Law and Politics People and Community

Harris leads series of firsts from the 2020 Election

In a presidential vote that saw a record turnout, the ascension of Kamala Harris to the vice presidency could inspire a generation of young women, University of Miami faculty members conclude.
2020 Election
From left, Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Harris, President-elect Joe Biden and his wife Jill Biden on stage together on Nov. 7, in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: Associated Press

In the beginning, she was a face in the crowd, one of the many contenders vying for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination in a field that was one of the largest—and most diverse—in recent history. And though Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrant parents and just the second-ever Black female U.S. senator, would eventually end her bid for the White House, she would still go on to make history. 

On Saturday, Harris became the nation’s first female, first Black and first South Asian vice president-elect, achieving another barrier-breaking accomplishment of her storied career. 

Harris’s ascension to the vice presidency marked one of the many “firsts” of the 2020 elections, specifically with respect to diversity. From the first openly gay Afro-Latino member of Congress to the first woman of color to be elected to Congress from Missouri, it was an election season like no other. 

Among the other firsts: A record number of votes casts—nearly 160 million; Doug Emhoff, Harris’s spouse, will be the first second gentleman; Jill Biden, President-elect Joe Biden’s wife, plans to keep her job as a teacher, making her the only First Lady to hold a job outside the White House; and Joe Biden, who turns 78 on Nov. 20, will become the oldest president in U.S. history. 

But it is Harris’s historic win that is arguably the biggest game-changer of them all. 

“At long last, the glass ceiling is beginning to shatter and open a path for so many others who will follow in her footsteps,” said Linda L. Neider, professor and chair of the Department of Management in the University of Miami Patti and Allan Herbert Business School as well as chair of the Faculty Senate. 

In remarks she delivered Saturday night in Wilmington, Delaware, where she introduced President-elect Joe Biden, Harris alluded to the possibility of more women emulating her, saying that “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.” 

Harris makes a strong argument, according to Louise K. Davidson-Schmich, professor of political science in the University of Miami’s College of Arts and Sciences, whose research interests include gender and politics. 

“Political science research shows that when women hold highly visible positions such as vice president, girls are more likely to be knowledgeable about politics and say that they aspire to run for office later in life,” she said. “So, her [Harris’s] election should have a role-model effect for young women. And as for combating gender inequality, she might have an opportunity to influence legislation as the tie-breaking vote in the Senate.” 

Harris’s victory is especially emotional for Sumita Chatterjee, a lecturer in the Department of History and in the Gender and Sexuality Studies program, who, like the vice president-elect’s mother, came to the United States to pursue a graduate education. “This is an inspirational moment not only for girls, women, and immigrants, but across race and gender for all who want to celebrate our differences and recognize that these differences in fact make us strong rather than weak,” Chatterjee said. “Kamala Harris’s presence in the White House will bring a beacon of hope to all, but particularly to young girls, and especially Black and Brown girls to know that setting ‘impossible’ goals is just the beginning.” 

Chatterjee said it is fitting that Harris’s accomplishment comes in the centenary year of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. 

“As Harris herself acknowledged, and those of us who teach gender history have known, her win would not have been possible without the long and strong activism of countless women of all races and classes to make this moment possible,” stated Chatterjee, noting such influential figures as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks. 

The varied roles played by the vice president-elect could make her better suited than previous vice presidents to understand the unique challenges women face, according to Chatterjee. “Kamala Harris’s intersectional identity as a working woman, a stepmother, and the daughter of a first-generation immigrant gives her the multifaceted juggling experience that most women experience, and she can speak directly to the challenges of such balancing in her role as the vice president,” she said. 

Balancing career and family life, Chatterjee explained, has always fallen disproportionately on women, and in this year of the COVID-19 pandemic, such inequities have been laid bare. 

“In the absence of consistent federal policies like paid family leave, day care solutions, wage gap, gender-based violence and sexual harassment, more women are leaving work to take care of their families than men and may never be able to enter the competitive work force again,” Chatterjee said. “These are longstanding problems of gender inequality in the workplace that one is hopeful that Harris will address through her office. As a woman who must surely have experienced many of these inequities, one hopes that she will bring these to the table for policy and systemic solutions.” 

Other members of the University community weighed in on what Harris’s historic accomplishment means to them: 

“The election of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is historic in many ways. It is the passing of the baton, a message of hope and encouragement, and an example to all of the little girls and women who see themselves when they look at Senator Harris. As a Black woman, I am beyond thrilled and proud of this moment in our history.”

—Renee Callan, executive director of student life 

“Women, specifically women of color, will now able to see someone who looks like them on the biggest stage in the world. It means that anyone can work hard and achieve their dreams in America. It means that young girls across the nation and the world can dream big and dream that what they are doing now will be the catalyst for great change in the future.”

—Abigail Adeleke, president of Student Government

“It makes me so happy that we have elected our first woman vice president. It baffles me that it took until 2020 for this to happen. It’s about time. Kamala Harris has inspired me and reminded me that women can do anything they set their mind to. It’s wonderful knowing that young girls can look at the White House and see someone just like them. This hopefully will empower more women to dream big. It’s even better knowing that this is just the beginning. Our leadership in America should be representative of our country, and Kamala Harris being a woman and person of color is just that.”

—Shirley Gelman, vice president of Student Government