In 2009, when Kamala Harris was campaigning to be attorney general of California, a position no woman or person of color had held before, she shared her personal motto with a reporter: “You may be the first, but make sure you’re not the last.”
It was a message instilled in her by her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris. Now, Harris has won election as the first woman vice president. She is also the first Black person and the first candidate of South Asian descent to be elected to the office.
“First woman, first Black person, and first person of South Asian descent” is a triplet that has followed Harris throughout her career. Before she became California’s attorney general, she was the first woman and first person of color to serve as district attorney of San Francisco. In 2017, Harris became the first Black person, and Black woman, to represent California in the U.S. Senate—as well as the 10th Black American, the second Black woman, and the first South Asian American to sit in the chamber.
When Harris was first nominated to join President-elect Joe Biden as his running mate, most of the media coverage focused on her being the first Black woman to join a major party ticket. Her South Asian identity was usually mentioned too, but with less emphasis. These were the things that set her achievement apart, at the time.
Other women had been nominated as vice president before, after all. A woman had even been nominated as president, last time around. After the white pantsuits and suffragist reminiscences—and the Electoral College disappointment—of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, the coverage of 2020 didn’t register much symbolic value in a woman running for vice president.
Unlike the others, though, Harris managed to win. And she did it while being unapologetically Black and Indian. No woman has been elected to as high an office before in the United States. That few people were dwelling on the breakthrough until it happened reflects on the broader political context—a history in which women who exist on the margins have been chipping away for centuries at the obstacles keeping them out of power.
In 1884, Marietta Stow became the first woman to run for vice president under the Equal Rights Party. Nearly a century later, in 1952, Charlotta Bass became the first Black woman to run as vice president for the Progressive Party. Thirty-two years later, in 1984, two firsts occurred. Emma Wong Mar became the first Asian American woman to run for vice president under the Peace and Freedom Party. And Rep. Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman nominated by a major political party. In 2008, Sarah Palin became the second.
Harris is the one who succeeded. It’s been 136 years since the first woman tossed her hat into the race. Sixty-eight years after Bass punched through a political wall fortified by Jim Crow. Forty-eight years after Rep. Shirley Chisholm sought the Democratic nomination for president. Sixteen years after Carol Moseley Braun, the first Black woman elected senator, jumped into the Democratic primary. And 12 years after Barack Obama became the first Black person to hold the nation’s highest office.
It’s unsettling that so many achieved firsts have fallen onto a single politician’s shoulders. It spotlights the sheer number of barriers present within American politics, as well as their durability. Behind progressive criticisms of Harris’ record, especially on criminal justice, was the truth that no one person can properly stand in for everyone denied access to political power—that representation can’t take the place of inclusion. Even with Harris in the vice president’s office, it will remain unlikely to see a Black face within the highest political ranks. It’s even less likely that face would belong to a woman. For someone who is queer or someone who is nonbinary, the chances are still not within reach.
That was the message that Harris carried from her mother. When you’ve broken down a door, make sure it stays open for the women who come after you.
Women, particularly those of color, play a magnificent role in shaping the political consciousness of their children. And it’s momentous that a Black woman, an Asian woman, finally reached the upper echelons of American politics after years of cracking through ceilings women of color were never intended to soar through—including being a serious candidate for the presidential nomination. It’s even more heartening to circle back to Harris’ mother, a barrier-defying woman from whom Harris draws her strength.
“My mother taught me that service to others gives life purpose and meaning. And oh, how I wish she were here tonight, but I know she’s looking down on me from above. I keep thinking about that 25-year-old Indian woman—all of 5 feet tall—who gave birth to me at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, California,” said Harris during the 2020 Democratic National Convention. “On that day, she probably could have never imagined that I would be standing before you now speaking these words: I accept your nomination for vice president of the United States of America.”