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Three Women In Idaho Politics Reflect On Seeing VP-Elect Kamala Harris Make History

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Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Harris, President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden on stage together, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Wilmington, Del.

Last Saturday, history was made as Senator Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) became the first woman to become Vice President-elect. When the Biden presidency begins in January, she will also be the first Black and South-Asian person to occupy that position.

Joining Idaho Matters to talk about the political and social context leading up to this moment is Boise State University political science professor Jaclyn Kettler.

Then, state Senators Cherie Buckner-Webb and Maryanne Jordan join the show along with state Rep. Melissa Wintrow reflect on what this victory means to them as women in Idaho politics. 

Read the full transcript here:

GEMMA GAUDETTE: You're listening to Idaho Matters, I'm Gemma Gaudette. Last Saturday, history was made. Senator Kamala Harris became the first woman to become vice president-elect. And when the Biden presidency begins in January, she will also be the first Black and South Asian person to occupy the office of Vice President. Now, in a few minutes, we are going to hear from three women in Idaho politics as they reflect on this moment and what it means to them. But before we get to that, I want to welcome Boise State political scientist Jaclyn Kettler to give us some political and historical context. Jaclyn, always good to have you on the show.

 

JACLYN KETTLER: Thanks for having me.

 

GAUDETTE: So how big of a deal is this, Jaclyn, in regards to American politics?

 

KETTLER: That's a great question. I mean, it's a very big deal. The executive office -- thinking about the presidency and the vice presidency -- has been just this barrier that women have not been able to to achieve or get through, even though women have been running for president since 1872 with Victoria Woodhull. So just achieving that, having Harris ascend to the vice presidency is such a big first in many ways.

 

GAUDETTE: Well, and we all know, especially being women, this glass ceiling, right? Now, then you add on women of color and you add on politics here in the United States. Would you say that Senator Harris being in this position is a sign of real change? I mean, can we expect to see more women in these positions of power, maybe eventually in the actual presidency itself?

 

"[W]omen have been in positions of leadership in government a long time in other places in the world. And we...have been a little late to the party." - Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb

KETTLER: Such great questions, I think one big thing is, is this going to help change how voters evaluate women candidates? There's often more questions about the qualifications of women candidates, or especially if they're kind of incongruent with how we view that role, like thinking about the presidency, a strong, powerful decision-maker. Right. And so having more women in these positions like Harris in the vice presidency, will that help normalize women in these roles and help view women as electable to the office of the president, which especially as being vice president, will be a pretty good start for Harris then seeking the presidency down the road.

 

GAUDETTE: And here's what I think is interesting to Jaclyn, is if Dr. Jill Biden retains her full time job, she will be the first first lady to hold a full time job outside of the White House. And then you look at Senator Harris's husband, Doug Imhoff, I think I'm saying his last name correctly, is stepping down from his high powered job to allow for his wife to focus on her career. So how does that also potentially play into normalizing women in these positions?

 

KETTLER: Yeah, I think that's exactly so interesting that we've-- like so many gender roles changing in terms of in the Biden Harris administration with Dr. Jill Biden working or planning to work, which Hillary Clinton got criticized quite a bit as the first lady for trying to be more active and engaged in her career and engaged in policy. And so I think just all of these changing positions and stepping outside these traditional gender roles will help normalize people to kind of follow their paths, regardless of those kind of gender expectations that we've been dealing with for centuries.

 

GAUDETTE: And we've also been dealing with sexism and racism in our country for four centuries. We know these issues. They're rampant not just in the country, but within, I think, our political system. So what is Senator Harris up against when it comes to these issues? You know, especially because she's a heartbeat away from the presidency come January.

 

KETTLER: Yeah, I think we'll probably see a lot of reactions to her that may have some of these sexist or racist views and how some people may perceive what she is doing in office. So, you know, I think those are additional challenges. I think President Obama, some of the kind of racist responses we saw through his administration. So I think that is something that I think we will be kind of watching to see how that happens. So hopefully by having her in this role and helping normalize, that will help diminish the role of some of these, you know, views in politics.

