The overlooked significance Kamala Harris brought to the Biden-Harris ticket

After an almost week-long wait, the nation now has a president-elect. Some are celebrating, some are commiserating, and some are calling fraud. While the incumbent has demonstrated a norm-shattering resistance to accepting the results, many Americans have closed the book on an election that activated more voters than any other in history.

Democratic norms are not the only thing that has been shattered. Those of us who have been waiting patiently for the first woman to crack what Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton to speak at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders summit More than half of eligible Latinos voted in 2020, setting record Fox News signs Trey Gowdy, Dan Bongino for new shows MORE called in the wake of her 2008 Democratic primary loss “the highest, hardest glass ceiling,” Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisImmigration experts say GOP senators questioned DHS secretary with misleading chart Carper urges Biden to nominate ambassadors amid influx at border Priest who presided over Biden's inaugural mass resigns from university post after investigation MORE (D-Calif.) is the first woman elected to serve as vice president of the United States, a promising pathway to reaching the highest office in the land. Joe BidenJoe BidenFauci says school should be open 'full blast' five days a week in the fall Overnight Defense: Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate l First active duty service member arrested over Jan. 6 riot l Israeli troops attack Gaza Strip Immigration experts say GOP senators questioned DHS secretary with misleading chart MORE will be the 15th vice-president to rise to the highest office himself, meaning that a third of those who serve in this position go on to take their own place in the Oval Office. Succeeding where both Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D-N.Y.) and Gov. Sarah Palin (R-Alaska) could not, Harris is poised to take her place in the executive branch. As she said in her victory speech on Saturday night, “While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last.” Scholars that study gender and politics have long shown that representation matters, both to voters and to would-be candidates themselves, perhaps no more so than for those that have been historically underrepresented. As we saw in the wake of the cable networks call in the election, people of all identities rushed to the streets to celebrate the Democratic ticket and their victory, but no example was more poignant than those Black women and girls who celebrated in the streets. Tears of joy and celebration stood in stark and welcome contrast to tears of sorrow shed in the same streets this summer over police brutality and systemic racism.

Harris’ remarks acknowledge real gendered challenges women face when pursuing political leadership. The vice presidency offers a proving ground to Kamala Harris. Unlike Ferraro and Palin, she ran her own unsuccessful campaign for the top spot, dropping out early in the primary due to lack of financing. Instead of playing the part of helpful supporter to the leading man as did Ferraro and Palin, Harris unabashedly wants to be president of the United States. She even notably called out Biden on his choice to support busing during at July 2019 debate. She does not provide what some have called the window dressing of diversity to the ticket, she brings her own set of policy priorities, her own goals and ambitions. The success of the Biden/Harris ticket is an affirmation, made clear in 2016 in the popular vote if not in the Electoral College, that a majority of Americans are ready for a woman to wield presidential power.


While pundits and analysts mull over the exit polls, dissecting turnout, demographic shifts, and campaign rhetoric, less attention has been given to the impact of Kamala Harris as the key mobilizing force for voters. Thanks to grassroots initiatives led by Black women, particularly those in cities like Detroit, Philadelphia and Atlanta, from community leaders to political superstars like Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, Democrats can credit their victory with the most consistent and loyal of their voters, Black women.

Yet beyond these general turnout efforts, perhaps excitement for Harris as the first Black woman to make it to the general election near the top of a major party ticket also played a role in spite of her problematic history as a prosecutor and attorney general for the state of California. A recent article describing the value of the voting bloc of Black women as the Democratic Party’s “most powerful weapon” doesn’t even mention that perhaps this constituency responded to Harris’ candidacy in ways that moved beyond traditional partisanship, evidenced in those tears of joy. A Washington Post article profiled a dramatic flux of donations to the campaign specifically from her Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters, one of the Divine Nine Greek organizations founded at Howard University, an HBCU and Harris’ alma mater. She has her own supporters, and those who attribute any vote for the Democratic ticket as solely against Donald TrumpDonald TrumpProject Veritas surveilled government officials to expose anti-Trump sentiments: report Cheney: Fox News has 'a particular obligation' to refute election fraud claims The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? MORE or for Joe Biden are missing out on a large part of the story.

Biden had his choice of running mates and understood the value of selecting a partner that mitigated his own weaknesses. He served the same role as President Obama’s choice, a seasoned politician that filled in the gaps in the young senator’s resume. Harris appeals to many who might not be excited to vote for a septuagenarian with his own complicated baggage of less-than-liberal comments and policy choices. Anyone with a long enough memory recalls Biden’s role in undermining Anita Hill’s testimony during Clarence ThomasClarence ThomasSupreme Court gets it wrong again, denying justice to those in uniform Overnight Defense: Top general drops objection to major change in prosecuting military sexual assault | Supreme Court declines to take up case from former West Point cadet | Pentagon says 'small' attacks not affecting Afghanistan withdrawal Supreme Court declines to hear case over former West Point cadet's rape allegations MORE’ confirmation hearings in 1991. His selection of a smart, outspoken, Black woman attorney as his running mate may not have been full atonement, but perhaps just smart politics.

As primed as many are by media to think about votes for the Democratic ticket as a vote against President Donald Trump, is it not just as likely that some turned out for Kamala Harris? And perhaps, someday, that same bloc will make the difference for President Kamala Harris?

Amidst the chaos of recounts and lawsuits, let us not forget to celebrate Kamala Harris and her victory, and to recognize its significance to all women. Republicans deservedly tout the fact that they are sending the largest number of women elected to the House of Representatives this Congress, a marker of gender equity that also merits celebration. There is so much work to do to reach parity, and each success put us closer to that goal.

While we wait for the president to concede, wait for the recounts, and wait for those lawsuits to work their way through the courts, a silver lining may be that the wait for that final glass ceiling to be shattered has become perhaps just a bit shorter.

Aidan Smith is the author of “Gender, Heteronormativity, and the American Presidency” (Routledge 2018).