Sirimavo Bandaranaike did it in 1960.
Benazir Bhutto did it in 1988.
Janet Jaygan did it in 1997.
All these women were some of the first to have held national office in their respective countries.
Among the list of nations that can tout female representation at the highest level came a new addition on January 20th, 2021 — The United States of America.
But why is it that a nation that prides itself on being ahead of all others, has fallen so deeply behind on having a woman in one of the highest offices in the land?
A Brief History
As we unpack the long journey that brought America a Madame Vice President, we must address those who helped her get there — and those who actively fought against it.
As a nation we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage in 2020. Though women have been suffering for far longer than a century, the term suffrage is synonymous with the ability to vote. Meaning, unlike their male counterparts who gained the right to vote nearly 245 years ago, women were given the freedom to voice the vision for their country at the ballot box nearly a century and a half later.
From the growing disdain of being unable to change their nation, the suffrage movement blossomed. This led to the coming out of leaders like Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. However, despite the success of these women in achieving the ability to vote by the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, it was another forty five years before the Civil Rights Act of 1965 was passed, which allowed women of color to vote.
Why a “Madame” Vice President Matters
The hardships that were faced and continue to be faced regarding disenfranchisement in communities of color should be enough to highlight the gravity of Vice President Kamala Harris’s historic new role. For a nation, that she has spent years working for (put aside politics for a minute) the roots of her success come from marginalized voices like Hattie Purvis, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and Gertrude Bustill Mossell who were Black suffragists in the mid 1800’s, and never able to vote themselves — but fought so that other women of color could. Similarly, the sacrifices made by those in the Civil Rights Movement must also be addressed. Visionaries like Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, John Lewis, Ida B. Wells, and so many others are what helped pave the path all the way to the White House for a Black Woman.
Kamala Harris’s induction into national office is therefore not only a testament to her own grit — but also an ode to those who came before her, and a cheeky smile for those who actively fought against her chance to serve. I’ll remind you that despite the advantages for many of the most privileged in our country, often White and from a higher socioeconomic status — the first woman Vice President did not come from such a category. She was the daughter of immigrants, raised by a single parent, and a woman of color. Despite the ease for so many in the privileged class to achieve this feat — the first woman VP will always be Kamala Harris.
Women in Politics
But ease is a relative term when it comes to the accessibility of women in politics.
America has fallen behind in national leadership roles for women — having our very first with Kamala Harris. This too must be addressed, because as we grow to emphasize diversity — we must also be cognizant of the representation of all kinds of women, in all kinds of roles. One day perhaps, even the presidency.
In the 2020 election cycle women ran fiercely. We had powerhouses like Senators Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand and activist Marianne Williamson run for the position and share insightful, thoughtful, and revolutionary ideas — yet once again our candidate turned out to be a white, moderate male (and the eldest at that).
But despite the mold that President Biden may fit, he has most certainly shattered others.
President Biden has not only kept his word on policy initatives, like the rescinding of the Muslim Ban and rentry into the Paris Climate Accords, but he has made a consisten effort to ensure that his administration welcomes voices, that have previously been silenced — especially women.
Though in 2020, a year which rang in the centennial anniversary for the right of women to vote — it would have been exciting to have a first female president — I remain motivated and excited for our nation’s outcome. There is hope for further progress, and it will start with reconciling with the fact that we need to continue having better representation among all roles in our government — especially by women.
Narratives and issues of certain communities will never be prioritized if they are not represented in spaces of power, and while we have champions for such equalization in Congress already like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Sharice Davids, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley — we must have more.
So to conclude, a heartiest congratulations to Madame Vice President Kamala Harris for her historic inauguration, may the efforts of those who came before you serve as a motivation for the work you have left to do. We look forward to your success.
For those who are moved by the initiative to serve in such a role, I urge you to check out the Congressional Leadership Development Program, which is a fellowship aimed to be a pipeline for a diverse group of young leaders to serve in the halls of congress.
And remember, your decisions, your priorities, and your efforts may seem small now — but they are able to set a tone for our future, so let’s get to work. And women… let’s get to running — our country has some catching up to do!