 

GAUDETTE: Mm hmm. So let's talk about her vacating her Senate seat, because it will now be open in California. So what is the process for filling that seat? And since she is a Democrat, will it automatically be held by a Democrat?

 

KETTLER: Well, so usually the governor appoints, though sometimes you'll have special elections as well. And so California has a Democratic governor. So that sets up well for selecting a Democrat to replace that. And of course, in California, you've got lots of Democrats who want to ascend through the pipeline. So I think there's definitely a lot of interest in that position. And who replaces her will definitely be interesting to watch in terms of not just California politics, but also what's happening in the Senate.

 

GAUDETTE: So before I let you go, as a political scientist, what are you reflecting on with the upcoming Biden presidency?

 

KETTLER: Yeah, I think right now, just always looking at kind of the transition is fascinating, you know, who's getting tapped for different roles, helping understand what some of the approaches of different agencies or the administration will be to governance. So that's always fascinating to watch. But additionally, I mean, right now, figuring out what the majority control of the Senate and that might actually set up Harris to play a pretty big role. If we have a tie in the Senate, she would be the tie-breaking vote.

 

GAUDETTE: Right. And we have to wait to see about that. I think January 5th is when those runoffs are. Hey, Jaclyn, I understand you actually need to head to a Boise State class, actually, about women in politics right now. So we will let you go. Thank you for adjusting your schedule to do this with us. I appreciate it.

 

KETTLER: Thanks for having me.

 

GAUDETTE: Now, right after a quick break, we will continue this conversation with three female Idaho lawmakers about their thoughts on this historic achievement. Stay with us.

 

More Idaho Matters right now, as we mentioned in our last segment last Saturday, history was made. This was when Senator Kamala Harris became the first woman to become vice president-elect of the United States. Now, when the Biden presidency begins on January 20th, she will also be the first Black and South Asian person to hold the office of vice president. So we're now being joined by three Idaho lawmakers who have helped to shatter that glass ceiling as well. Senator Cherie Buckner-Webb, Senator Maryanne Jordan and Representative Melissa Wintrow. Thank you all for joining us today.

 

ALL: Thank you. Thank you.

 

GAUDETTE: And Senator Buckner-Webb, a huge thank you to you, you had a little bit of dental work done yesterday. So thank you for doing this with us today. I really appreciate it.

 

CHERIE BUCKNER-WEBB: Any chance to champion a woman at work, it's my joy. Thank you for having me here today.

 

GAUDETTE: So let's start with what this historic moment and achievement means for each of you. And Senator Jordan, can I start with you on that?

 

MARYANNE JORDAN: Sure. You know, it was such a fascinating thing to watch her on that stage on Saturday night, and it really kind of hit me like a ton of bricks. We are all accustomed to working with one another and with a host of other really talented women in our environments. But we've never seen a woman in that position and on that stage. And it was such a meaningful thing to see. She's such an accomplished, brilliant person and to honestly shout out to president-elect Biden for seeing that ability and the opportunity to make this kind of a difference and tapping her for that role. So it was a big night.

 

GAUDETTE: Mm hmm. Representative Wintrow, what about you? What does this mean for you?

 

MELISSA WINTROW: Well, I have to say, the thing I remember most is when they panned out to the crowd and they showed little girls, you know, just proud and I saw women crying, I'm getting a little emotional right now. But, you know, the number of tears falling, I can see myself on that stage and we know that matters. And, you know, to see the aftermath of all these Facebook posts of kids wearing shirts that I can see myself in the presidency and little girls empowered and Black girls empowered. Wow. Just a powerful moment. I mean, I just was sitting by that TV taking photos of the television screen! 

 

GAUDETTE: And Senator Buckner-Webb what about you? What kind of meaning did that have for you?

 

BUCKNER-WEBB: It's really a heavy-duty meaning but I want to tell you that it was first sparked for me in 1975 when Shirley Chisholm ran. So we've been waiting for this day since then and we have been knowing that you have to be a woman of a certain age, of course. But Black women across the United States have been saying it won't be long. How long will it be? It won't be long. And we have felt that day was coming. So it's a dream realized, although it's a different office, it's still a woman in a high level position in the United States government.

