Following Kamala Harris’ historic election as the first female vice president-elect in the U.S., social media posts resurfaced allegations that youthful sexual impropriety allowed Ms. Harris to establish her political career in San Francisco. Last January, when Harris was a candidate in the Democratic presidential primaries, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown published an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle confirming that the two dated decades ago, concluding with: “So what?” Follow up reporting from Vox last year confirmed that the online attacks against Harris “don’t offer much in the way of substance, however. Instead, they appear to rely on lazy, misogynistic jabs that have little to do with Harris’s actual political achievements.”
Feminist activist and keen social commentator Lü Pin noticed after the U.S. elections that similar attacks were making the rounds on the Chinese internet. In a WeChat post at the @Huisheng account, Lü explains how this incident reveals a major “bug in the patriarchy,” one that is as relevant in Chinese society as it is in the U.S. Bold text was carried over from the original Chinese.
回声HUISHENG | Did the Vice President Climb the Ranks by Being a Mistress? The Truth about Harris’ Past
U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris recently set new precedents for women and minorities’ participation in government. However, “dirt” from her past has been unearthed, sticking her with the label of “mistress.”
Weibo user @LuKewen posted the following microblog which I think exaggerates Kamala’s “embarrassment”:
[November 10 9:20]
The internet has been full of praise for an article about the new vice president, Kamala Harris. After reading it I almost died of embarrassment.
This chick used her status as a mistress to break into politics. When she was 30, she met the second most important person in California politics who was 30 years her senior—speaker of the California State Assembly, Willie Brown. Brown lived in luxury and had a whole bunch of girlfriends. He was also investigated for taking illicit funds.
In 1994, Brown arranged for Harris to take posts (in name only) at the California Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board and later to the California Medical Assistance Commission. Every year she could receive a salary in the amount of several hundreds of thousands of dollars and the use of a luxury car provided by her boyfriend. Harris relied on Brown’s connections to climb upwards. It wasn’t long before she cast Brown underfoot and found a new little boyfriend; however, Brown didn’t care and the two continued to be friends.
Not long after Harris entered the San Francisco District Attorney’s office she had a falling out with her superiors and Brown arranged for her to be transferred to City Hall. In 2003 he even used his connections to call upon local financial groups to raise funds for her race to become the local District Attorney.
You could say that with Brown’s patronage, Harris, climbed step-by-step to where she is today.
Is this true? The following is my compilation and commentary after fact-checking foreign media sources.
Here’s the short version:
- At the time Kamala wasn’t a “mistress,” rather she was in a public relationship.
- It’s true that in the early period she received help from her partner, but not to the extent claimed, and the fact of her being helped is not that unique.
- That incident from her past certainly didn’t determine the entire course of her political career; she had already moved so far beyond that.
[…] Commentary in Vox states that those who obsess over Harris’ relationship with Brown ignore the fact that given Willie Brown’s influence in local politics at the time, no one could escape his help.
It is perhaps the case that a circle of conspirators with everyone on the inside is one part of what politics is. Kamala certainly benefited from her proximity to power, but what she received was no greater than the benefits received by prominent men like [California governor] Gavin Newsom. Did she fail to fulfill the obligations of her committee posts? I have yet to read reports of anything like this.
In 1995 when Kamala and Willie Brown separated, the latter assumed office as the mayor of San Francisco and served two consecutive terms. In 2003 when Kamala ran for the position of San Francisco District Attorney he was no longer in office. Willie Brown claimed that he provided Kamala with help during this election. However, what’s a bit more awkward is that it appears this old man overstated his assistance—all he did was donate $500 to her, and find someone to organize a fundraiser for her even though she had not agreed to this.
Moreover, Kamala at that time had already started to be plagued by negative commentary surrounding her history with Willie Brown. She herself described Willie Brown as an “albatross hanging around my neck.” She struck back resolutely and gave statements like:
“I don’t owe him a thing.”
“I refuse to design my campaign around criticizing Willie Brown for the sake of appearing to be independent when I have no doubt that I am independent of him—and that he would probably right now express some fright about the fact that he cannot control me.”
Willie Brown’s tenure as mayor of San Francisco left behind suspicions of corruption, but this had nothing to do with Kamala. She publicly expressed that she wouldn’t have any hesitation in prosecuting Willie Brown. This perhaps disappointed the man who had just spent $500 for her. In the aforementioned 2019 article, Willie Brown wrote with feeling:
“That’s politics for ya.”
[. . .] Society is always trying to define women by their partners (current and even former), their sexuality, their “inglorious” past . . . A female vice president’s great accomplishments can be obliterated the moment she is falsely labelled a “mistress.” The reason allegations of sexual impurity are so devastating is because they touch upon a sensitive point for society: By negotiating with men’s desires women can actually obtain resources that are rarely made available to them by “normal” channels. This is a bug in the patriarchy, and ambitious women who pursue this path must be punished to control the harm.
There are generally two ways of properly obtaining resources: through a fawning codependent relationship between men, like the relationship between Pence and Trump; and through inheritance in powerful families, like the Trump family and Bush family. By contrast, marriage only has half legitimacy—it’s no problem when men move up because of marriage; it’s also okay when women jump to a higher social class by marriage, but when they want to use this to enter the world of male privilege they are subject to every type of contempt, like in the case of Hillary Clinton. Moreover, Kamala has been found guilty of three trumped-up charges: (1) having extramarital relations, (2) going further than her former man, and (3) being too successful in the male social club that is politics. And this is even without mentioning that she belongs to groups that especially shouldn’t have a chance—Blacks, Asians, children of immigrants.
Choosing a president is for the benefit of the present and the future. Supporters of Kamala are not casting their votes based on her record 25 years ago. In fact, her detractors aren’t either. Therefore, the tale of her being a “mistress” has more to do with manipulation of public opinion by those on the right and Trump supporters, intent on disrupting the Democratic primaries before the election and weakening the legitimacy of a Biden administration after the election. In China, tales of her being a “mistress” satisfies the misogyny of some people and recreates an atmosphere of holding back women’s progress, preventing Chinese women from being inspired and lifted up by Kamala Harris. Furthermore, by wantonly broadcasting the sexual improprieties of a democratically-elected politician, these people also provide themselves with a type of evidence that they always urgently need: look, democratic politics are so messed up.
It’s not my intention to provide some kind of concrete defense for Kamala’s past, nor do I support women using sexual relations to improve their status. What I am saying is that when evaluating politicians, one must maintain a necessary (and not idealized) standard of gender equity. Moreover, one should not ignore the factual premise that we live in a patriarchal society. Some people use Kamala’s story as evidence that, for women to be successful, they must rely on help from the men in their lives—isn’t that the case? Okay, perhaps to a certain extent this is true, but the basic reason for this is that in this society, men control the resources. In fact, one could also say: for men to be successful they must rely on help from the men in their lives—isn’t that the case? With this as a premise it’s appropriate to quote Willie Brown’s retort: “So what?” [Chinese]
Translated by an anonymous CDT contributor.