WASHINGTON — Senator Kamala Harris made history Saturday as the first woman and woman of color to win the vice presidency, a barrier-breaking victory in an election year that has put Black women at the center of political progress.
Her election to the nation’s second-highest office as Democrat Joe Biden’s running mate comes as hundreds of women and women of color have channeled their outrage over President Trump into mobilizing voters and running for office themselves. The victory over Trump and Vice President Mike Pence was secured when the Associated Press declared Biden and Harris the winners of Pennsylvania Saturday, giving them the needed 270 electoral votes.
Harris, 56, the daughter of immigrants, the former attorney general of California, and the only Black woman in the Senate, achieves a number of milestones: She will be the first woman, the first Black woman, and the first Asian woman to hold the position. She also will be the first vice president to hail from Generation X, the demographic group that followed the baby boomers.
Appearing with Biden at a drive-in victory rally in Wilmington, Del., Saturday night, Harris said she was thinking of her late mother and “the generations of women, Black women, Asian, white, Latina, Native American women, who throughout our nation’s history have paved the way for this moment tonight.”
“But while I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities,” she said as supporters cheered and honked their car horns. Harris was dressed in white to honor suffragettes on this year’s centennial of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
Only two other women have been major party vice presidential nominees — Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008 — and neither won. Hillary Clinton became the first female nominee of a major US political party after winning the Democratic primary in 2016 and lost to Donald Trump.
Biden is the first former vice president to win the presidency since George H.W. Bush in 1988 and has said he envisions Harris having a similar role as he did while serving under President Barack Obama.
“When I agreed to serve as President Obama’s running mate, he asked what I wanted. I told him I wanted to be the last person in the room before he made his most important decisions," Biden said in introducing Harris as his running mate in August. "That’s what I ask of Kamala — to be the last voice in the room. To always tell me the truth. To ask the hard questions. Because that’s the way we’ll make the best decisions for the American people.”
Women’s groups, political operatives, and organizers rejoiced at Harris’s victory, saying it would expand the realm of possibility for girls of color and inspire a new generation of women to run for office. Political strategist Glynda Carr couldn’t help but think of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman who was elected to Congress in 1968 and inspired Harris to go into public service.
“Now she is going to have a generation of political leaders who point to her as their leader and role model,” said Carr, cofounder of Higher Heights for America, a national organization that works to support the campaigns of Black women.
The news that Harris had become vice president-elect, unfolding two days after the 52nd anniversary of Chisholm’s election to Congress, riveted LaTosha Brown, cofounder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, who said she felt proud to be part of a long line of Black women who have pushed democracy forward, though their roles have often been undermined, ignored, or forgotten.
Black women were a mighty engine in the women’s suffrage movement, though history books tend to focus on white suffragettes, she said. And it was Black female activists like Amelia Boynton and Joanne Bland who played pivotal roles in igniting the civil rights movement in Alabama. Yet it is the photos of Black men on the front lines, like Martin Luther King Jr., that have been seared into American memory.
With Harris’s victory, those contributions could no longer be denied.
“I am celebrating that I am part of a sisterhood of women who believe in us when other people didn’t believe in us,” Brown said. “This is about collective power.”
Tiffany Gardner, CEO of ReflectUS, a nonpartisan and diverse coalition of nine of the nation’s top women’s groups, called Harris “the embodiment of what us true believers see as the promise of America, despite what these four years have shown us.”
“Her victory will send shock waves not just for the women of today and the women of tomorrow but for the women throughout the annals of American history who have fought for the right to vote, for the right to representation, for the right to be heard,” she said.
As he searched for a running mate, Biden said he learned from Obama to choose a second-in-command who is “simpatico,” strategically agrees with him, and would be ready to step into the presidency on “a moment’s notice.” When he announced the news that he had chosen Harris, he called her “a fearless fighter for the little guy and one of the country’s finest public servants.”
The partnership between the two, once rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination, got off to a rocky start when they clashed on the national debate stage last year. Then Harris’s once-promising campaign stalled and she dropped out of the race before the primaries began. But after Biden won the nomination, she rose to the top of his vice presidential list as he vowed to pick a woman and emphasized the importance of experience and a measured worldview that matched his own.
