In the centennial year of suffrage and 55 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris is projected to become the country’s highest-ranking woman in politics, according to Decision Desk HQ, joining President-elect Joe Biden in the White House as the first woman and Black and South Asian woman to serve as an American vice president.
It is a role that could reshape Americans’ perceptions of women and women of color in political leadership.
A century ago, when women were finally granted the right to vote, Harris’ historic candidacy was unimaginable and unthinkable for most Americans, said Johns Hopkins University historian Martha Jones.
“Except among Black women, there was no robust vision that would permit anyone to imagine where we are,” Jones said. “This is really the legacy of the Voting Rights Act. It is the legacy of women like Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, who really bring Black women to Washington and begin to lay claim to Washington as a place where Black women will be office holders, influencers and more.”
On the campaign trail, first as a presidential candidate, and then as the vice presidential nominee, Harris often referenced her candidacies as “what we know can be, unburdened by what has been.”
Her narrative has often been a departure from that of her political rivals. Harris’ ascendance has often meant being the first to hold her position, as district attorney in San Francisco, and later as the attorney general of California.
Harris, 56, is the lone Black woman in the U.S. Senate, and only the second Black woman to serve in that capacity.
Harris was also the only Black woman to run for president in 2020, and only the third Black woman to run as a candidate for a major political party, the first in more than a generation.
Despite being capable and qualified, the path to this moment was never paved with certainty, said Glynda Carr, founder of Higher Heights.
“America is totally different in 2020 than when she ran for president,” said Carr, whose organization endorsed Harris during her presidential bid before she exited the race in December 2019. “The environment around living in a global pandemic, the continued attacks on Blackness and the racial reckoning that has begun in this country created the awakening of the possibilities of having a Black woman on the ticket that didn’t exist when she ran in the Democratic primary.”
In an interview with The 19th in August, days after being named the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Harris herself said Biden choosing her was a bold decision.
“Joe Biden had the audacity to choose a Black woman to be his running mate. How incredible is that?” Harris said. “That he decided he was going to do that thing that was about breaking one of the most substantial barriers that has existed in our country — and that he makes that decision with whatever risk that brings.”
Harris has helped to shift the notion of electability in American presidential politics and galvanized a crucial part of the electorate — the Black women who have long been the vanguard of the Democratic Party and pushed this cycle to be valued for their input as well as their output, said She the People co-founder Aimee Allison.
“Electability, first and foremost, is about who Black women are inspired by, moved by and willing to put our formidable voting and organizing prowess behind,” Allison said. “Having her on the ticket made the biggest difference this year in terms of being able to reach our voters, have higher turnout and get people to see themselves in the campaign.”
Harris earned her spot on the Democratic general election presidential ticket after a grueling party primary. After returning to the Senate, she continued to push for issues around race and gender, including legislation addressing disparities in pregnancy-related deaths, and the inequalities exposed by the pandemic related to housing, employment and public health data.
On the general election campaign trail, Harris’ status as an alumnae of historically Black Howard University and a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc., sorority were also assets, fueling fundraising and mobilizing voters and volunteers.
Now a pioneer as vice president-elect, Harris will bring her lived experience as a Black and South Asian American woman to a role both symbolic and substantive, Carr said.
“Her experience as a prosecutor, an executive, and a legislator positions her to be an asset Day One in the White House,” Carr said of Harris. “She literally is going to bring the voices of women, women of color, and Black women into that room when she steps into the Oval Office for the first time.
Harris’ candidacy and future governing represent a new chapter in leadership for women of color, and Black women in particular, said veteran Democratic strategist Karen Finney.
“It normalizes the role that Black women have played throughout the history of this country, that we’re leaders,” Finney said. “For so long, Black women have been in the background and haven’t always gotten the credit they deserve. It’s a lot of pressure. It’s always hard to be the first.”
Seeing Harris at decision-making tables, tackling foreign policy, the economy, climate change or criminal justice can demonstrate that women belong in the highest positions of power, Finney said.
It is not just Harris’ political leadership as a woman of color that will be on display in 2021 and beyond, but that of an increasingly diverse Congress, said Jones.
“The hardest thing for someone like Harris is looking squarely at that gap and that distance and then asking what do you do as someone with a seat at the table to address that? We will increasingly see what it means for Black women to steer this country on critical questions.”
Harris’ candidacy and political success could serve as a model for Black women and women of color seeking higher office, on the continuum laid forth by Shirley Chisholm — in whose spirit Harris launched her campaign for president last year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
“There will be generations of women who use her blueprint for her political and elected leadership,” Carr said. “What she actually represents is a pipeline.”
With Harris headed to the White House, her Senate seat will be open — and while California is solidly blue, meaning that the balance of the chamber will not be disrupted by her departure, some are calling specifically for Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill Harris’ vacancy with a Black woman. The California House delegation currently includes Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass — also discussed as a potential vice presidential nominee this cycle — as well as Rep. Maxine Waters.
Harris’ candidacies have also shone a light on how far the country still has to go on issues of race and gender in politics, said Tina Tchen, chief executive officer of Times Up.
“We are trying to change cultural norms that have existed for millenia.
It wasn’t going to change in four years, and it wasn’t going to change with just one election,” Tchen continued. “Her candidacy is a huge step forward in that generations-long battle for progress. We need to celebrate that step forward and build on it.”