Even if you didn’t watch the most recent Democratic primary debate, in a cavernous, studio featuring a lonely Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, you probably know by now about its most noteworthy moment. Biden, in response to questions about who he would pick as his running mate from CNN’s Dana Bash, said that it would probably be a woman. “Just to be clear,” Bash asked, “you just committed here tonight that your running mate, if you get the nomination, will be a woman?” Biden solemnly said yes. Then Bash turned to Sanders to ask if he would make the same promise, and suddenly they were taking what I’m calling The Woman Pledge live on television, as push alerts went off with “Big:” and “Breaking:” about Biden’s “commitment,” which Sanders did not explicitly make.
On the night that Democratic voters finally got to see the contenders they were left with — two old white men whittled down from a historically diverse set of candidates — Biden’s promise was met with gravity that matched his mood, from a wide range of observers. “If Joe Biden pledges to have a woman for VP and then apologizes for supporting Hyde that goes a long way,” CNN commentator Jess McIntosh wrote on Twitter, referring to the Hyde Amendment, the congressional measure that prevents poor women from seeking abortions, which Biden supported as recently as July of 2019. Jennifer Rubin, a conservative columnist who has continuously shared her views on Democratic primary, wrote that she was “still stunned Biden pledged to pick a woman VP and Sanders hedged. Vote for Biden and a woman will be on the ticket. Period.” Raquel Willis, a former editor of Out, said that “Bernie refusing to commit to choosing a woman VP dropped the ball. It’s going to mean a lot to folks that Biden did and he didn’t.” (“For me,” Sanders had said on stage, “it’s not just nominating a woman. It is making sure that we have a progressive woman and there are progressive women out there. So my very strong tendency is to move in that direction.”)
The positive reactions on cable TV and Twitter to Biden’s response made me feel like I was living on another planet, considering the hypocrisies of heralding Biden as some kind of feminist ally. Seven women have accused Biden of inappropriate professional conduct — what were they thinking? And what about Anita Hill, whose alleged sexual harasser, Clarence Thomas, now sits on the Supreme Court, in no small part because Biden oversaw his confirmation hearing and refused to let Hill’s supporters testify in her favor?
It isn’t just that Biden has a troubling past when it comes to women’s issues. He still falls short. Yes, it has been many years since Biden voted against a proposed child tax credit, writing in an op-ed that women working outside the home would “create the deterioration of family,” but he has yet to release a stand-alone child care plan. His parental leave policy offers 12 weeks when his opponent, Sanders, supports twice that amount. His health-care plan leaves 10 million people uninsured. During last night’s debate, after he promised to pick a woman, he also misstated his own climate-change plan, saying he was committed to a total ban on fracking (he is not).
These are policy gaps that will affect many women, but they were all but forgotten next to the spectacle of his VP gesture. Biden was using feminism as a stamp, a shield against criticism, and a sham of solidarity. It’s even more insulting given the timing: during the midst of the coronavirus crisis, which has put women in this country at extreme risk, and upped the stakes of the race. We need a candidate committed to improving the lives of the most women, not to optics. Health-care workers treating sick patients, servers laid off from restaurants, the elderly stranded at home, parents still working with their kids home from school: Their needs are urgent. They deserve so much more than an empty gesture, a hollow promise.