After a summer of civil unrest following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, Black activists and political operatives urged Biden to elevate a Black woman to the top of the ticket who could speak directly to the pain of Black Americans and send a powerful message about the inclusion of voters of color in the Democratic Party. Biden chose Harris over several other prominent finalists, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Harris and Biden’s late son, Beau, were close friends when they were attorneys general of their respective states — Beau in Delaware — a relationship the former vice president cited in picking Harris.
“I watched as they took on the big banks, lifted up working people, and protected women and kids from abuse," Biden said. "I was proud then, and I’m proud now to have her as my partner in this campaign.”
At the Democratic National Convention last summer, Harris took the stage after Obama, another trailblazer, and drew praise as she paid tribute to Chisholm and the many other women “who inspired us to pick up the torch, and fight on.”
She spoke of her Tamil Indian American mother, the late Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a breast cancer researcher, and her Jamaican American father, economics professor Donald Harris, who “fell in love in that most American way — while marching together for justice in the civil rights movement of the 1960s.”
And she gave a nod to her Black sorority sisters and her attendance at the historically Black Howard University.
“Donald Trump’s failure of leadership has cost lives and livelihoods,” Harris said that night, as she laid out her and Biden’s vision of America. “A country where we may not agree on every detail, but we are united by the fundamental belief that every human being is of infinite worth, deserving of compassion, dignity, and respect.”
It was that vision and her story that energized many women, women of color, and immigrants, who saw themselves in her battles and came to her defense as Harris became a frequent target of Trump and his surrogates. The president arguably attacked her even more than Biden online and in political rallies, mispronouncing her name, calling her “a monster” and using inflammatory language to paint her as a far leftist, or worse, “the other.”
That didn’t deter her fans at campaign rallies and political events who came to see her blast Trump, deliver searing indictments against Republicans — and dance, rain or shine, often to Mary J. Blige and in her signature Chuck Taylor sneakers.
Carr and other political analysts said Harris would not only bring her experience as a prosecutor and legislator to the White House, but an ability to guide decisions through a racial and gender lens based on her experience as a Black woman from an immigrant family. That perspective would be particularly crucial as the nation grapples with a pandemic that has ravaged Black, Latino, and Asian Pacific communities. Arisha Hatch, executive director of the Color Of Change PAC, said Harris would help the incoming administration prioritize an agenda on education, health care, and other issues to empower Black people after Black voters powered her and Biden’s win.
“We could see, given her background in criminal justice, her really leaning to be the type of leader who meets this moment as organizers across the country are working to reimagine criminal justice reform,” she said.
Harris’s presence in the White House would also signal to the world a return to an Obama-era approach to foreign relations and strong alliances after Trump’s America First agenda, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy at University of California Riverside. Harris’s values were in large part shaped by her bold mother, as well as visits with her progressive, civic-minded grandfather, and her wider family in India.
“Her vice presidency will help repair America’s image around the world,” Ramakrishnan said. “Both because of the policies she and Biden have espoused and because of who she is and what she represents through her biography.”
Women’s groups and political operatives were proud of Harris’s achievement but said there is still work to do on representation. After Trump won the presidency, thousands of women convened in Washington for the Women’s March, and hundreds were energized to run for office. Momentum only grew as sexual harassment became a national focus in 2017 amid the #MeToo movement.
Yet, structural barriers to raising money, building political networks, and gaining media attention continue to hold back women, and women of color in particular. Women make up 51 percent of the population, yet they comprise only 23 percent of the House members, 26 percent of the Senate, and 18 percent of state governors, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
The Democratic nomination process started with six diverse female candidates, including Harris, Warren, and three other senators, after the 2018 congressional midterm elections saw women and people of color make historic gains. But none remained.
“These moments are like the Super Bowl and Christmas and New Year’s all wrapped into one," Gardner said of Harris’s victory. But she said her coalition “is focused on the road ahead.”
And yet, she and other women celebrated.
“Coming out of the most racist, misogynist regime I have seen in my lifetime, for him to be kicked out of the White House and for her to move in — that is a beautiful thing,” Brown said.