Kamala Harris Wins, Busting Barrier After Barrier
Just four years after their hearts were shattered, Democratic women are elated a woman of color has been elected to the second-highest office in land.
Four years after Democratic women donned their white pants suits in mourning for what could have been, and four long days after Election Day 2020, they finally have a historic first to celebrate. Several, in fact.
On Saturday, Sen. Kamala Harris was elected the first female vice president. And not only that, but the first Black vice president, the first Asian-American vice president, the first child of immigrants, the first graduate of a historically Black university. In becoming vice president, Harris shattered so many glass ceilings they could fill the halls of the now-deserted Javits Center, where Hillary Clinton’s campaign came to a shocking end four years ago.
To Amanda Litman, a former Clinton campaign staffer and founder of Run For Something, a group that helps women run for office, Harris’ victory is “the culmination of a lifetime of dreaming that a woman could be in the White House.” She can still remember the day Clinton accepted the nomination at the Democratic National Convention, and how she held her breath, certain that someone would take this victory from her.
"Now in 2020, that we have been able to get at least most of the way there, with such an incredible woman like Kamala, it's so powerful,” she said.
A lot has changed for women since Clinton made her ill-fated bid for the White House: the #MeToo movement, the election of a record-breaking number of women to Congress, a historic march for women’s rights on Washington. But a lot has stayed the same. Harris, too, fell victim to the familiar debates about her “likeability” during her brief presidential run; to claims that she was “too ambitious” to serve as vice president; to critiques of her dance moves and sparkly rainbow jacket.
As a Black woman, Harris faced even more backlash. There were “birther” conspiracies about whether she was a natural-born citizen and questions about whether she was actually Black. The current occupant of the White House repeatedly called her a “monster,” and a member of his campaign advisory board referred to her as an “insufferable lying bitch.” Still other Republicans insinuated that she had slept her way to the top, contorting her brief relationship with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown into something calculating and sinister.
All of that makes Harris’ victory even more monumental for women of color.
"It is a powerful statement that once again, the majority of Americans have rejected racism,” said Karen Finney, a political consultant who publicly pressured Biden to pick a woman of color as his running mate. “It doesn't mean we're post-racial ... but it means we are laying down the marker again, that the majority of us do not agree with this, and we want to move forward. We want to do better."
“If you're in college and you remember when Obama was elected, and [now] you're seeing Senator Harris elected—wow,” she added. “That is a totally different perspective that you are growing up with about what power looks like.”
It's a perspective that has been shifting since at least 2018, when a record-breaking number of women ran for national office and won. That cohort included prominent women of color like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (NY), Ayanna Pressley (MA), and Ilhan Omar (MN), who paved the way for even more to run in 2020. This year, there are a record 298 women candidates for the House, 115 of whom are women of color.
Run for Something is working with more than 60 Black women running for office right now, Litman said—women are “able to run more unapologetically as themselves, in part because Kamala has modeled a way to do so.”
"I think there's going to be tens of thousands of young Black women, young women of Indian descent, young women of color who point to her and say, ‘I ran for office because she showed me I could,’” she said. “And that's beautiful."
Even the women who aren’t running for office are more engaged than ever. Women contributed $2 billion to federal candidates this cycle, shattering the 2016 record of $1.3 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The month that Harris joined the ticket, the Biden-Harris campaign collected $33.4 million in contributions from women—more than double what it received the month before.
And Black women were particularly engaged: By September, the Biden-Harris campaign had received more than $200,000 in donations from members of Harris’ African-American sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. Early voting data compiled by Catalist and She the People, a national network for women of color in politics, shows women of color in six different swing states requested absentee ballots and early voted at higher rates than in 2016. In Michigan, for example, almost four times as many women of color have early voted in 2020 than at this point in 2016.
Several Black women who spoke to The Daily Beast said that after witnessing the failures of 2016, they were committed to giving women of color more of a voice this time around. One of them was She the People’s founder, Aimee Allison. Last year, her organization hosted the first-ever presidential summit for women of color, attracting eight of the 19 Democratic primary candidates and making headlines for days after.
In 2016, Allison said, women of color were “largely invisible to the political establishment. We just weren't a factor, we weren't considered important.”
“Once we started telling a different story about women of color and getting our contributions and power visible, it meant that people running the party couldn't ignore us to the same degree,” she added. “And we heard time and time again from the women in our networks, particularly in battleground states, that they needed to see a woman of color on the ticket.”
Despite Black women’s successes in getting Harris on the ticket, however, her victory is also somewhat bittersweet. She may be making history as second-in-command, but she came into it seeking the No.1 spot—as did four other highly qualified women. For women who gleefully cast their votes for the first woman president four years ago, there is a certain sting to that, but also a certain resignation.
“Maybe this is how it has to go, in the same way that maybe Hillary had to run and had to lose in order to lay the groundwork for five, six women to run for president in 2002; for the safe choice for the vice presidential ticket to be a woman of color,” Litman said.
“Maybe this is the way we get there,” she added. “And it sucks that it will take longer."
This was a common theme among the women interviewed about Harris’ ascent—the idea that other female candidates’ failures, no matter how painful, were actually building blocks toward progress; that the story of women in politics looks less like a straight line and more like an upward spiral: More women run, which means people believe that women can run, which means more women eventually win, which means more women have the power to lift other women up.
“Women of color have always wanted to run for office, they've always been leaders in their communities, active in politics,” said Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign. “I think what has changed is the power structure that lets them in."
She added: "The political gatekeepers who largely control who can get on the ballot and who can run successfully are waking up to the fact that they need to be supporting a much broader range of candidates.”
The fight, of course, is far from over. Carter and several others noted that, even as vice president, Harris will not be immune from prejudice; from the kind of highly personal attacks that befall women of color in leadership, no matter how successful. The next four years, Finney predicted, will be "a learning curve for all of us, because we've just never been in this moment before."
But there is still a sense that, because of Harris—and because of Pressley, Omar, Ocasio Cortez, and all the women and women of color who came before them—there is an opening now to reimagine what power in our country looks like.
These days, Litman said, “you can be a serious politician who also wears the sparkly rainbow jacket, or the bright red lipstick, or your hoops, or your hair in the way that you choose to, and no one can--”
She stopped short, then tried again.
“They may try,” she said, “but no one can take you less seriously without a fight."