The significance of Kamala Harris’ election for women

WASHINGTON This day, Nov. 7, 2020, will take a seat at the table as one of the most memorable and remarkable days of my life.

It began with the horns. And then like a well-rehearsed orchestra, the banging of pots and pans joined in before the chorus of hoots and hollers. In a city that has voted overwhelmingly Democratic every year since 1961, when the 23 Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave Washington, D.C.’s citizens the right to vote for president of the United States, the explosion of celebrations was no surprise. And yet, it was a sight to behold.

While Democrats celebrated their win and staunch supporters of Donald Trump reeled in disbelief, women around the world marveled at what had just happened: Kamala Harris, a Black woman, had just become vice president-elect.

That night she would take the stage at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Delaware, dressed in a white pantsuit

— a symbol of women’s suffrage and of female solidarity — and sporting a black facemask, to address the nation in a speech that acknowledged the difficult road ahead, but that promised civility and a government that would work for all. And she thanked us — women, both black and white for leading the charge. It was electric.

“I was absolutely elated,” says Keri Williams, 59, a Washington, D.C. native who lives in Maryland. “Faith was restored in that we had the power to make such a change.”

“Is it significant? Oh, yes. Her election gives a good image to young people, telling them that hurdles that may have existed before are gone,” said Williams, a graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C. – the same historically black university Harris attended as an undergraduate.

Harris, a northern California native, was selected by Biden as his vice-presidential running mate in mid-August after considering several other women, many of them Black. Harris – only the second woman in U.S. history to serve in the Senate, had herself launched an unsuccessful bid for the presidency this year.

All last week, Kemba Kessee, 46, of Las Vegas, who is also a graduate of Howard University, was “in a pattern of holding and hoping.”

“It’s like breathing fresh, clean air when you see her [Harris’] name as vice president elect. On top of all of it, she is one of us – a Black one of us,” said Kemba Kessee, a Howard University graduate and Harris voter.
“I was so happy that I almost couldn’t express it,” said Kessee. “I was like, my mom would be losing her stuff right now because she was an AKA [a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority to which Harris also belongs].

“You know how you think probably not in my lifetime, maybe in my kid’s lifetime? I always felt like that. Then this! It’s like breathing fresh, clean air when you see her [Harris’] name as vice president elect. On top of all of it, she is one of us – a Black one of us. And she went to Howard. And I can look at my girls and say that is the kind of stock your momma came from and they could be even prouder. … Now I just want a whole bottle of wine and a nap.”

Kessee and the others said that now the real work begins – the work of rebuilding America, of uniting a racially divided country and of stemming the tide of a pandemic that has ravaged lives and businesses.

Polls and surveys have found that many Americans remain concerned about the rising number of COVID-19 cases – more than 240,000 Americans have died from the virus this year and state’s are seeing dramatic increases in reported cases in recent weeks. President-elect Joe Biden has promised to take the pandemic center stage, a step that critics of President Trump said he never really did. The Biden-Harris administration is also expected to aggressively address racial injustice and restore to the country’s commitment to addressing the environment and climate change.

“My first thought was ‘Thank God,’ that maybe some of this chaos and ignorance around the COVID crisis will come to an end,” said Bridget Basilico, 67 and a resident of Boston. “There are more than 100,000 people a day getting COVID. Now let’s just think about that, people. … I am thrilled that science is going to be believed by the president of the United States. I found that so demoralizing that we disregarded and maligned scientists!”

For Basilico, the election of Harris is a long time in coming. Basilico grew up during what she calls the “Ms. era” of the 1970s when women such as Gloria Steinem, Kate Millett and Susan Brownmiller exalted sexual liberation and equality for women.

“It’s awesome. The woman thing for me is huge,” said Basilico, who was in college at Rowan University in New Jersey in the early-to-mid 1970s.  “It was a really great time for women, and women really exploring the whole kind of feminist movement. But that’s like 50 years ago.”

“But it’s been a long time coming and for someone who has also lived in corporate life, it’s very meaningful to crash that ceiling because I have seen how very difficult it is for someone in the finance industry to move up the ladder,” said Basilico, a former vice president at a major financial firm in Boston. “I am very excited about what it will say to young people. What it will do for younger women is very important, very important. I understand the significance to women of color, and also women of immigrants and, also, white girls. They feel now that they can do anything.”

Williams agrees.

“Definitely Kamala has shattered the glass ceiling,” she said. “And not only for us, but for immigrants. The one thing that we are shattering is that no matter where you are from – Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, Guam – if you are here, you can rise to the top. None of that matters.”

Harris, the first Black person and first woman elected as California’s attorney general, said last Saturday after the race was called, “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.”

The significance of Harris as vice president is also not lost on my friends abroad, especially those in India. Their excitement last week could be felt all the way in America.

“When I first heard that there is a woman VP nominee, my heart, which got bribed [cq] after Hillary Clinton lost the election , was again filled with joy and hope,” said Bhakti Tambe, a 24-year-old business journalist in Mumbai. “And the fact that Kamala Harris has an Indian origin made me even more prouder.”

The win, she said, shows that if you work hard enough you can break through barriers that others put before you. “I can’t emphasize enough how much we – the world – needed this win! What this victory means for the girl is monumental,” said Tambe. “It’s because of her that I dare to reach for a brighter dream for myself and for women who will come after me – Black, Asian, strong, bossy determined, just like us!”

“As a woman of color,” said Yogita Chainani, a 25-year-old travel writer also in Mumbai, “Kamala Harris’ win feels personal, emotional and empowering, I may not be from America, but I can completely comprehend what millions of women must be feeling right now.

“Her win is a beacon of hope for millions who dream of achieving something in life,” said Chainani. “She has not only broken several barriers but has also given us hope to dream big and achieve bigger things in life. And, history has it, women in any field – be it politics, education or entertainment – have always made us proud. I can’t wait to see how Madam Vice President shapes the future of America in the upcoming years.”

You and me both, Yogita.

Alison Bethel McKenzie is director of corps excellence for Report for America and a Howard University alumna.