For Feminists This Year, It’s *Vice* President’s Day: Kamala Harris and the Feminist Future of America

Our historic new vice president sits poised to advance gender equality for all women.

The historic election of Kamala Harris as vice president of the United States of America is reason to celebrate for its many firsts. As President Joe Biden’s second-in-command, Harris is the first woman in the position. And, as the daughter of Jamaican and Indian parents, she is the first child of immigrants, the first Black woman, the first South Asian American and the first mixed-race woman to hold the position. She’s the first VP in an interracial marriage, making her husband, Doug Emhoff, a Jewish American, the country’s first second gentleman.

For good measure, Harris is representative of a growing number of women who have focused on their careers while coming to marriage and motherhood later in life (Harris married at age 49 and is a stepmother to her husband’s children). Her life story has, in so many ways, undercut the conventional portrait of American womanhood.

If all goes well with the Biden-Harris administration, there is reason to believe she could also in four years become the first woman president of the nation.

Her rise to that position will have been paved by Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for the U.S. presidency in 1872; Shirley Chisholm, the first woman and first African American to run as a major-party candidate for president in 1972; Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman major-party candidate for vice president in 1984; Barack Obama, the first Black president in 2009; and Hillary Clinton, the first woman to receive the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party (who, before that, created “18 million cracks” in “that highest, hardest glass ceiling”) and the first woman to win the popular vote in a presidential race in 2016.

Harris’s trajectory to the presidency is promising. After earning an undergraduate degree at Howard University and a law degree at the University of California, Hastings, she embarked on a law career. She served as district attorney in San Francisco and became the first woman and first African American to serve as California’s attorney general. In the latter role, Harris advanced protections for California homeowners in the foreclosure crisis, secured marriage equality, protected California’s climate change law against federal suits and defended the Affordable Care Act.

Kamala Harris and the Feminist Future of America
At 5 years old, Harris (in yellow, with her sister and mother) was in the second class to integrate public elementary schools in Berkeley, Calif.

She was sworn in to the U.S. Senate in 2017, becoming the second Black woman senator and the first of South Asian descent. During her tenure in the Senate, she introduced and supported bills concerning racial justice, health care equity and protections for women and children.

When she ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, some progressives took issue with Harris’s record as district attorney. They accused her of incarcerating a disproportionate number of African Americans and of punitively targeting Black women through truancy laws in public schools. (Given her role as a state prosecutor, such decisions—though still objectionable—are not surprising.) In the right-wing media, her opponents opted to criticize her personal life rather than her professional record, insinuating sexual impropriety which has elicited indifferent responses from most of the public.

When that charge failed to gain traction, her racial and ethnic status became a target. Then-President Donald Trump called her a “monster,” dehumanizing Harris and reducing her to a white nationalist trope in which a mixed-race individual is deemed a threat, and a progressive woman even more so. Conversely, Harris faced criticism for not being “authentically” Black based on her mixed-race background.

Such criticisms not only proved ineffective, but Harris was charismatic enough and exciting enough as a vice presidential candidate to rally the support of diverse groups of voters, especially Black women voters—from her fellow Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters who organized “stroll to the polls” events to grassroots organizers mobilizing get-out- the-vote efforts in swing states.

Stacey Abrams, who previously ran for governor of Georgia and who some had hoped would be selected as Biden’s running mate over Harris, proved especially successful. Her Fair Fight initiative registered 800,000 voters, who were able to turn Georgia from a red to blue state and, thus, secured the election of the Biden-Harris ticket and a Democratic-led Senate.

As the newly inaugurated vice president, Harris is poised to advance a truly progressive administration. There is hope that this administration will successfully address racial disparities and the COVID-19 pandemic, which thus far has been most effectively handled by several women heads of state.

Women and communities of color are, as we know, most impacted by the pandemic, and Harris is in a position to recognize these inequalities. And with the ear of the president—one who, despite having mishandled the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings during which law professor Anita Hill alleged sexual harassment by the then-Supreme Court nominee, has put forward a bold economic, health and anti-violence agenda for women—she may be able to advance gender equity while rectifying the wrongs of past actions.

As author and public scholar Brittney Cooper wrote in Time magazine after the election last fall, “Representation is not everything. But it is absolutely something.” Elucidating further, she wrote, “Harris will be in the difficult position of serving as chief confidante and loyal advisor to Biden, chief translator of Black anguish to people in power, and chief diversity officer for a nation that thinks that title is the most appropriate way to leverage Black women’s formidable insights about centuries of racial injustice. Meanwhile Black communities will demand that she represent an actual progressive agenda on race and gender justice.”

There is a great deal of promise in Harris’s vice presidency, and we are all called upon to hold our leaders accountable for the policy commitments they have made. However, women’s representation in leadership positions is its own promise, and that should not be downplayed. In 2020, a year marking the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting women the right to vote, when we failed to deliver on the promised $20 bill redesign featuring celebrated 19th-century abolitionist Harriet Tubman, the nation instead elected another Black woman to the second-highest position in the country.

These symbolic changes matter. We need only to imagine the first time President Biden delivers his State of the Union address with Vice President Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi seated behind him. Imagine the impact such a visual will have on our young girls watching this spectacle and envisioning the kind of career or life they could have.

Despite all the political and racial divisions, despite revelations of the #MeToo movement, despite our public health and climate change crises, there is reason to hope. In a feminist future, these problems will be treated with utmost seriousness. Furthermore, they’ll be combated in ways that ensure that little girls like Harris, who once were bused to schools in efforts at desegregation, can make real change in a world where no seat of power is off-limits to them.

Such symbolic representation is feminist enough to cause significant political, social and cultural shifts.

This article originally appears in the Winter 2021 issue of MsBecome a member today to read the entire issue—through our app and in print.


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About

Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of the forthcoming When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination.