Kamala Harris makes history as first female vice president of United States

Alex Woodward
·10-min read
 (REUTERS)
(REUTERS)

Kamala Harris has been sworn into office as the 49th vice president of the US, the first woman to hold the office in the nation’s history, as well as the first Black woman and first woman of South Asian descent to hold the title, among several of her barrier-breaking firsts in a country reeling from generations of racial injustice.

She was sworn in by Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina Justice on the US Supreme Court.

Her inauguration, alongside 46th US president Joe Biden, follows the chaotic four-year governance of Donald Trump, who left the nation’s capital hours before the ceremony on 20 January.

The vice presidency of Ms Harris – a former prosecutor, district attorney, state attorney general and US senator, and the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants – marks a critical milestone for political representation at an equally turbulent moment in American history.

Her election to the second-highest office in the executive branch arrives more than 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act that sought to enfranchise Black Americans; nearly 50 years after Shirley Chisholm became the first woman and Black American to seek a major party presidential nomination; and more than 100 years following the ratification of the 19th amendment of the US constitution.

Read more: Follow live updates and news on Inauguration Day 2021

But the inauguration of Ms Harris marks just two weeks to the day a mob of insurrectionists – including white nationalists and far-right militants who ascribe to racist and antisemitic conspiracies – stormed into the chambers where she once sat, in a fatal attempt to undermine the votes of millions of Americans.

The insurrection, inspired by the former president’s lie that the election was “stolen” from his supporters, highlighted to the incoming administration that urgent action was required to dismantle the institutional crises that the previous administration had allowed to fester while coddling an extremist right-wing.

The country has seen human rights abuses at the US-Mexico border; the disenfranchisement of millions of voters; mass unemployment and congressional deadlock for relief; a rising climate emergency; police brutality; and more than 400,000 deaths from a growing public health crisis.

Today, Eugene Goodman – a US Capitol police officer who faced a mob of rioters inside the halls of Congress – escorted the vice president to the steps of the building, where she was sworn in.

Speaking from the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Tuesday night, Ms Harris invoked the incoming administration’s months-long appeal for national unity, underscoring America’s deep divisions but seeing a light at the end of the tunnel.

“For many months, we have grieved by ourselves,” she said. “Tonight, we grieve and begin healing together. Though we may be physically separated, we the American people are united in spirit. My abiding hope, my abiding prayer, is we emerge from this ordeal with a new wisdom.”

It’s a moment that will require President Biden to rely on Vice President Harris to take on an active, central role in the administration.

Mr Biden, looking to his formative relationship with former president Barack Obama, has said he wants his vice president to “be the last voice in the room”.

But that role will not be limited to the White House. He will need definitive support from a divided Congress to pass critical legislation that’s essential to his agenda. Ms Harris can cast tie-breaking votes in the US Senate, which now has a slim Democratic majority.

The Senate filibuster will require legislation to receive 60 votes to pass, but the White House and new Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer – taking the mantle from Mitch McConnell – are likely to rely on budget reconciliation, which stymies the filibuster and allows for legislation to pass with 51 votes.

President Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package that Democrats are eager to pass quickly, with an impeachment trial for the former president looming in Congress.

The proposal, on the heels of a protracted debate for a $900bn relief package after months of GOP roadblocks, is his administration’s pitch to begin repairing a scarred economy and provide immediate relief to millions of Americans, including direct payments to supplement the recently approved $600 cheques.

“The win is more than defeating the current occupant of the White House,” Ms Harris said at a virtual fundraiser on 14 January. “The win is in delivering results for the people who are in need, for the people who are struggling.”

The Labor Department reported that 1.15 million Americans filed new unemployment claims within the first week of 2021, up 25 per cent from the week before.

American women ended 2020 with 5.4 million fewer jobs than they had in February, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Last month, employers cut a net 140,000 jobs; women accounted for all the job losses, losing 156,000 jobs, while men gained 16,000. The impact on Black women was more severe.

“The need for relief has only grown more dire over these last months due to the Trump administration’s incompetent response,” the National Women’s Law Center said in a statement. “From rescue to recovery, the Biden-Harris administration must continue to put women at the center of their pandemic response to meet their promise of building back better.”

The vice president’s departure from the US Senate – her appointed replacement is California’s secretary of state Alex Padilla – leaves the upper chamber without a Black woman.

Her ascendance against the nation’s racial disparities and an uprising among white supremacists threads a needle through US history, along with the recent election of incoming senator Raphael Warnock, the first Black Democratic senator to be elected in a former Confederate state.

