No longer a man’s world: what Kamala Harris’ win means for women everywhere

Earlier in November, the world watched as Joe Biden was elected as America’s next President, making history in the process. Not because Biden is the 45th white male to ascend to the nation’s highest office, and not because he will be the oldest elected President ever (haps baps for Friday, Joe – the big 7-8!). In fact, it’s nothing to do with Biden himself, but rather his running mate, America’s official Vice-President- Elect.

Attired in a white pantsuit to honour the suffragists who battled to give women their vote, Kamala Harris is the first woman since the conception of the modern-day USA to accept her place in the Vice President’s office. She is the first Black woman and the first woman of colour. She has, in one fell swoop, defied the notion that ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. It is not the case that Harris’ political career has been without fault. Her controversial anti-truancy programme, which was intended to increase children’s school attendance by threatening negligent parents with jail time, has been criticised in the election run-up.

Critics suggested that Harris’ ‘tough on crime’ policy was archaic and notably failed when a Black single mother was arrested in front of her child, who, because of reasons relating to the child’s disability, was unable to go to school. Her case had been erroneously flagged up, causing unnecessary trauma for both herself and her child. In Harris’ defence, her supporters claim that when the programme works effectively, it is a ‘critical way to keep kids out of the criminal justice system’. She is a self-proclaimed ‘progressive prosecutor’, and her vice presidency will be the time to prove it.

More important than Harris’ ascension to office for herself is what her victory over a system that favours the white and the male symbolises for others. Harris aptly states 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 possibility’.

For too long, women in America have been given only substantive representation of themselves in their VPs: namely, male office-holders, who cannot effectively perform the role of delegate for women because they are not women themselves.

Harris stands for descriptive representation: she acts as a sociological mirror for American women and, specifically, American women of colour. Ann Phillips suggests that, whilst there is ‘no empirical…plausibility’ that female politicians share all or even particular experiences with every woman they represent, they are still more likely to ‘hit the target’ than their male counterparts.

Harris is not alone in her symbolism. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s beloved PM, has shattered her fair share of glass ceilings. Ardern made history by bringing her baby, Neve, to the 2018 UN general assembly. In May, following her bold decision to close New Zealand’s borders, she was vindicated by the country’s announcement that they had gone a week without any new coronavirus infections.

The new VP will still have to contend with what’s known as the ‘double bind’: the pressure traditionally levelled on women in power to live up to masculine expectations whilst also ‘managing’ femininity.

Theresa May was infamously criticised for both her clothing and familial commitments (or lack thereof, on both fronts): her childlessness meant that many did not see her as a suitable PM, and the Guardian’s Simon Hoggart once stated that she showed ‘a quantity of cleavage that would not have disgraced a Page 3 Stunner’. Finnish Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, only last month received similar criticism that her topless blazer look ‘suggest[ed] that her chief assets are her boobs’.

Harris’ election is indicative of something we have always known to be true, but have never seen to be executed. It does not just mean that women can make it into the second highest office in the Western hemisphere: it means that they can make it to the very top. It proves that history moves in a forward trajectory, despite it sometimes appearing to be regressing. Yes, the recent uproar at Sainsbury’s Christmas advert’s casting of a Black family feels like a visceral slap in the face, especially after all the recent progress made by BLM.

However, the Harrisian hypothesis of the progression of history means that one day, a Black protagonist in a supermarket ad will bat no eyelids. One day, a ‘Kamala Harris’ will sit in the President’s chair. It feels undeniably hopeful. And amidst the calamity of 2020, this is – and always will be – a historic victory.

Image: Getty