Elected or not, Kamala Harris may make history, in her own way

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., addresses a crowd during an event Kianga Isoke Palacio Park in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Melina Mara

Sen. Kamala Harris was in the midst of a frenzied campaign swing last year when a mother introduced her two young Black daughters, and Harris asked their names. The younger sister, Maya, looked down, too shy to answer, so Harris lifted up her chin and looked her in the eyes, saying, “You always hold that chin up.”

Older Jasmine then told Harris, “If you don’t make it, I’ll take your place.” Harris responded, “Well, now we have a plan.”

Harris, who could be voted the nation’s first female vice president this week, never made “pinkie promises” telling little girls they could be president, like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. She did not have a gender-conscious slogan like Hillary Clinton’s “I’m with her.” She did not center her campaign’s message on women’s equality like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

But in her own, quieter way, Harris has embraced her presence on the cusp of history. Her potential to become the first woman so close to the presidency has received less attention than previous female candidacies – in part because of the crises gripping the nation, in part because of other firsts that Harris embodies as a Black and Asian American woman, and in part because of her relatively low-profile way of grappling with gender.

President Donald Trump, however, has not hesitated to emphasize Harris’s gender. He warned Florida rallygoers recently that Harris is not just a socialist – which, in fact, she is not – but a “female” socialist, and he has used loaded terms such as “monster” to describe her.

Four years ago, many Americans thought they were about to elect the first female president. Now the trauma of Clinton’s loss is adding both to the emotion and the anxiety of this moment for many women.

Harris is the first Indian American of any gender, and the first graduate of a historically Black university, on a major ticket. Those landmarks only underline her role as potentially the first woman, after 244 years, to serve in either of America’s two highest offices.

“I think many times when we talk about women, we’re talking about White women,” said Niambi Carter, a political scientist at Howard University. “I think a lot of times when we’re talking about Blacks, we’re talking about Black men.”

Some might have expected, Carter said, that the nation would elevate a white woman long before a woman of color.

“I think a lot of people did think it would be Hillary Clinton or somebody like Hillary Clinton to be the first woman, then it would have to be a different moment for a woman of color,” Carter said. The current racial reckoning, the coronavirus pandemic and other factors created a moment when Democrats “had to account for this ongoing exclusion” of so many, she said.

Harris’s ascent is unfolding at a remarkable moment in the history of women’s rights. In the Trump era, women have taken the lead in marching and organizing the opposition, and numerous women have been elected to Congress. Meanwhile, an outcry against sexual assault has resulted in the downfall of powerful men. Yet the country has a president who has not hesitated to insult women, demean their looks and call them names.

That is the turbulent moment Harris is stepping into.

“She will be a great role model for women and girls worldwide,” Gillibrand said. If Harris becomes vice president, the senator from New York added, it would have “a seismic impact on the trajectory of history, as well as on the aspirations of millions of people.”

That trajectory also pivoted at a meeting in fall 1983, when female activists who became known as “Team A” sat in a Washington apartment, planning to shake up the political scene. They felt it was time for Democrats to nominate a woman as vice president, and had invited a congresswoman named Geraldine Ferraro to chat over Chinese food.

At the time, there were no Democratic women serving as senators or governors. And when Ferraro received the vice-presidential nod, it suggested what the Democrats were missing without them.

“The crowds came out, parents bringing daughters – it was a phenomenon,” said Joanna Howes, a member of Team A and then-head of the Women’s Vote Project. “In my mind, that led us to figuring out how much energy there really was to do better with women in politics.”

It took until 2008 for a woman to appear on a major-party ticket again, when Republican John McCain named Sarah Palin as his running mate – and again it was a desperation move, as McCain faced the popular Barack Obama.

But times have changed. Now 101 women sit in the House, along with 26 female senators, about a fourth of each chamber. And by the time Biden announced earlier this year he would choose a female running mate, he had an array of choices.

“Harris got picked when it looked like Biden had a chance to win – it wasn’t just a desperation move,” Howes said. “What I think was impressive this time is how many women there were as opposed to 1984. This time, there were governors, there were senators, there were members of Congress.”

Harris herself has long had a reputation for hiring women and people of color, both in her Senate office and her presidential campaign.

“It was amazing when you saw the intentionality she had about who was sitting around the table and giving her information,” said Rohini Kosoglu, who served as Harris’s chief of staff in the Senate and is now a senior adviser to her vice-presidential campaign.

Harris, and many of her fellow Democratic primary candidates, elevated a diverse generation of staffers, Kosoglu said. “This cycle built up a whole class of political operatives, of people of color who were filling those slots that are going to transform the Democratic Party for generations,” she said.

Harris entered the Democratic primary in January 2019 with fanfare and expectation. She dropped out in November, one of the first big names to slide out of a race that showed unprecedented diversity, then ended with a White man at the top of the ticket.

That disappointment, coming three years after Clinton’s loss, made Biden’s decision to reach out to a woman of color particularly resonant.

When Nisha Kapadia of San Francisco asked her daughters whether they wanted to dress like Harris for Halloween, they did not hesitate. Nitya, 6, and Jiva, 4 – whose names are of Indian origin, like Kamala – bustled off to find blazers and sneakers. Nisha snapped pictures and showed them to the girls, prompting Nitya to say, “Hey, I look just like her!”

That deeply affected Kapadia. “Looking at my Brown daughters, my Indian American daughters, seeing themselves in Kamala Harris, gave me a moment of respite from all the heartache and challenge that 2020 has thrown at us,” she said in an email.

Harris costumes have been something of a craze this year. In the days before Halloween, Harris’s great-niece, Meena Harris, was inundated with so many pictures of children dressing up like Harris that she started a thread on Twitter. Sons and daughters, White, South Asian and Black, sent in pictures, many drowning in oversize blazers and proudly showing off their sneakers.

They were not the only ones. With her Converse sneakers, affinity for jeans and willingness to spontaneously break into dance, Harris, 56, has modeled youthfulness, and many Black women have posted pictures of themselves wearing Converse to the polls.

Before the novel coronavirus cut back on hugs and handshakes, Harris would often seek out children on the rope line after her events. Once she found herself surrounded by teenage girls, overcome and almost speechless in her presence. She talked to them about finding ways to lead that worked for them, without waiting for permission from others.

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter and one of many prominent Black activists who have offered a platform since Harris joined the ticket, posted a video on Twitter this week celebrating the fact that she had just voted for a Black woman for vice president for the first time.

“I am real moved right now about what all it has taken just to get to this place,” said Brown. “I’m just thinking about my grandmother this morning, I’m thinking about my mother, I’m thinking about my great-great-grandmother. I’m thinking about all the women in my family who were wet nurses and domestic nurses and were treated less than human.”

But the complicated reality of 2020 is that as far as Harris has come, she has not yet won. As groundbreaking as her presidential campaign was, she did not win the nomination or even come particularly close.

Harris did not talk about that primary loss much in the months after she dropped out. She went from office to office, thanking her staffers and dwelling on their successes rather than the places they fell short. Not even her closest staffers knew exactly how she felt about her primary run.

But one day this year, Harris was on a call about “Women in Tech” when Leanne Pittsford, an advocate for women in technology fields, asked a question: What had she taken away from her primary run, and what would she tell women considering taking that kind of leap?

Harris staffers were not sure what Harris would say, whether frustration or disappointment or sadness defined for her the demise of her once-promising campaign. They had not felt comfortable asking her themselves.

“Go for it,” Harris responded. “You will be shocked and surprised . . . [by] how many people who never imagined they could do something they’ve never seen before will believe they are capable of doing something.”

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