The First, But Not the Last: Kamala Harris is Breaking the Glass Ceiling

The first woman. The first Black woman. The first Asian woman.

Every single person to hold the office of Vice President of the United States of America has been a white male—until now. On January 20th, 2021, Kamala Harris will shatter this glass ceiling by becoming the first African-American and Asian-American woman to step into the Oval Office in this capacity, paving the way for not only women, but specifically women of color, to follow suit.

This nation has never seen a person of color, other than Former President Barack Obama, ascend to such a high position in American government. Harris will now be one heartbeat away from the presidency and will be the subject of scrutiny for her ability to lead in times of great division, just like other groundbreaking women who have ventured into high-level politics. Other women who have been vice presidential nominees, including Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008, didn’t win.[1] Hillary Clinton, the only woman to be nominated for the presidency by a major party, lost her campaign.[2]

The political glass ceiling is not limited to the executive branch. In the United States, women make up 51% of the population but compose only 23% of the House, 26% of the Senate and 18% of state governors.[3] The problem is not limited to the US, either: around the world, women only made up 10% of all heads of state in 2013.[4]

In 2020, the 100-year anniversary of the passage of women’s suffrage, Kamala Harris continues to break down barriers and while this may be the biggest glass ceiling, it isn’t the first time she’s done it. Harris was the first Black female district attorney of San Francisco, the first Black and Indian female attorney general of California, and the first Indian-American in the US Senate.[5]

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As a Black and Indian-American woman, Kamala Harris may also experience discrimination at the nexus of sexism and racism. Senator Harris, as the daughter of two immigrants and a first-generation citizen, has been the subject of many “birther” conspiracies, despite ample evidence that she was born in Oakland, California. Birther conspiracies have rarely been deployed historically against white male candidates but have been used as attacks against persons of color like Harris and President Obama.  With a unique name for American news networks, many intentionally mispronounce her name in attempts to patronize or delegitimize Harris.[6]

Women leaders are commonly attacked for their actions and condemned strongly for their behavior. While men are encouraged to be vocal, women who express anger are demonized and portrayed to be overly emotional. A woman making stern facial expressions is angry or upset while a man doing the same is focused.[7] Women are seen as either competent or liked, but never both.[8] When they show emotion, they are fragile or unstable.[9] When they don’t show emotion, they are icy and unfeminine.[10]

News contributors have described Harris as angry, crazed or “abrasive.”[11] Her competitors have labelled Harris as a “monster,” “madwoman”, and “extraordinarily nasty” simply for her strong cross-examination in Senate confirmation hearings.[12] [13] If women strive to reach heights, they are labelled “too ambitious,” as Harris was often called following the Democratic debates, a critique that is remarkably similar to those levelled against Hillary Clinton during her campaign for the presidency.[14] This is an attack that male candidates, like Harris’ running mate and President-elect Joe Biden, generally do not endure.[15] Ambition, while a desirable trait in male leaders, becomes a questionable one in female leaders.[16] Among the list of other names she’s been called, “nasty,” “phony,” and “mean” find their way on the list, but her competitors and even her running mate never found themselves to be abated to such descriptors.[17] [18] While a man’s capability is determined by his education and experience, a woman’s is reduced to her qualities, regardless of what they may be, to vilify her.

Without a doubt, Harris will face an uphill battle, not simply due to ideological divisions, but due to her identity. However, Senator Harris’ identity and background can also pave the way for a new era, guided by a gendered and racial lens on policy from the second-highest office in the land.

Growing up, I rarely saw someone that looked like me in a position of power. Now, millions of girls can see someone that looks just like them every day, inspiring them to be ambitious, to be brave, and to aim high. Just as Shirley Chisholm, the first Black senator elected to Congress in 1968, inspired Kamala Harris to enter public service, Harris will inspire those watching from around the world similarly.[19]

As a woman, Harris may also be well-positioned to advance issues salient to women. Studies show that female politicians can influence policies of interest to women, by removing gender bias in the laws, and empowering women in public and private arenas.[20] Her policy impact on issues women face will not be completely understood until the end of the four-year term. Hopefully with her identity, she will recognize the issues facing women in the nation and around the world, putting forth an agenda that addresses them. Regardless, Kamala Harris’ position will undeniably impact the way children perceive the world. They will be raised in a world where a woman and person of color can hold one of the highest positions in the world, and that truly is something to celebrate today.

While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last.[21]

-Kamala Harris, 2020

-C.A.T.


[1] Ulloa, Jazmine. 2020. “’A Beautiful Thing:’ Kamala Harris Breaks the White House Glass Ceiling and Makes History – The Boston Globe.” https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/11/07/nation/kamala-harris-becomes-first-woman-woman-color-win-vice-presidency/ (December 13, 2020).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Brooks, Rosa. 2014. “The Problem With Confidence Men.” Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/04/22/the-problem-with-confidence-men/ (December 14, 2020).

[5] Mahdawi, Arwa. 2020. “The Meaning of Kamala Harris: the Woman Who Will Break New Ground as Vice-President.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/nov/08/the-meaning-of-kamala-harris-the-woman-who-will-break-new-ground-as-vice-president (December 13, 2020).

[6] Paul, Kari, and Ed Pilkington. 2020. “From Oakland to the White House? The Rise of Kamala Harris.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/aug/15/kamala-harris-california-oakland-berkeley-immigrants (December 13, 2020).

[7] Barrett, Lisa Feldman. 2016. “Hillary Clinton’s ‘Angry’ Face.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/25/opinion/sunday/hillary-clintons-angry-face.html (December 14, 2020).

[8] Chira, Susan. 2017. “The Universal Phenomenon of Men Interrupting Women.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/14/business/women-sexism-work-huffington-kamala-harris.html (December 13, 2020).

[9] Goudreau, Jenna. 2012. “The 10 Worst Stereotypes About Powerful Women.” Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jennagoudreau/2011/10/24/worst-stereotypes-powerful-women-christine-lagarde-hillary-clinton/?sh=19d8e71561ca (December 15, 2020).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Greve, Joan E. 2020. “It’s Not Easy Being the First but for Kamala Harris It Has Become a Habit.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/14/kamala-harris-democrats-vice-president-race-gender (December 13, 2020).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Strauss, Daniel, and Lauren Gambino. 2020. “Sexism Casts Shadow over Biden’s Search for a Female Running Mate.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/aug/05/joe-biden-democrats-running-mate-vice-president (December 13, 2020).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Hubbard, Shanita. 2020. “I Used to Be Critical of Kamala Harris. Now I Am Going to Defend Her at Every Turn | Shanita Hubbard.” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/13/kamala-harris-joe-biden-running-mate (December 13, 2020).

[19] Ibid.

[20] Asiedu, Elizabeth, Claire Branstette, and Neepa Gaekwad-Babulal. “The Effect of Women’s Representation in Parliament and the Passing of Gender Sensitive Policies.” Thesis. (December 18, 2020).

[21] Harris, Kamala. 2020. “Election Victory Speech.”

Image Sources:

Kamala Harris – https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/us-women-celebrate-vice-president-elect-kamala-harris-represents-the-future-2323002

Woman’s Place – https://www.lookhuman.com/A+womans+place+is+in+the+house+and+the+senate+unisex+t-shirt

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