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As Biden mulls his choice, women's groups brace for sexist, racist attacks on VP

A number of big-name women's groups are issuing warnings about the kinds of attacks they expect to be made against a woman running mate.
Supporters of Joe Biden cheers as he speaks at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia on March 10, 2020.Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Consider it a lesson learned the hard way.

As Joe Biden nears a decision on his vice presidential running mate, women’s groups are mobilizing to proactively combat the kind of “isms” that negatively impact women running for political office.

These groups are taking actions that range from putting news outlets on notice that they will “have her back,” to popping up rapid response teams tasked with tracking and calling out sexism and racism in real time. It’s a coalition dedicated to rooting out a problem that has long plagued women in politics.

“We’ve all been to this movie before,” Tina Tchen, President and CEO of the advocacy group Times Up, told NBC News. Tchen says the conversations among women in charge of these groups had been “building for a few weeks,” borne of a desire to stomp out the negative biases before they start. “We knew what was going to happen and then, lo and behold, it’s unfolding before us.”

Multiple leaders involved in the effort referenced the current conversations around Joe Biden's vice presidential short list to illustrate what they are trying to combat, though they are not coordinating with the Biden campaign.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., was deemed “too ambitious” by some anonymous Biden supporters, for example. And one recent article likened the selection process to an episode of The Bachelor. Those moments reinforce the need for education and priming people to notice sexism and racism — for a media that’s still largely male-dominated and also for voters.

Last week, leaders from various women’s organizations — including Times Up, EMILY’s List, Planned Parenthood, Supermajority, NARAL, and others — sent a letter to media outlets, urging them to use this moment to take stock: “A woman VP candidate, possibly a Black or Brown woman candidate, requires the same kind of internal consideration about systemic inequality as you undertook earlier this year” around the killing of George Floyd and the civil unrest that followed,” they wrote.

On MSNBC Sunday, former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett — one of the signees on the letter — advised simply: “Deal with the substance. Don’t talk about what she looks like. ... Let’s stop describing us with words you wouldn’t use to describe a man.”

That doesn’t mean the candidates should be immune to criticism.

“We’re not saying any attack on a woman is sexist. We’re not saying that any criticism of a woman is unfair,” Christina Reynolds, Vice President of Communications at Emily’s List, said. “What we’re saying is there are ways in which we make women seem different, seem like they don't belong here, particularly women of color, and that we want to call that out so people are aware of it and they look for it and they don’t accept it as the facts.”

The initial effort is mostly one of awareness and a campaign waged on social media platforms on cable television programs that play outsize roles in establishing the narratives of a presidential campaign.

Feminist group Ultraviolet released a style guide for how to “avoid unintentional sexist and racist bias or disinformation when interviewing, writing about, or moderating content about women and people of color running for or holding political office” — from the photos chosen to accompany articles to not repeating coded language without properly contextualizing it. Meanwhile, at Times Up, a newly-announced team of five staffers will keep a close watch for sexist and racist bias, aiming to “shine a light on it before it takes hold.”

Additionally, almost 700 Black women have co-signed an open letter decrying how some of those candidates for VP have been "disrespected in the media over the last few weeks.”

“While some of the relentless attacks on Black women and our leadership abilities have been more suggestive than others,” the letter says, “make no mistake — we are qualified and ambitious without remorse.”

And while the effort is coming together in the midst of the vice presidential selection process, the groups have their eyes fixed on the general election and President Donald Trump, who repeatedly spoke in sexist dog whistles about then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016, calling her “the devil” or saying that she lacked the “strength and stamina to be president.”

“If past is prologue,” Alexis McGill Johnson of Planned Parenthood said, “once the candidate is named, [we know] the kinds of attacks that will be unleashed. And so, it’s getting in front of it.”