Joe Biden has barely begun his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, and it looks like he’s already given up on the gender stuff.
On Thursday, soon after Biden announced his entrance into the race with a tweeted video, the New York Times published Anita Hill’s account of a phone call he’d made to her a few weeks earlier. Ostensibly, the point of the call was to make amends with the woman he’d famously failed as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1991, when Hill testified that then–Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had repeatedly sexually harassed her.
But according to both Hill and Biden’s team, the former vice president didn’t apologize for asking Hill skeptical questions about her alleged harassment or for failing to call three witnesses who were willing to echo or back up Hill’s allegations. He didn’t apologize for allowing Republicans on the committee to badger her with accusations that she suffered from “erotomania,” a condition characterized by delusions that a higher-ranking person has the hots for them. Biden didn’t even apologize for telling Hill she’d get to testify first, then, without notifying her, allowing Thomas to go first instead.
In fact, Hill told the Times, Biden didn’t apologize at all. Biden’s team said he conveyed “his regret for what she endured.” What she endured. Not what he did.
Over the past couple of years, as Biden has been mulling a presidential run, he’s occasionally expressed sympathy for Hill in public. Every time, he’s refused to put any blame on his own shoulders. “I’m so sorry that she had to go through what she went through,” he told Glamour in 2017. Later that year, he gave an interview to Teen Vogue. “My one regret is that I wasn’t able to tone down the attacks on her by some of my Republican friends,” he said. “I wish I had been able to do more for Anita Hill. I owe her an apology.” And when Biden appeared on The View on Friday, in his first sit-down interview since launching his campaign, he again declined to take any responsibility. “I’m sorry for the way [Hill] got treated,” he told the show’s panel of women. “I don’t think I treated her badly.”
The fact that he gave these dutiful half-apologies to outlets and shows that are designed to appeal to women is typical of the Biden approach to gender: more concerned with where and how he appears than what he says and does. None of this is surprising given Biden’s reaction to the personal accounts of women who said he’d touched them in ways that made them feel uncomfortable. He could’ve responded with a gesture of humility, saying he’d learned a valuable lesson and would take responsibility for his habitual disregard for the wants and needs of the women he meets. Instead, he released a video that spun his touchiness as an integral part of his humanity, erased the gendered aspect of his actions (he said he touches both women and men in the ways the women described, though no men have said he kissed their heads), and failed to offer so much as a perfunctory apology. Then, just a couple of days after publishing the video, Biden made two jokes mocking the women he’d discomfited and the very notion of consent. Then, on The View, Biden started to apologize for his handsiness, then said, “I’m not sorry in the sense that I think I did anything that was intentionally designed to do anything wrong or be inappropriate.”
The message Biden is sending is that he cares about women as a political bloc but not as individuals whose perspectives merit concerted empathy. He either thinks female voters will be satisfied by a pat on the head accompanied by a roll of the eyes, or he believes his strong support among older Democrats—many of whom share his eye-rolling impulse when it comes to gender issues—will be enough to win a contested primary without getting the buy-in of progressive feminists.
Nothing encapsulates that wager better than the opening lines of the first email of the Biden campaign: “America is an idea. Based on a founding principle that all men are created equal.” The men in this statement would raise the hackles of anyone who has given even a passing thought to the way women were written out of the country’s founding document and the reasons why women shouldn’t be written out of contemporary political messaging. I can’t decide which would be worse: Biden’s camp neglecting to employ anyone with a rudimentary instinct for gender inclusion or the campaign making a deliberate decision to exclude women from its paraphrasing of the Declaration of Independence so as not to alienate Biden supporters who grumble about oversensitive feminists. Either way, this is the work of a campaign that sees women as an obstacle to circumvent, a collection of voters whose niche concerns can be quelled with an appearance on The View.