“There we are.”
During the yearlong lockdown, nearly every phone conversation begins with “How are you doing?” and ends with, “You watching anything good?” I have a new answer for the second question. My favorite show of the pandemic debuted in late January. Episodes are short and the dialogue is repetitive, but I am obsessed with Vice President Kamala Harris administering the oath of office to cabinet members, especially to women.
The series kicked off with the January 26 swearing in of Janet Yellen as Secretary of the Treasury. The cinematography was static and the action was confined to a raised right hand, but I was on the edge of my seat. Even though the show is a high-stakes drama, Vice President Harris often punctuates the ceremony with laughter. Masks hide smiles so perhaps her peals are amplified to signal joy. After swearing in Linda Thomas Greenfield for the top UN post, Harris gleefully exclaimed, “Congratulations, Madame Ambassador. Congratulations. (laughter) There we are.”
A woman of color swearing in a woman of color is an image that would make more sense in a science fiction series. What planet are we on? Maybe that’s why the Vice President added, “There we are” as a reminder that we’re on Earth.
The Vice President next tells Ambassador Greenfield, “Congratulations to the whole family.” This nod to partners is a new and appreciated touch. When she swore in Pete Buttigieg as Secretary of Transportation, the Vice President singled out his husband. “Congratulations Mr. Secretary. Congratulations, Chasten. (laughter).” She thanked the family of Alejandro Mayorkas, the new Secretary of Homeland Security. To the family of Janet Yellen, she stated, “It takes a whole family to really make it work.”
The optics are thrilling and the policy could be even better. In mid-February, Vice President Harris wrote an op-ed about the loss of almost 2.5 million jobs held by America women. She described this contraction as “a national emergency” and called for changes to make child care more affordable and accessible.
The Vice President described how her mother worked at a lab and dropped off her two young daughters to be cared for by Regina Shelton. The Vice President spoke of her love for Mrs. Shelton and now this childhood experience is shaping policy. This is the change that Sheryl Sandberg and I described in Lean In eight years and two inaugurations ago to the day.
“If more women lean in,” the book argued, “we can change the power structure of our world and expand opportunities for all. More female leadership will lead to fairer treatment for all women. Shared experience forms the basis of empathy and, in turn, can spark the institutional changes we need.” (If you’re surprised to learn Lean In advocated sweeping structural changes then you read the criticism and not the actual book.)
When Lean In dropped, Joe Biden was serving as Vice President and Kamala Harris was Attorney General of California. The book caught a wave, spending months at number one on bestseller lists and inspiring over 50,000 women in 187 countries to start a Lean In Circle.
The 2016 presidential election unfolded like a Lean In case study as Hillary Clinton became the first woman to earn the nomination of a major U.S. political party. Clinton crushed the debates. She won the popular vote. Yet in January 2017, I watched in disbelief as Donald J. Trump blew kisses at James Comey in the Oval Office.
One of the most painful story arcs in the Trump reality show was watching his appointees harm other women. Senior advisor Ivanka Trump did nothing when her father revoked President Obama’s 2014 Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces Executive Order. Former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos rolled back protections for victims of on-campus sexual assaults. Lean In had noted that not all women would display empathy.
“Critics have scoffed at me for trusting that once women are in power, they will help one another, since that has not always been the case,” Sandberg noted in the chapter “Working Toward Equality.” Still, she maintained that she was “willing to bet on women.”
That bet improved in the 2018 midterms as women won a then-record number of seats in Congress. Newcomers included Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Deb Haaland, Katie Porter, Mikie Sherrill, and Lauren Underwood. Two years later, on a debate stage, candidate Biden was asked about his choice for a running mate.
When he said, “I commit that I will in fact pick a woman to be vice president,” I immediately thought of a Lean In passage: “It’s wonderful when senior men mentor women. It’s even better when they champion and sponsor them. Any male leader who is serious about moving toward a more equal world can make this a priority...It should be a badge of honor for men to sponsor women.”
That night, Biden earned his badge and the Biden/Harris ticket went on to win more votes than any presidential slate in U.S. history. Now, in between briefings, meetings and breaking ties in the Senate, Harris administers the oath of office. Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm was recently sworn in as Secretary of the Energy and at end of that ceremony, the Vice President declared, “This is a good day.”
I could watch this show forever.
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