To me, the banner story of this election season was not Joe Biden’s victory. It was the history-making of vice president-elect Kamala Harris.
Here was a woman who had broken so many barriers. Not only is she the first woman to hold the office, but she is the first Black person and the first South Asian American person, as the daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother.
“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last," Harris said during her first speech as vice president-elect, “because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”
And while I felt proud, all I could think was that it was a shame it’s taken this long. Our failure to previously elect a woman to our country’s highest offices reflects poorly on all of us.
America, a country so concerned with being the best, feels far behind the curve. Other countries have had female leaders long before us. Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first female prime minister in 1960. Indira Gandhi was the first female prime minister of India in 1966 and served almost four terms. In 1969, Golda Meir became Israel’s first female prime minister as only the country’s fourth. Who can forget British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, an icon of 1980s world politics? Look at Germany’s current chancellor, Angela Merkel, arguably one of the most powerful people in the world, or New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who first rose to international prominence when she deftly worked to change gun laws after a horrific mass shooting attack on Muslims. Ardern is the third woman to lead the island nation.
Israel, Argentina, Portugal, Norway, Pakistan, Nicaragua, Senegal, Liberia and South Korea, among others, have all had female leaders before the United States. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that female heads of state are more successful than their male counterparts, but I digress.
It is easy to blame American voters for failing to elect a woman — and most notably a woman of color — as president or vice president. After all, it was the voters who chose not to elect vice presidential candidates Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008, or presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016, even if she won the popular vote.
But voters haven’t had many opportunities. Ferraro, Palin, Clinton and Harris are the only four women who have been major party nominees for either president or vice president. That number alone is enough to show that the lack of women in our country’s highest elected positions is a systemic problem.
In the United States, women have run for some sort of federal office since at least 1866, when New York suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. The outcome? She received 24 out of 12,000 votes cast.
That phenomenon — women fearing their campaigns won’t be taken seriously by voters — stops more women from vying for higher public offices. A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that a majority of people think men had a better shot at winning elections, even though they said men and women make equally good leaders. About 62 percent of those surveyed believed that women are held to higher standards than men. The inequity was part of the reason why more of them were not in high political office. In addition, about 66 percent of respondents thought many Americans were not ready to elect a woman to higher office. In many of the questions, researchers found that women were more likely than men to have reservations about women running for office.
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The women who have sought the presidency did so knowing that public sentiment was against them. In 1872, Victoria Claflin Woodhull became the first woman to run for president, decades before the 19th Amendment granted some women the right to vote in 1920.
Woodhull announced her candidacy in a letter to the New York Herald.
“I am quite well aware that in assuming this position I shall evoke more ridicule than enthusiasm at the outset,” she wrote. “But this is an epoch of sudden changes and startling surprises. What may appear absurd today will assume a serious aspect tomorrow."
Disappointingly, once some women (read: white women) were allowed to vote, the landscape for women running for office did not suddenly improve. In fact, almost 100 years passed before Margaret Chase Smith became the first woman to have her name in nomination for president by a major party.
Chase Smith was a former U.S. representative and senator from Maine who initially ran for her husband’s seat in Congress after he died. A Republican, she ran for president largely because she received so many letters telling her she should. But she said she knew she had no chance of winning.
“I have few illusions and no money, but I’m staying for the finish,” Chase Smith said in 1964. “When people keep telling you, you can’t do a thing, you kind of like to try.”
Her comment is eerily reminiscent of what so many barrier-breaking women have said as they climbed to the top.
Eight years later, Democrat Shirley Chisholm bravely made history as the first Black woman to aim for a presidential nomination from a major political party. She lost, but she received 152 delegate votes — about 10 percent — at the Democratic National Convention.
Finally, as Democrats geared up for the 2020 primary, electing a woman to the White House seemed possible. There were a record number of women and people of color competing for the Democratic nomination, and, finally, we didn’t have to talk endlessly about their gender. As the saying goes, Woodhull, Chase Smith, Chisholm and Clinton walked, so Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tulsi Gabbard and Marianne Williamson could run.
But when we scroll through the pictures of former vice presidents, it is still so disappointing to see how much they have in common: man after man, almost all of them white. After almost 150 years of American women running for higher elected office, the status quo hasn’t changed much.
So, yes, I’m thrilled that we’re finally here. It is history-making to see Harris as our vice president-elect. But it should not have taken this long.