Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), acting colleague of former Vice President Joe Biden, attends a coronavirus briefing in a makeshift studio at the Hotel DuPont in Wilmington, Delaware on August 13, 2020.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images
Kamala Harris cast the casting vote for the Democrats’ $ 1.9 trillion Covid Relief Act, which became law in the country last week. It was another important moment for the first female vice president in US history.
This week, Harris, who is of Indian descent, is at the center of government efforts to counter the growing anti-Asian violence.
Harris may not be the president, but for those on the front lines of the battle who want to see a woman behind the determined desk, her rise to number 2 is an undeniable victory to build on.
“This is a major milestone,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of the Emily’s List Political Action Committee, which has been at the forefront of this fight since 1985. “She will be in the room where the big decisions are made, where the agenda is set, with a perspective that has never been seen before.”
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In addition to being the first female vice president, Harris has the prospect of being the first black woman and the first Asian-American to hold office. Her multi-ethnic background made her a compelling choice for then-elected President Joe Biden as he sought a fellow campaigner to join the democratic coalition of voters he needed to win.
But Harris initially had higher ambitions. She was one of six democratic women to run for president in 2020, a historic achievement in a political system that has been hostile to female candidates since its inception.
“There were six women at the start in 2020, which was a really positive change for this process,” said Schriock. “There is usually only one and that has only happened a few times in our history.”
Harris’ office did not respond to a request for comment.
Efforts to elect a woman to the highest office in the country go back well over a century. Victoria Claflin Woodhull was the first woman to run for office as a candidate for the Equal Rights Party in 1872. Dozens of women tried to gain a foothold in the years that followed and they are listed here.
The most significant milestone comes a century later, when Rep. Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman to run for the Democratic nomination and became the first woman to win votes at the Democratic National Convention.
“Shirley Chisolm was a really important moment for women in this country,” said Schriock, even though her candidacy at the time was mostly symbolic.
And then Hillary Clinton changed the game dramatically. The former First Lady and New York Senator brought real-world experience and gravitas to her presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2016.
In her second campaign, the former secretary of state became the first woman to win a major nomination for a party and seemed ready to win anything.
The front runner
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at a rally in Cleveland on November 6, 2016.
Brian Snyder | Reuters
“Hillary Clinton was perceived not only as viable, but also as a front runner,” said Kelly Dittmar, associate professor of political science at Rutgers University.
Her election loss to Republican Donald Trump was a heavy blow to her legions of supporters, but Clinton won the referendum by 3 million, proving that Americans were finally ready to put their trust in a female leader.
This election also exposed the most egregious stereotypes that have kept women from leading the nation.
“One of the bigger gender stories in 2016 was the duplication of a traditional and toxic form of masculinity that Donald Trump relied on to win the election,” added Dittmar.
Trump aggressively attacked his rivals, using offensive language and racial and gender stereotypes to fuel voters’ fears and insecurities. His extreme tactics helped him win the Republican nomination and garner enough votes in three traditionally blue states to beat Clinton at college.
Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who ran for the Republican nomination during the 2016 primaries, saw Trump’s sexism firsthand when he was known to make comments that degrade her looks.
“Your opinion on my appearance is inappropriate”
Republican presidential candidates Carly Fiorina, former chairman and chief executive officer of Hewlett-Packard Co., and Scott Walker, Wisconsin governor, take to the stage during the Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California on September 16, 2015.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Fiorina, who became the first woman to run a Fortune 500 company, said she was used to being the only woman in the room and receiving comments about how she looked. But she put the clumsy shoe on the other foot: “Donald Trump’s comments about my face and all the rest of it, I think it was an example for some men who don’t really know how to deal with female competitors,” said them in an interview.
She responded to his remarks from the debate phase, in which she was able to communicate unfiltered with her audience. “What I wanted to convey was that every woman in America understands that it is not appropriate for a man to comment on your appearance if the subject is your competence or your ability, whether it is a positive or a negative comment” , she said. “Your opinion about my appearance is not only inappropriate, it’s irrelevant.”
