With Joe Biden was elected in an election conducted in the midst of a global pandemic, a historic milestone could easily have flown under the radar: Sen. Kamala Devi Harris became the first woman, first Black person, first South Asian American and first alumna of a Historically Black Colleges and Universities institution to be elected vice president of the United States.
The election of Harris, 56, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, “completely disrupts the status quo in terms of what we expect someone in that position to look like” and creates a “role-modeling effect,” Jean Sinzdak, the associate director of Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), told MarketWatch.
“We can’t overstate how important it is for people to see someone who looks different in a position like that — and to have a woman in the highest level of government, it finally puts to rest that question of electability,” she said. “We still don’t have someone in the presidency, but we’re certainly getting there.”
Harris’s alma mater, Howard University, paid tribute on Election Day to the momentous nature of her candidacy. Meanwhile, residents of Thulasendrapuram, a village in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu where Harris’s maternal grandfather was born, prayed for her to win.
Harris had broken glass ceilings throughout her career, having been elected the first Black woman to serve as San Francisco’s district attorney and later California’s first Black woman attorney general. She became California’s junior U.S. senator in 2017 and developed a reputation for posing tough questions during Senate hearings for Trump administration nominees, including now–Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
The senator ended her own unsuccessful 2020 presidential campaign, which drew criticism from the progressive left over her prosecutorial record, in December. Biden named Harris his running mate in August after having pledged to pick a woman for the No. 2 job.
‘The fact that the first female president of the United States could be a woman of color is remarkable.’ — Andra Gillespie, Emory University
‘This is centering women of color’
Harris’s selection as vice president is the culmination of lots of political engagement and activism on the part of Black women for decades, Sinzdak said.
“I can’t believe it’s taken this long, but the fact that Kamala Harris is in this position really reflects how much work they have put into this party and advancing it,” she said. “The [Democratic] party responding to that, and having someone like this in her position, is really extraordinary.”
By virtue of Harris’s position as vice president, “one would assume that she will immediately be considered a contender for the next nomination round for president, barring something else happening,” and with the caveat that she would need to prove herself and have a record to run on, Emory University associate professor of political science Andra Gillespie told MarketWatch.
While Harris wouldn’t be guaranteed to be the next Democratic nominee, “she is poised to not just put really big cracks in that glass ceiling in this election, but she’s poised to break the glass ceiling in a future election,” she said.
“When people imagine who the first female president of the United States is going to be, I doubt they thought it was going to be a woman of color,” added Gillespie, who researches African-American politics and leadership. “The fact that the first female president of the United States could be a woman of color is remarkable.”
Often, when people envision female firsts, “they’re thinking of white female firsts,” Gillespie said. Hillary Clinton, whose 2016 bid for the presidency fell short in the Electoral College, embodied many people’s notion of the country’s first woman president, she said: “a white woman, a baby boomer, somebody who was clearly on the frontlines of second-wave feminism.”
“Kamala Harris is different — she’s younger; she is not white,” Gillespie said. “This is centering women of color in that story and reminding folks that people of color are women too, and that they bring a different perspective and they deserve to be recognized and to be supported as they pursue positions of leadership.”
‘Celebrating “firsts” for women, and especially women of color, across levels of office serves as a reminder of the work left to do to create political institutions that reflect the full range of constituencies they serve.’ — 2019 report by Rutgers University’s CAWP
‘The supply of candidates is the problem’
Women have long been underrepresented in government, despite making up just over half the U.S. population.
There has never been a female president, of course, and Harris is only the third female major-party veep nominee, coming after Sarah Palin in 2008 and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984. Just 26 out of 100 U.S. senators and 101 out of 435 House representatives are women, according to CAWP. Women serve as nine out of 50 governors and occupy 29% of 7,383 state legislature seats.
Women did make gains during this past election, with CAWP noting that at least 106 women would serve in the 117th Congress’s U.S. House, including 43 women of color. At least 13 non-incumbent Republican women won U.S. House seats this year, outstripping their previous record of nine in 2010.
When it comes to women in politics, “the supply of candidates is the problem, not the lack of demand for them,” Jennifer Lawless, the Commonwealth professor of politics at the University of Virginia, told MarketWatch.