“Black women wrangled recalcitrant Democratic voters and drove them to the polls,” Robin Givhan wrote in The Washington Post. “They organized and cajoled, explained and marched until their voices were hoarse and their feet were numb. In the eyes of their critics they were nasty and despicable but they carried on with the yeoman’s work of civic engagement. Harris is the fruit of their labor.”

Following the Biden-Harris victory in November’s general election, the Congressional Black Caucus said it was “confident that her zeal for improving the upward mobility of marginalised groups in America will continue to be a priority in this next phase”.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, opening the inauguration ceremony, said: “When she takes the oath of office, little girls and boys across the world will know that anything is possible.”

Barbara Lee – a California congresswoman and longtime ally to Ms Harris – wore Shirley Chisholm’s pearls to the inauguration. The pearls were given to Ms Lee by Chisholm’s goddaughter.

“Because of Shirley Chisholm, Vice President Harris is,” she said.

“To have her there in the White House is just a remarkable historic moment for me,” said Ms Lee, who entered politics to join the 1972 presidential campaign of Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first Black woman to run for president for a major party.

“Black women have fought so hard to elect other people, to be part of this Democratic Party, to get people out to vote,” Ms Lee said.

Ms Harris has also pushed for raising the federal minimum wage to $15 and ending an “international embarrassment” by providing paid family and sick leave, policies that would have a resounding impact among Black families and people of color.

“We have to end it,” she said during a virtual town hall with senator Bernie Sanders last year. “It’s not only an embarrassment; it’s morally wrong.”

The Harris family reflects the nation’s growing diversity – continuing a series of firsts, she is married to the nation’s first-ever second gentleman, Doug Emhoff, who is white.

At 19, Shyamala Gopalan Harris immigrated from India to the US, where she met Jamaican-born economics student Donald Harris at the University of California, Berkeley. After the couple divorced, Shyamala – a cancer researcher – raised Kamala and her sister, Maya.

“My mother instilled in my sister, Maya, and me the values that would chart the course of our lives,” Ms Harris said in remarks at the Democratic National Convention last year. “She raised us to be proud, strong Black women. And she raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage. She taught us to put family first – the family you’re born into and the family you choose.”

Ms Harris developed a personal relationship with Mr Biden during her term as California’s attorney general, when she became close with then-Delaware attorney general Beau Biden, the president’s son. He died following a brain cancer diagnosis in 2015.

The president has repeatedly said that it “should be him” campaigning on the nation’s stage.

During an emotional address from Delaware on Tuesday, Mr Biden said: “I only have one regret: that he’s not here, because we should be introducing him as president.”

The president and Ms Harris became brief political rivals, both seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, culminating in a defining pin-drop moment during a debate in 2019, in which Ms Harris invoked Mr Biden’s opposition to federal enforcement of court-ordered busing mandates to help desegregate public schools.

“There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day,” she said. “And that little girl was me.”

She withdrew her nomination in December of that year. In March, she endorsed the Biden campaign.

Days later, the US was thrust into the global public health crisis, upending American life and consuming the 2020 elections with urgent calls to action while watching an administration fail and the death toll rise.

In May, the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis ignited daily demonstrations against police brutality across the US, forced to reckon with its racist legacies and confront the disproportionate violence by police against Black Americans and people of color.

In August, Mr Biden announced Ms Harris as his running mate. Amid growing demands for overdue justice for Black Americans, he picked a former prosecutor, facing her own scrutiny over a tough-on-crime record in an era of “progressive” criminal justice.

The vice president was rarely absent from the campaign trail and throughout the transition, signalling the hands-on approach the incoming administration has pledged from the executive branch.

She enters a White House familiar to Mr Biden and full of former Obama administration officials, but the 56-year-old is set to build one of the most influential vice presidencies in US history, with President Biden drawing on his experience in the role alongside Mr Obama, and hoping to elevate the office of the nation’s first Black woman vice president.

In remarks at a virtual fundraiser on 14 January, she said she recognised that the new administration’s outlook appears “too optimistic” to meet the realities it inherits.

“While we are clear-eyed – which we are – about our struggles, we also have good reasons to be optimistic,” she said, pointing to the elections of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia.

“The cost of unity cannot be staying silent in the face of violence or abuses of power. It cannot be looking the other way when we see injustice or inequality,” she said. “For Joe and me, unity means a vision of a better future where everyone – regardless of who they are. regardless of where they live – where everyone can see a place for themselves and for their families.”