You feel the presence of these women and how they would react today. You know, I think of Susan B. Anthony, who died before the 19th amendment was passed. These women who devoted their entire lives to making this possible for future women and how they aren’t alive to see this today. And I just feel that empathy and how proud they would be, that they were somebody who helped make this moment happen for us today. And hopefully we as Americans can pay this forward in the future.
Nick Hirshon (15:38):
And I think it’s come through to our listeners, but obviously people like Teri, scholars like myself, who spend so much time, years and years, devote entire careers to researching subjects. Obviously we pick those topics because we’re personally passionate about them. And then as we do the research, we learn more about these historical figures, it becomes even more embedded in our own identities. So we feel this very directly. It can again, affect, you know, lots of aspects of our own emotions. So thank you so much, Teri, for joining us for this really special episode.
Thanks to our listeners for tuning in, and additional thanks to our sponsor, Taylor and Francis. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter at @JHistoryJournal. Until next time. I’m your host, Nick Hirshon, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow, “Good night, and good luck.”