“The biggest problem is that they haven’t run for office,” said Lawless, who launched her own unsuccessful Democratic primary bid in a 2006 Rhode Island congressional race. “When there are women on the ballot on both sides of the aisle, they perform as well as men; they also raise as much money. And we’re entering an environment right now where at least at the congressional level and down, they receive similar media coverage.”
The problem is not widespread bias against female candidates, she added — “but the perception of bias is very, very real.” “Part of the reason that women aren’t running is because they perceive that they have to be more qualified than men, they have to be better candidates than men, and that they would have to weather a campaign trail that is rife with discrimination,” she said.
That perception of bias comes from high-profile examples of explicit sexism in politics, she said, including treatment of Clinton in 2016, New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ever since her upset election in 2018, and Harris as a VP candidate.
There’s little evidence to suggest that an overwhelming majority of female candidates face that kind of bias and sexism, Lawless said, “but because those are the high-profile cases that garner so much attention, the perception on the part of voters and the candidates is that women can’t win elections — or if they do win them, they’re going to have to navigate an incredibly sexist campaign trail.”
A report by CAWP published in 2019, meanwhile, suggested that women’s success in the 2018 midterm elections “did not fully upend the entrenched institutional norms and structures” that have put them at an electoral disadvantage. There are still gender and intersectional biases in evaluations of female candidates, the report said, and women still experience “harassment and threats of violence, particularly those of a sexual nature, as a cost of candidacy.”
“Celebrating ‘firsts’ for women, and especially women of color, across levels of office serves as a reminder of the work left to do to create political institutions that reflect the full range of constituencies they serve,” the report added.
Harris could bring new perspective to the job
Nations led by women also appear to have fared better with respect to COVID-19 cases and deaths, according to an analysis of 194 countries by researchers at the U.K.’s University of Liverpool and University of Reading: Outcomes have been “systematically better in countries led by women and, to some extent, this may be explained by the proactive and coordinated policy responses” they adopted, the authors wrote. (Other researchers have argued that this relationship is likely coincidental.)
‘Biden put Harris on the ticket because he actually thought it would strengthen the ticket and provide additional routes to the White House — and it did.’ — Jennifer Lawless, University of Virginia
Female leaders are more likely to bring in different perspectives, Sinzdak added — both from their own experience and from the perspective of marginalized groups that don’t always get heard in the policymaking process.
“CBS Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell in a recent “60 Minutes” interview pressed Harris on her previous support for proposals that Biden has avoided embracing (at least in full), like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.
Asked whether she would bring “those progressive policies that [she] supported as senator into a Biden administration,” Harris replied, “I will always share with him my lived experience as it relates to any issue that we confront — and I promised Joe that I will give him that perspective and always be honest with him.”
“And is that a socialist or progressive perspective?” O’Donnell asked.
“No,” Harris said, laughing. “It is the perspective of a woman who grew up a Black child in America, who was also a prosecutor, who also has a mother who arrived here at the age of 19 from India. Who also, you know, likes hip-hop. Like, what do you wanna know?”
‘An incredibly powerful image’ at the next State of the Union
What does it say about the U.S. that the country is only now electing a woman to the White House — and for the No. 2 job, no less? Lawless said she thinks of this progress as a positive, suggesting that Harris was the first woman on a presidential ticket “that has actually had a chance at winning.” Walter Mondale and John McCain selected Ferraro and Palin as their running mates, respectively, as “a Hail Mary pass,” she said.
“Biden put Harris on the ticket because he actually thought it would strengthen the ticket and provide additional routes to the White House — and it did,” she said.
Harris’s rise to the second-highest office in the land “will continue to chip away at the notion that America’s not ready to elect a woman,” Lawless added, noting that Clinton’s 2016 popular-vote win indicated that the country had been willing to elect a woman.
Assuming that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is elected to another two-year term leading the House, Lawless said, “I think about what the State of the Union [address] is going to look like” with two women, Pelosi and Harris, seated behind the presumptive president-elect.
“That’s just an incredibly powerful image that hopefully will reinforce to the American people that we have evolved,” she said.