Four years after Democratic women donned their white pants in mourning for what might have been, they finally have a historic first to celebrate. Several, in fact.
On Saturday, Senator Kamala Harris was elected first female vice-president. And not just that, but the first black vice president, the first Asian-American vice president, the first child of immigrants, the first to graduate from a historically black university. On becoming vice president, Harris shattered so many glass ceilings they were able to fill the hallways of the now deserted Javits Center, where Hillary Clinton’s campaign ended four years ago.
For Amanda Litman, former Clinton campaign worker 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. to the White House”. She still remembers the day Clinton accepted the Democratic National Convention nomination and how she held her breath, certain someone would take that victory away from her.
“Now in 2020 that we’ve been able to at least get most of the way, with such an amazing woman like Kamala, it’s so powerful,” she said.
A lot has changed for women since Clinton made her ill-fated White House candidacy: the #MeToo movement, the election of record numbers of women to Congress, a historic march for women’s rights in Washington. But a lot of things have remained the same. Harris, too, fell victim to familiar debates about her “sympathy” during her brief presidential run; to claim that she was “too ambitious” to serve as vice-president; to criticism of her dance moves and shimmering rainbow jacket.
As a black woman, Harris has faced even more backlash. There were “Birther” plots to find out if she was a natural citizen and questions to know if she was really black. The current occupant of the White House has repeatedly called her a “monster,” and a member of her campaign advisory committee called her an “insufferable lying bitch.” Still other Republicans have hinted that she slept to the top, turning her brief relationship with San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown into something calculating and sinister.
All of this makes Harris’ victory even more monumental for women of color.
“It’s a powerful statement that once again the majority of Americans have rejected racism,” said Karen Finney, a political consultant who has publicly pressured Biden to choose a woman of color as his running mate. . “That doesn’t mean we’re post-racial … but it does mean we’re putting the marker down again, the majority of us don’t agree with this and want to move on. . We want to do better. “
“If you’re in college and remember when Obama was elected, and [now] you see Senator Harris elected – wow, ”she added. “It’s a whole different perspective that you grow up with on what power looks like.”
It’s a perspective that has changed since at least 2018, when a record number of women ran for national elections and won. This cohort included prominent women of color like Representatives Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (NY), Ayanna Pressley (MA) and Ilhan Omar (MN), who paved the way for even more nominations in 2020. This year there is has a record 298 House candidates, including 115 women of color.
Run for Something is currently working with more than 60 black women running for office, Litman said – women are “able to present themselves more sassy as themselves, in part because Kamala modeled a way to do so. . “
“I think there are going to be tens of thousands of young black women, young women of Indian descent, young women of color who point her out and say, ‘I ran for office because she got me. showed that I can, ”she said. And it is magnificent. “
Even women who do not run for office are more engaged than ever. Women have contributed $ 2 billion to federal candidates this cycle, breaking the 2016 record of $ 1.3 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the month Harris joined the ticket, the Biden-Harris campaign raised $ 33.4 million in contributions from women – more than double what it had received the month before.
And black women were especially committed: By September, the Biden-Harris campaign had received more than $ 200,000 in donations from members of Harris’s 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 from six different swing states requested postal votes and voted early at higher rates than in 2016. In Michigan, for example, almost four times as many women of color voted early 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 pledged to give more voice to women of color this time around. One of them was She the People founder Aimee Allison. Last year, her organization hosted the first-ever presidential summit for women of color, attracting eight of 19 Democratic primary candidates and making headlines for several days.
In 2016, Allison said, women of color were “largely invisible to the political establishment. We just weren’t a factor, we weren’t seen as important.
“Once we started telling a different story about women of color and making our contributions and our power visible, it meant that the party leaders couldn’t ignore us to the same degree,” she added. . “And we’ve heard time and time again from the women in our networks, especially in battlefield states, that they need to see a woman of color on the ticket.”
Despite black women’s success in getting Harris on the ticket, however, her victory is also a bit bittersweet. She may have made history as a second in command, but she came for the top spot, as did four other highly skilled women. For the women who happily voted for the first female president four years ago, there is a certain sting to it, but also a certain resignation.
“Maybe that’s the way it has to be, the same way Hillary had to run and had to lose to lay the groundwork for five, six women who will run for president in 2002; for the safe choice for the vice presidential ticket to be a woman of color, ”Litman said.
“Maybe that’s how we get there,” she added. “And that sucks it will take longer.”
This was a common theme among the women interviewed about Harris’ rise – the idea that the failures of other candidates, painful as they were, were in fact elements of progress; that the history of women in politics looks less like a straight line than an upward spiral: more women run, which means people believe women can run, which means more women end up winning, which means that more women have the power to lift other women.
“Women of color have always wanted to run for office, they have 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 vote and who can run successfully are realizing that they have to support a much wider range of candidates.”
The fight, of course, is far from over. Carter and several others have noted that even as vice president, Harris will not be free from prejudice; the kind of very personal attacks that hit women of color in leadership no matter how successful they are. The next four years, Finney predicted, will be “a learning curve for all of us, for we’ve never been in this moment before.”
But there is still a feeling that, because of Harris – and because of Pressley, Omar, Ocasio Cortez, and all the women and women of color that came before them – there is now an opportunity to reinvent what the power in our country.
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 however you want, and no one can not…”
She stopped dead, then tried again.
“They can try,” she said, “but no one can take you less seriously without a fight.”
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