Kamala Harris’s date with history
Rarely do U.S. vice presidents command much interest or attention. Though they are given a platform, their spotlight is generally dim, often by design, given that their words or deeds might detract from the president. But this week holds a big opportunity for Kamala Harris to make her mark and, in so doing, set the stage for her own history-making legacy.
Vice President Harris today will deliver her most high-profile speech to date, when she addresses the United Nations Generation Equality Forum’s opening session, along with French President Emmanuel Macron, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.
According to the 19th News(letter), Harris will speak about the need for global collaboration to advance equity and will announce U.S. commitments to address gender-based violence, economic justice, and sexual and reproductive rights.
Harris’s speech most certainly will be closely watched at home and abroad. Hers is no average vice presidency. The very fact of her occupying the role, and the intersection of history, global change and circumstances that led her there, make the stakes for this speech exceptionally high and her opportunity to make a mark internationally exceptionally big. As with so much in her portfolio, Harris carries many burdens: She must make a case to the world for progress while facing an uphill battle for progress at home. She must blaze a trail of her own making while remaining the loyal No. 2. And she must take her own stand, setting a vision for a better future against the challenging realities of the past and present.
Harris’s speech to the U.N. global audience is part of a series of world conferences on women established in 1975 to focus on advancing women’s prosperity and equity around the world. It was at the 1995 conference in Beijing that Hillary Clinton called the world to action by declaring “women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” That seemingly simple declaration was a radical statement in the global context at the time, and it made a huge, lasting impact. It led to commitments to gender equity supported by U.N. charters over the past 25 years. Many countries around the world heeded the charge. The United States lagged. Now, Harris must make her own mark in her own time — calling out the opportunity for progress abroad and calling leaders at home to action.
Harris speaks to the world as the first Black, Asian, female American vice president. That alone is a powerful commentary on the possibilities for women and girls in free and equitable societies. Every girl around the world should have the same chance to rise as she has. But Harris also is speaking at a moment of real challenges to both gender and racial equity at home. She has been tasked with trying to achieve voting rights legislation with intractable gridlock in the Senate, and she is the nation’s most visible female leader at a moment when American women have left the workforce by the millions and many have fallen into poverty.
The U.S. is both a symbol of what’s possible and a cautionary tale. The World Economic Forum continues to rank the U.S. below dozens of other countries when it comes to gender equity. The U.S. has a long way to go to establish the policies and practices that many other countries established long ago to ensure gender equity — including protecting reproductive rights, reducing maternal mortality and gender-based violence, passing paid leave, expanding subsidized child care, lifting women and children out of poverty, and electing more women to public office.
Harris must present the best of what American values represent while recognizing how far short we have fallen from our own ideals. And looming large as she works to establish her legacy in this historic-first vice presidency is the knowledge that she is setting herself up to try to make the biggest history of all — as the first female American president. It’s a feat that 59 other nations have achieved.
It was clear when President Biden chose Harris as his running mate that he was tapping someone worthy not only of being a heartbeat away from the presidency, but a successor, representing the future of the Democratic Party and his hope for the nation’s future. In the past 75 years, six of the last 14 presidents have been vice presidents — Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George Bush and Joe Biden — and a seventh, Al Gore, came a hair’s breadth away from achieving the office in the razor-thin election of 2000.
With this speech, and the many others ahead of her, Harris has a historic opportunity to make her mark not just because she is there, or because she might be the next U.S. president, but because she takes a stand. She has spent a lifetime breaking barriers, proving she has the grit and determination to achieve her goals. Now she can help ensure that millions of other women and girls in America and around the world follow her lead. For their sake, for the promise of a more equitable world, let’s hope she succeeds.