 

GAUDETTE: Well, Senator Buckner-Webb, what we should point out--

 

BUCKNER-WEBB: I remember well the first day I took office in the legislature, Jill Gill, a professor at Boise State, brought me the magazine on which Shirley was on the front page of running for office. She brought it to me. It was a legacy that she shared with me. And I own it.

 

GAUDETTE: And Senator Buckner-Webb, I think that we need to point out that you have achieved some firsts as well. You were the first elected African-American to the Idaho legislature as well as the first Black woman in the legislature. So I'm curious about the burden of carrying that title of first.

 

BUCKNER-WEBB: Well, I don't know that I necessarily carry it as a burden, I choose to reframe it as seeing as an opportunity to open the door for others of my sisters. And that's the way I've been raised. And that's what my expectation is. I think that every woman that takes on a position that is anathema to what women have done before-- I remember when there were no women on the radio. You know, the first one that comes we know that opens the door for the next one. And that that's the wonderful thing. I'd rather champion the opportunity. And one of the other things that women do is they coalesce with each other when one makes it. We're not sitting out in the backyard saying, what was she wearing or how she's going to act. I say 'go girl' and supporting each other. And I see that with women of color. I see that with white women. I see women across the world because women have been in positions of leadership in government a long time in other places in the world. And we, the progressive Americans, have been a little late to the party.

 

GAUDETTE: Right. Right. And Senator Jordan, you you actually put something on social media that was, I think, fairly profound. You were talking with your husband and you and you just you said and I'm paraphrasing here, basically, like, 'I've never seen someone on a stage of that level that looks like me, but you always have.'

 

JORDAN: I always have, but I haven't. I mean, yeah, he always has, and that's when the the enormity of it really kind of hit me. I mean, you know, the whole week was so chaotic to begin with that it was odd that we almost forgot about what a big deal this was for--. 

 

GAUDETTE: Right. Yeah.

 

JORDAN: When she walked out and I just I got really emotional and he asked me, are you OK? And I said, you know, your whole life, you've grown up seeing people on the stage that look like you. And and I've never, you know, at my age, which is not young, I've never seen that before. And it was phenomenal. And then, like Melissa said, you know, all the all the moms of little girls, all the little girls, it was just really powerful. My sisters were texting me. I'm in tears. This is so amazing. And it was just a remarkable moment.

 

GAUDETTE: Yeah. And Representative Wintrow, I'm curious to know your thoughts, too. And we talked about this a little bit in the first segment with political scientist Jaclyn Kettler. But about what this means for gender roles. I know that you have taught women's studies and gender studies at Boise State. But, you know, I don't want to say the flip-flopping of gender roles, but I mean, but stereotypically, this is what's happening. And what does that mean for our society?

 

WINTROW: Well, she was right on target in that, you know, Kamala Harris is breaking down, as well as every other woman in public office has been doing, but her in the highest sense, obviously, is really humanizing gender roles. And I heard Gloria Steinem once say that, you know, the goal of all of us should be to humanize gender roles so people can read human beings first and not limited by what the expectations of traditional society are about what a woman should do with a man should do, because that even excludes all people, people who are trans, et cetera. So, you know, we talked about it in my gender studies class. People are just elated, again, because of the humanization of roles and to get past limiting people based on a gender expectation. That will, I think, slowly but surely, hopefully unravel some of that tradition that holds people back, let people thrive and be who they are and want to be.

 

GAUDETTE: And what about this idea -- and it's not even an idea because it's true -- we know that sexism and racism exist in our country, in our society, in our state. Senator Buckner-Webb, how how do you walk through that as an African-American woman in such a high position of power that Kamala Harris is going into because there's no doubt she is going to be facing this?

