INDIANAPOLIS — Years ago, when my children were small, I used to tell this joke.
My daughter was just a little more than 2. My son just had been born.
A happy, proud father, I’d tell my friends that they were going to be the first sister and brother to be president of the United States.
Once I told that joke to a female friend I’d known for decades, who wanted to banter a bit and said she was glad I wasn’t forgetting my daughter.
“Well,” I responded, “my son will have an easier time of it.”
“Why?” my friend asked, “because he’s a guy?”
“No,” I said. “Because by the time he gets to the White House, his sister will have served two terms and moved on to being chief justice of the Supreme Court. His big sister will be able to give him some tips — and watch his back.”
My friend laughed.
So did I.
As I said, it was a joke.
But, like many jokes, it had a serious point.
We shouldn’t place artificial limitations on what people, regardless of gender, can accomplish. Doing so hurts them — crushes their dreams and spirits.
And it hurts the rest of us, too.
I’ve been around politics for decades. I’ve come across many people in positions of leadership — female and male — who were capable, committed and driven. I’ve also come across people who not only couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time, but likely couldn’t do one or the other without significant staff support.
Most of the folks in that latter group — the ones who couldn’t walk or chew gum without detailed instructions — were men. Often, they remained in office for 10, 15 or 20 years.
I’ve also watched female politicians and candidates for political office try to negotiate the minefield of public perceptions about what leaders should be and how women should act.
I’ve seen them work to be tough without seeming threatening. Empathetic without seeming weak. Forceful without being bossy. Human and approachable without seeming to be too emotional.
These are not standards to which we hold male leaders.
We’ve got a president of the United States now who has been indulging in a pity party for two weeks because the election didn’t go his way. As thousands upon thousands of the citizens suffer and die from a raging pandemic and more than 21 million collecting unemployment wonder how they’re going to make it through the days ahead, our commander-in-chief finds whatever corner he can to sit and feel sorry for himself.
I’ve known many women — my mother, my wife, my sister, my daughter, my aunts and my nieces among them — who have suffered more profound disappointments and setbacks than losing an election. None of them — not one — ever surrendered to self-pity so paralyzing she couldn’t work to help others.
But the thing is, none of his followers say Donald Trump is too emotional or too weak to lead.
My point here isn’t that women are tougher and more resilient than men. Nor is it the opposite.
No, my point is that we insult all human beings when we refuse to weigh their potential and contributions based on their specific individual capacities. We also do ourselves a tremendous disservice by depriving our communities and our country of the talents of more than half the population.
Kamala Harris is set to become the first female vice president in U.S. history. It’s too early to know what kind of vice president she will be.
But it’s not too early to make a commitment to judge her on the quality of her service and not on things that shouldn’t matter to anyone but Harris and her family. Nor is it too early to rejoice that, finally, an artificial barrier has fallen.
That’s good for women.
In fact, it’s good for everyone.
My children are older now, in the early days of adulthood. Although both, in their own ways, are politically aware, neither has much interest in ever running for office.
I still want both my children to follow their own paths, free of arbitrary obstruction.
And I’m glad they still give each other tips and watch each other’s back.
Just as all sisters and brothers should.