White House correspondents reflect on women in politics in virtual forum

Emily Kuwaye and Declan Houlihan

The forum’s theme was chosen in honor of the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, the fifty years since women first matriculated at the College, and Kamala Harris’s swearing-in as the first woman to serve as vice president of the United States. (Photo courtesy of Veronica Bosley.)

Journalists Maggie Haberman and Yamiche Alcindor participated in a College-organized webinar on March 3 titled “Forum on the Status of Women in Politics.” Moderated by Michel Martin, the event focused on the visibility and influence of women as voters and leaders in American politics. The event was arranged by Gregory Mitchell, associate professor and chair of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies and chair of the College’s Lecture Committee, and co-sponsored by the Class of ’71 Public Affairs Forum. 

Haberman is a New York Times White House correspondent, CNN political analyst, and recipient of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. Alcindor is PBS NewsHour’s White House correspondent, as well as an NBC and MSNBC political contributor. Martin is an Emmy-winning journalist, weekend host of NPR’s All Things Considered, and a contributor to PBS’s Amanpour & Company.

The webinar’s theme — “The Status of Women in Politics” — was chosen in honor of the approximate hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage, the roughly fifty years since women first matriculated at Williams, and Kamala Harris becoming the first woman to serve as vice president of the United States.

Martin began by reflecting on former President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign. “I’m particularly interested because, you know, the Trump campaign was noteworthy for the way it kind of signaled its racial stance,” she said. Martin then asked if Trump’s stance on women was as obvious, and when Alcindor and Haberman realized that his campaign would be atypical.

For Alcindor, the realization was immediate, she said. While working sixteen- or seventeen-hour work days covering Senator Bernie Sanders’ Democratic primary campaign, she was riveted whenever she turned on her hotel room television and saw Trump speaking. “I realized that you could succeed in America and do all these outlandish things,” she said. Alcindor said she realized that America’s political landscape was about entertaining constituents, a role suited for famous people.

It became clear to Haberman in August 2015 that the 2016 election would not be a typical one when Trump verbally attacked former Fox News host Megyn Kelly, who had asked him a question during a debate that he did not like. 

According to Haberman, gender played a pivotal role in Clinton’s defeat. “There was an aspect that I think that a lot of people, if… you held a gun to their head, would admit that they weren’t ready for a woman president,” Haberman said. “I think that there’s not really anything Hillary Clinton could have done about that other than be a man… Her campaign made plenty of mistakes… but I think how they handled gender was not actually one of them.” 

Both Alcindor and Haberman noted that Trump did not seem to lose any supporters after the Access Hollywood tape was released. “I was interviewing Republican women, and they instantly started saying, ‘Well this is how my husband talks … this is locker room talk,’” Alcindor said.

However, Alcindor did not exclusively attribute these views to ignorance. “There’s also a sector of the society… made up of women who have had to deal with so much, so much assault, so much attacks, so much just trying to get through it,” she said. “That was something that they could overlook because they had dealt with worse.”

Martin asked Alcindor and Haberman about Trump’s handling of criticism, especially from journalists. While both agreed that Trump was quick to attack anyone who challenged him, Haberman said he was not an “equal opportunity” attacker. “I think women of color in particular bothered him,” she said. “He did mask it somewhat because there were times where he did look like he was an equal opportunity offender, but actually I think that it was more pointed; I think that it was nastier.” 

Alcindor, who is herself a woman of color and the daughter of Haitian immigrants, added that she believes Trump’s attitude towards women in general contributed to his defeat in the 2020 presidential election. “I realized that there was this visceral anger of feeling like he had disrespected a number of women, and a number of women on TV, and a number of women in real time,” she said. 

“The constant tweeting drove them crazy,” Haberman said. “I think women found it really off-putting… I think 3 a.m. tweets from the President of the United States is… unusual, to put it mildly.”

Alcindor, in particular, faced Trump’s anger while covering his presidency, with the former president at one point deriding a question Alcindor had asked as “racist,” and another time directing her to “be nice. Don’t be threatening.” Both Haberman and Martin commended Alcindor’s grace and composure despite Trump’s vitriol. 

In contrast to the attacks against her, Alcindor referenced a Trump interview with journalist Jonathan Swan, who is white and male. “Jonathan Swan pushed back on him several times,” she said. “And I remember watching that interview and thinking, ‘I literally could not have ever done an interview where I could have pushed back like that, and he would have kept his cool.’ I also think that the fact that he was a white male and maybe there was a good, a better relationship there. President Trump wasn’t walking out of the room.” 

Martin then shifted focus to the victors of the 2020 presidential election, especially in regards to Kamala Harris becoming vice president. “To what do you attribute the victory?” Martin asked. “Do you think [Harris’s] presence on the ticket was relevant?” 

Alcindor noted that while Harris’s presence was important, many people simply did not know her. “I remember going to South Carolina … and people literally didn’t know who she was,” she said. “I think once Joe Biden was on a ticket … having been the Vice President of the first Black President and his record and his rhetoric on race. I think that that is a lot of the reason why Black people were excited about him in particular, and then were even more excited when he put a Black and Asian woman on the ticket.”

Haberman agreed that a woman of color holding the vice presidency is important but noted that Harris’ role in the White House remains uncertain. “There has not been a ton of focus on her centrally from the West Wing in the first six weeks of this administration,” she said. “I think a lot of that is because their focus has been on COVID and on the COVID relief bill.”

On the future of women in Congress, Haberman said that although Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi “has been very effective in terms of… holding her caucus together… I think that there is going to become more of a push to have a younger leader for Democrats.” She said that “as time marches on, particularly because if you look across the spectrum of government, with the exception of the vice president, it is a white older group of people.” 

All three agreed that women need more representation in politics. “144 women are now members of Congress — that is the highest it’s been in history,” Martin said. “That’s still only about a quarter of the Congress, so it’s still sort of overwhelmingly male.”

“In some ways I feel like, yes, we’re seeing progress,” Alcindor said. “But I also think that it’s just progress that might look good on paper, but then when you start to actually look a little deeper, you realize that we saw some of the same problems that we had 20, 30 years ago.” 

Haberman added that having the country elect its first female president should not even be considered a broken barrier until these historic moments start to be repeated.

Although the process will likely take a long time, Alcindor stressed empathy as a tool to help fix inequality. “I think that there really has to be this feeling that you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and that you can really actually see yourself in them,” she said.