Trump wasn’t the only one acting sexist during this chaotic election season. The press paid more attention than Trumps to Clinton’s clothes, hair and demeanor, Dittmar said.
Who would you like to have a beer with?
Hillary Clinton speaks as Donald Trump looks on during the City Hall Presidential Debate at Washington University on October 9, 2016 in St. Louis.
Rick Wilking Pool | Getty Images
The media also gave Trump more coverage. A report from the Shorenstein Center at Harvard Kennedy School found that Trump received about 15% more coverage than Clinton.
But voter attitudes remain the most critical stumbling block on a woman’s path to presidency: there is the idea that the president should “be someone we want to have a beer with, and that’s usually a man,” said Nadra Kareem Nittle , an experienced journalist covering politics and public order.
The rest of the world has had fewer problems producing political leaders. Dittmar stated that the structure of the American government had a lot to do with it. Most of the female leaders from Britain to Pakistan were prime ministers chosen by their party, not direct elections.
It’s different in America. “We have a very candidate-centered electoral system that reinforces stereotypical challenges. The presidency is a particularly masculine office. It continues to give male traits power and value.”
After all, the president is the commander in chief. “So, yes, we associate these roles with a man,” said Fiorina.
Clinton’s historic run and devastating loss, however, marked a turning point in women’s search for the highest office.
“What caused her loss was an ignition of political power within millions of women across the country who fell into rage and passion to save their communities and ran for office,” said Schriock.
Emily’s List has asked a whopping 60,000 women to run for office in the four years since the 2016 election, Schriock said. Compared to 962 women in the 2015-16 cycle.
Some of these women won a record number of seats in Congress during the 2018 halftime, which helped turn the house blue and hand the speaker’s gavel to Nancy Pelosi.
Clinton’s historic run also opened the way for the six Democrats to step on the 2020 presidential campaign path, including Harris and Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Kirsten Gillibrand.
Despite all the progress and diversity of the 2020 Democratic Primary Plan, voters ended up choosing 78-year-old white man Joe Biden as a candidate to compete with Trump.
Dittmar says the “election myth” guided voting behavior. “Democratic voters were particularly motivated by the urgency to beat Donald Trump,” she said. And an older white man seemed like the safest bet.
A bridge to the future
Former Vice President Joe Biden speaks with Senator Kamala Harris after the 2020 Democratic US Presidential Debate in Houston, Texas, September 12, 2019.
Mike Blake | Reuters
But he chose a 56-year-old black woman as his runmate and made him what Fiorina called “a transitional figure” and “a bridge to the future”.
She said Harris was instrumental in her victory, and President Biden “clearly sees her as a partner, a team-mate”.
So, will Harris be the one to finally take the plunge?
Your role is still being written by the administration. There is concern that the responsibility for breaking bonds in the Senate will affect her ability to take on meatier roles that will give her the kind of leadership experience that voters will accept.
Harris’ background as a biracial woman could make the journey more difficult if she chooses to run.
She was discriminated against in the 2020 campaign when rival Trump spread a racist conspiracy theory based on her immigrant parents from Jamaica and India. Republican officials often mispronounce their first names, which some consider discriminatory.
“They say you don’t belong, you are different,” A’shanti Gholar, president of Emerge America, who trains Democratic women to run for office, told the Sacramento Bee.
These obstacles will not go away.
Observers also say Democrats are unlikely to clear the field for a Harris candidacy in four or eight years if they remember Hillary Clinton’s near-coronation in 2016. An overcrowded elementary school is almost a given.
Even so, her current platform as Vice President offers her benefits that no other woman has ever had in giving her the leadership role the campaign promised when she got the nod.
“Being a woman and a woman of color will make it harder for her than other vice presidents,” said Nittle. “But she is clearly in a better position to become president than any American woman in history.”