 

BUCKNER-WEBB: Well, first of all, I think the expectation is there is that it will be difficult, and I think the same is true for white women in certain positions. The expectations are different and you don't get into the pool unless you're ready to learn how to swim. We even have to change our language. If I can use an example that you just said just briefly a minute ago, you said something about that Kamala's husband will allow his wife to focus on her career. I mean, even some of the language we use, it still puts women in a second class situation. He doesn't need to allow her to do it, she has earned the right, responsibility and has all the experience to do it. So a lot of times we don't even realize that our language tends to put somebody in a lesser than situation. So I think when you think about it, women are operating with one foot in business one foot in medicine, one foot in everything our whole life. We are just not getting the accolades that men do as a rule of thumb. So there's an expectation that we do it, but we don't get the credit for doing it.

 

So it can be trying at times. But one of the things that women have is an innate ability to know how to read the room and how to walk the talk that works. We've had to do that. We've been forced to do that. And I think my colleagues on the phone can concur with that. We expect obstacles. We know we have to be able to understand that we walk in a duality, if you will, in our work environment.

 

GAUDETTE: Senator Jordan, can you talk a little bit more about that, especially because both you and Senator Buckner-Webb are retiring? And what has it been like for you within your political career to have to walk that line? Because it's unfortunate that we as women, we've had to do that, as Senator Buckner-Webb just said. 

 

WINTROW: And we do it well! Sorry.

 

GAUDETTE: Well, yes, we do.

 

JORDAN: Yeah, we've gotten pretty good at it. You know, I've had the great good fortune to, over the years, work with some folks who have just been about the work. And those are the men that we hope are kind of raising their kids to think the same way. It's not about the roles, it's just about the work and doing good work. We've also had the opportunity to work with people who don't really think that way. And I think for women, one of the toughest things is, you know, when you're in an environment where you know you're capable, you know you're competent, and you spend time, quite frankly, being condescended to in some really difficult ways. It can be very frustrating. But as Senator Buckner-Webb said, you learn to navigate that. And I think that that pulls us as women together to try to work through to find solutions and keep moving forward. But those things are becoming less and less as we grow and go on. And as you know, people like you Gemma raise sons who don't think that way. And, you know, hopefully, it's just incremental progress that makes this all an afterthought at some point in time.

 

GAUDETTE: You bring up a good point, Senator Jordan, about raising sons, because I've been reflecting on this a lot and not just what it means for girls and women to finally, finally have a woman in this position. But what that means for our boys. Right. And it was interesting. So I have a 12-year-old and then my youngest, he-- it's his birthday today, he turns nine. And I asked both of them individually, separately, their thoughts on this election. And so the other night I've got my youngest and I said, well, you know, Joe Biden is going to be the president, right? Yes. So do you know who the vice president's going to be? And he says, Kamala Harris. And I said, and what makes that special? And he looks at me and he just goes first African-American and a girl?

 

And I go, right, and I'm like, and what do you think about that? And he goes, I can either be the vice president or I can marry her?

 

BUCKNER-WEBB: All right, all right, all right! Good job, mom! 

 

JORDAN: Way to go, Gemma! 

 

GAUDETTE: But then with my oldest, you know, a similar conversation. And he just kind of looking at me like, what is the big deal about this? And I said, well, what do you think? And he just looks at me and he goes, Well, Mom, it was just a matter of time.

 

JORDAN: You know, it's a big deal. That shouldn't be a big deal.

 

GAUDETTE: Exactly. That's exactly my point. And what hit me in this moment was that when I look at my children, they have known a Black man as the president of the United States. They've known a white man as the president of the United States. They saw a woman run for president of the United States. And now they are seeing a Black South Asian woman becoming the next vice president. So their lived experience is so incredibly different than our lived experience.

 

WINTROW: Well, and if I may, I think that's what one of the struggles is with our country right now is. My sense is too that younger folks are more open and not as rigid or strenuous expectations, but it's folks our age and older that want to hold on to something in particular if it's benefited them. And it's very difficult to watch what they perceive as, you know, their tradition, memory, history, whatever, not the same, but it hasn't really been inclusive of all people. 

 

BUCKNER-WEBB: Good point. 

 

WINTROW: But I see huge, huge tension. My own brother and his son, you know, very different.

 

GAUDETTE: Right.

