When the presidential race began, back in summer 2019, the field of candidates hustling to become the Democratic Party’s nominee was the most diverse in US political history; there were women (including Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar), women of colour (Kamala Harris) and men of colour (including Cory Booker and Andrew Yang) and, for the first time, an openly gay, married man (Pete Buttigieg).
Cut to October 2020, and the presidential race could not look more pale, male and stale, with Donald Trump and Joe Biden, two white, heterosexual septuagenarians shouting over each other in the first televised presidential “debate” in a manner reminiscent of Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets.
But at least behind every great man — or in this case, two fairly mediocre men whom America deserves far better than to have to choose between — is a team of influential women. Here are the women behind the scenes of the most hotly contested election of a lifetime.
The First Lady of the USA is usually the top-pick “surrogate” in a presidential campaign, the most important stand-in for a politician on the stump, making speeches, kissing babies, pressing the public flesh. Melania, however, hasn’t even been seen in public since before it was announced that she’d tested positive for Covid on October 1.
This isn’t the first time questions have been raised about her whereabouts — in the past her long absences between (stilted) public appearances have led to colourful speculation that she’d been replaced by a robot. A robot, however, might be easier to keep on message. The 50-year-old former model caused controversy recently with comments about preparing the White House for Christmas (“who gives a f***?”) Even when not speaking, her fashion choices have got her in hot water, such as the time she flew to Texas to visit a shelter housing children separated from their parents at the US border in a $39 Zara jacket bearing the words: “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” Her notable absence from the campaign trail may, in fact, be tactical.
Ivanka Trump (and Tiffany)
Unlike the President’s wife, his eldest daughter, 38-year-old Ivanka, is a key part of the campaign machine, with husband Jared Kushner. An adviser to daddy on “job creation, economic empowerment, workforce development and entrepreneurship”, she put her privileged foot in it this summer by telling 18 million unemployed Americans to “find something new”. Like, say, a family dynasty. A polished operator, and her father’s clear favourite, Donald has openly attempted to position Ivanka as his rightful successor in the West Wing.
Her younger half-sister, 27-year-old Tiffany, is unencumbered by a role in her father’s cabinet and instead runs with the “Snap Pack”, the offspring of wealthy New York families including Kyra Kennedy (great-niece of John F Kennedy and daughter of Robert F Kennedy Jr), Gaïa Jacquet-
Matisse (great-great-granddaughter of painter Henri Matisse) and Princess Maria-Olympia of Greece. When Tiffany graduated from law school, Trump tweeted: “Just what I need … a lawyer in the family.”
Kellyanne Conway (and Claudia)
One of Trump’s most longstanding, trusted advisors, Conway is credited with being the first woman to run a successful presidential campaign, in 2016. Famed for coining the curious notion of “alternative facts” over the attendance figures for Trump’s inauguration, she was promoted to the post of senior counselor to the President in 2018 after the departure of Steve Bannon.
Conway’s domestic set-up however, seems, well, complicated. Her lawyer husband George set up The Lincoln Project, a witty, frequently viral anti-Trump campaign made up of disaffected Republicans, while daughter Claudia is a TikTok influencer who criticises the administration and calls her own mother’s behaviour “internalised misogyny”. Though she resigned from her post in August, Conway is still inner-circle, signalled by her loyally contracting coronavirus at the White House superspreader event in late September.
The former White House communications director, who resigned in 2018, 32-year-old ex-Ralph Lauren model Hicks spent the past two years in lucrative corporate PR for Murdoch’s Fox Corp, earning $1.9 million in 17 months. Her absence from government also corresponded with rumours about a relationship with staff secretary Rob Porter, who himself resigned after two ex-wives accused him of emotional and physical abuse. Hicks also reportedly had an on-off relationship with Corey Lewandowski, a former Trump campaign manager.
One of the President’s closest confidantes, with an ability to “translate Trump” to others, Hicks returned to the campaign this spring as his senior advisor, tasked with keeping him focused on the re-election bid. She also recently became a poster girl for his attitude towards Covid when she became the first member of his senior staff to come down with symptoms aboard Air Force One. At least three dozen more staff and advisors tested positive in due course.
Joe Biden’s running mate, whose calmly damning debate put-down — “Mr Vice-President, I am speaking” — became an instant meme this month. Harris had shattered a thousand glass ceilings before she even stepped out onto the stage, as the first woman of colour ever to be nominated as a US vice-presidential candidate.
The daughter of a Jamaican father and an Indian mother, the 56-year-old senator and former attorney general of California gained international prominence with her fierce questioning of Brett Kavanaugh at his confirmation hearings in 2018, and has a side-eye to sink a thousand ships.
Known as “Momala” to her adult stepchildren, she’s the power behind the Democrat’s presidential campaign. Her critics fear that 77-year-old Biden may fail to make it through even one term and “Kamala will take over the world”, but her supporters feel that would be the best outcome all round.
Already a well-known political commentator, at the age of 25 Sanders became Bernie Sanders’s (no relation) press secretary during his 2016 presidential campaign and joined the Biden team in spring 2019 as a senior advisor. Still only 30, she’s the youngest member of Biden’s inner circle and the highest-ranking African-American person on his campaign staff.
With her leopard-print dresses and huge sunglasses, she’s tough to miss among the white, male, suited-and-booted DC sorts, where she is part campaign operative, part media personality.
In the manner of thrusting overachievers everywhere, she’s also somehow found time to write a memoir, No, You Shut Up, referencing a spat she had on CNN in 2017 when, after white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli told her to “just shut up for a minute”. “He wouldn’t be telling me to shut up, in my opinion, if I wasn’t a young woman,” she said, “and if I wasn’t a young, Black woman.”
If a crack team of Nobel Prize-winning scientists attempted to engineer the wholesome ideal of a First Lady, they’d struggle to synthesise Joe Biden’s wife, Jill. The 69-year-old teacher met Biden on a blind date, after the death of his first wife Neilia and one-year-old daughter Naomi in a car accident.
Jill runs five miles a day, five days a week, and, if Biden is elected, she’ll be the first First Lady to carry on working — she’s vowed to continue her role as an English professor at North Virginia Community College.
But cross her at your peril. At Biden’s Super Tuesday rally in the spring, two protesters stormed the stage with placards urging “let dairy die” and, along with Symone Sanders, marathon-runner Jill sprang into action, blocking her husband with her body and physically restraining the protesters.
The self-described “Mom-in-Chief”, the former-First-Lady-turned-bestselling-memoirist-and-podcaster may now hold more public sway even than her ex-president husband, if her sell-out stadium tours for Becoming are anything to go by.
Polls regularly reveal Michelle to be one of the most popular — if not THE most popular — public figures in the US, and her passionate, powerful speeches have the power to move millions. The Chicago-born, Harvard-educated lawyer, with a side-eye to rival Kamala’s, has been open about her dislike of politics — she never wanted Barack to become president — and has stated that in spite of incessant calls for her to run for office, nothing could be further from her mind.
But, as campaign weapons go, they don’t come more deadly. She’s urged Americans to vote for Biden time and again — and her platform counts. This week she shared an Instagram video in support of the Democrat candidate that has been viewed more than two million times.