Kamala Devi Harris, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, is to become the highest-ranking woman in the 244-year existence of the United States. She's been welcomed by women, by black activists and by a chorus of liberal voices – but she comes to the job after having publicly savaged Joe Biden in the first Democrat TV debate, and with a confused reputation from her time as California attorney general.
Kamala Harris was among the gang of Democratic contenders who slugged it out in the first of the party's televised debates, back in June, 2019. In the course of that frequently stormy discussion, Harris accused Biden of having sided with racial segregationists in the 1970s by opposing legislation on "bussing", the controversial use of federal transport to bring black kids to white schools.
Biden, when he was a Delaware Senator in 1975, did indeed describe bussing as "asinine". In the 2019 debate, Harris told the man who will become her boss next January that he had been wrong to oppose the system that gave her the start of an education that had made her career possible. "I was the girl on the bus," she said. Biden ran out of time before he could answer.
The New York Times described Harris's assault on Biden as "perhaps the toughest attack he faced throughout the primary campaign".
That was then. Harris dropped out of contention before the first of the party's selection votes, running out of money.
When Joe Biden secured the Democrat nomination, he took the woman who had savaged him as his running-mate, and Kamala Harris was rocketing towards the glass ceiling with a clenched fist.
A long career of being first
Harris was born 56 years ago in Oakland, California, across the Bay from San Francisco.
In an interview last year with The New Yorker magazine, she summed up her career quite simply: “Here’s the thing: every office I’ve run for I was the first to win. First person of colour. First woman. First woman of colour. Every time.”
She has been, successively, San Francisco district attorney in 2003, attorney general of California in 2010, senator in 2016, vice-president-elect in 2020, seconding the oldest man ever elected to the White House.
She has played several crucial roles in the Biden campaign, becoming a forceful voice for racial justice, meeting black activists nationwide and showing up at Black Lives Matter protests. She also clearly helped to boost voter participation by black women in places like Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia.
A mixed political legacy
As a senator, Harris supported Medicare-for-all and other health care reform plans. She introduced bills aimed at reducing racial disparities in health care, the economy and the criminal justice system.
Critics have wondered why she did so little to change the criminal justice system when she was working inside it in California.
Her efforts to end school absenteeism in San Francisco have been criticised as punitive of poor households, with parents being sent to jail because their kids were needed at home to mind sick siblings. As a prosecutor, Harris is alleged to have asked for bail amounts five times higher than the national average. She is accused of having ignored the Black Lives Matter movements until it became politically useful.
A family history of feminism
Harris’s mother, Shyamala Gopalan, the Brahman daughter of a diplomat from Chennai, India, graduated from the University of Delhi at age 19, avoided an arranged marriage, and went to the University of California at Berkeley to study nutrition and endocrinology.
“She was one of the very few women of colour in science,” Harris told The New Yorker about her mother. “When I decided to run, she said, ‘Honey, you watch out for what’s going to happen, because there are still certain myths about what women can do and cannot do, in spite of the fact of what women actually do in life.’
"And she said, ‘Two of those myths are that women can do certain things but not necessarily be in charge of your security or your money.’ In spite of the fact that, who is the lioness protecting those cubs at all costs? Who is it who is invariably sitting at that kitchen table in the middle of the night trying to figure out how to get those bills paid?”
A huge weight of hope
Kamala Harris has already left a few myths in smithereens. She knows she carries a huge weight of hope for a better, more united, less racist America. But she won't be alone.
“She brought the names of black women in history to the stage when she accepted her nomination,” says Glynda Carr, co-founder of the advocacy group Higher Heights, which recruits and supports black women in politics.
“Maya Angelou used to say, ‘I come as one, but stand as 10,000’. That is what Kamala Harris is going to do when she steps into the Oval Office with Joe Biden.”