 

BUCKNER-WEBB: And leadership styles are so unique, some of the things that we need to focus on and to bring to people's attention that women's leadership styles are often the same, but some different. We're more collaborative. We develop a broad base of support. We know that's necessary because there's so few of us. We're more mission-driven, not just goals, position and power kind of things. We bring a lot of depth and breadth to leadership. Many have a spiritual base. I'm not talking religious base, but understanding of the universe and the connectedness of mankind. So there's some great ads we bring to the party.

 

WINTROW: Well, and I think Senator Bucknor Webb, what resonates what she just said is that we've had to do it. We've learned it. And so it becomes second nature to us. So we learn to-- at least I have in all my positions, learn to lead from the quote-unquote bottom. So I have to collect the resources and convince the right people in order to get what I need. And sometimes I wonder, what would it be like to just say it's going to happen this way? But the process to get us there creates resilience. It creates creativity. It creates energy.

 

BUCKNER-WEBB: Better products. Yeah, end results a good job.

 

GAUDETTE: And Senator Jordan, getting back to your point of when we look at the younger generation, right. Like my children being an example and being boys, is that I learned so much from those conversations that I have with my boys. And it made me very aware of this is historic for me as a woman. I want this to be ordinary for my boys. I don't want this to be remarkable and so thoughts on that because of, as you mentioned, you know. Right. These younger generations being more open, being more inclusive.

 

JORDAN: You know, it almost sounds from your conversations with them that it is kind of ordinary to them, I mean, you are explaining your life experience and why it's so extraordinary to you, but to them, it almost sounds like, well, duh, mom, you know.

 

GAUDETTE: Totally.

 

JORDAN: And I'm very excited that you might be the mother in law of a future vice president, too. That's pretty cool.

 

GAUDETTE: I think that'd be super cool.

 

JORDAN: But, you know, and I think that's sort of the path we walk with this, is we explain why it is so remarkable to us that in our lifetime we've gotten to see this and we all hope that a little bit of the work that we've done kind of is part of the rising tide that lifts this boat. But what did it we're just ordinary and that we were just looking at people who are either qualified or not qualified. And that's the other thing we have to be careful about. We have to be careful about not, you know, just saying anybody can grow up to be president or vice president. I think we've learned that lesson and we need to be really evaluating candidates. And you look at Vice President-elect Harris and she's just stunningly qualified for this job. She's brilliant, brings experience to it. So, you know, I look forward to the day we don't have to do these interviews anymore. I need to talk about something else.

 

GAUDETTE: Yeah, exactly right. And final thoughts on what she said on Saturday night when she says: 'I may be the first, but I won't be the last.'. 

 

BUCKNER-WEBB: I was on a group chat with just about forty-five women across the United States and in Europe. I don't know who goes to the trouble to set up all those emails. But there was crying and there were five thousand things you needed to read. And all of them were pointed by saying, Yes, sister, I'm with you. Yes, I'm with you. Yes, I'm with you. And so it is. And so we'll let it be because we have claimed it now. We claimed it.

 

GAUDETTE: There you go. I want to thank you three. Thank you for the work that the three of you have done to break ceilings in Idaho. We have a long way to go in this state, but we will get there. And it is good to see women in these positions.

 

ALL: Thank you so much. Woo! Go girl! Love you! All right! Bye bye.

 

GAUDETTE: We have been talking with Senator Sherry Buckner-Webb, Senator Maryanne Jordan and Idaho Representative Melissa Wintrow.

Have a question or comment for the show? Tweet @KBSX915 using #IdahoMatters

 

Frankie Barnhill is the Senior Producer of Idaho Matters, Boise State Public Radio's daily show and podcast. She's always interested in hearing surprising and enlightening stories about life in the West. Have an idea for Idaho Matters? Drop her a line!
Gemma is the host of Idaho Matters, Boise State Public Radio's daily show which broadcasts live Monday-Friday at noon. She is an award-winning journalist and has spent the majority of her broadcasting career in Idaho. Gemma was a television news anchor and reporter in Boise for close to 15 years. She came to Boise in 1999 to start Fox 12.