Harris’s victory comes 55 years after the Voting Rights Act abolished laws that disenfranchised Black Americans, 36 years after the first woman ran on a presidential ticket and four years after Democrats were devastated by the defeat of Hillary Clinton, the only woman to win the presidential nomination of a major party.
She emerged in all white, a nod to the uniform of the suffragists who fought to enfranchise women 100 years ago, an embodiment of what was once just a dream for so many.
“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 possibilities,” Harris said. “And to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction. And see yourselves in a way that others may not simply because they’ve never seen it before, but know that we will applaud you every step of the way.”
Though her own run for president fell apart last year partly because of a lack of enthusiasm, Harris has since been embraced by Democrats, who saw in her a reflection of themselves — a party supported by women and, especially, Black women.
“To see the joy of what is happening in this important moment in American history, with African American, Indian, Asian, Latino women coming together and seeing it in one woman, we understand that her election . . . will not only benefit all women, but her perspective of being able to look at the world through a lens of color will bring inclusion and opportunity,” poet-activist Sonia Sanchez said.
Black women helped propel Harris and President-elect Joe Biden to victory by elevating turnout in places like Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Those women will finally see themselves represented in the White House as Biden and Harris replace President Trump, who started his political career by perpetuating a racist birther lie about President Barack Obama and has a long track record of making misogynistic comments.
Harris’s identity has revealed itself in ways both large and small. When she referred to members of her extended family circle as “chitthis” during her nomination acceptance speech, Indian Americans around the country cheered. When she questioned Trump nominees who might challenge abortion rights, women came to know her as an unrelenting advocate. A Howard University graduate, she was the first major-party nominee to hold a degree from a historically Black college or university and is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest Black sorority. She is the only Black woman in the U.S. Senate, and is the second elected to serve there — joining the body nearly 25 years after the first.
Harris, who steadily rose from a prosecutor to California attorney general to the U.S. Senate, has emerged as a cultural figure with reach beyond the political sphere. When she wore Chuck Taylors on the campaign trail, social media exploded, and supporters started wearing them to events and to the polls.
Harris has appeared with many of the highest-profile Black radio and digital media hosts and is impersonated by the popular comedic actress Maya Rudolph on “Saturday Night Live.” She popped into a Verzuz battle between R&B stars Brandy and Monica, which was watched by more than 1 million people, and did an Instagram Live with Lizzo. She walked onstage Saturday night to “Work That” by Mary J. Blige. Harris’s facial expressions during congressional hearings were made into memes and pasted on T-shirts. Harris emerged as a presence of her own.
“I work in entertainment, and representation is always on my mind. Seeing someone like you on the screen is really powerful. But seeing someone like you in the White House feeds your soul,” said Nik Dodani, an Indian American actor and comedian. “We’re about to have Vice President Auntie. That is exactly the type of energy we need after four years of Mike Pence.”
Harris often bends down to speak to young girls at eye level, urging them to be themselves and aim high. Though she couldn’t hold big rallies because of the coronavirus pandemic, she drew crowds anyway: One day as she walked down the streets of a predominantly Black neighborhood in Philadelphia, a man — haircut not yet done, cape still on — ran out of a barbershop to shake her hand. Others crossed traffic to get close enough to wave and to see her wave back.
“She brought the names of Black women in history to the stage when she accepted her nomination,” said Glynda Carr, co-founder of the political 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 she is going to do when she steps into the Oval Office with Joe Biden.”
Harris also endured racist attacks on the campaign trail, including when Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) intentionally mispronounced her name at a rally with Trump last month. She and Biden will now lead a deeply polarized nation that is grappling with a movement to end systemic racism, sparked by the deaths of numerous Black people at the hands of police in recent years.
As a vice-presidential candidate, Harris became a forceful voice for racial justice, speaking privately with Black activists nationwide and showing up to Black Lives Matter protests. She met with the family of Jacob Blake, a Black man shot seven times by a White police officer in Kenosha, Wis.
“When I talk to Senator Harris, I say, ‘You have to remember, Black people feel like there’s nobody in the federal government now trying to champion our cause for equal justice. We just feel like it’s all on us.’ We have to be champions for each other,” said attorney Ben Crump, who represents Blake’s family and several families of those killed by police.
“Right now, we’re championing her, and we fully expect that she will champion our cause — all those marginalized minority communities who are just so proud that we are close to having the first woman of color to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, from the leader of the free world,” he said.
Harris initially ran against Biden for president — a campaign that began with great energy and a massive rally in Oakland, Calif. — but ultimately ended her bid months before the Iowa caucuses. Harris struggled to find a base of support in a crowded primary field and faced criticism over her record as a prosecutor. One of her most memorable moments came when she unleashed a searing attack on Biden, her future running mate, for his past comments on school desegregation.
Now, Harris will take her place as the Democratic heir apparent to a president who will be 78 when he is inaugurated and has described himself as a transitional figure. It is a role likely to draw more scrutiny over Harris’s work, including from fellow Democrats who may see her as a rival for the Oval Office.
Born in Oakland, Harris spent years as a prosecutor in the Bay Area. She was elected San Francisco district attorney in 2003 and attorney general of California in 2010, high-profile jobs in the nation’s most-populous state — but not enough to build widespread name recognition.
She easily won a Senate seat in 2016 and soon made waves in Washington. A week after being sworn into office, she subjected John F. Kelly, Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland Security, to forceful interrogation. She established herself as an uncompromising critic of Trump appointees, particularly during confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and Attorney General William P. Barr.
Although Harris did not emerge as a legislative force, she signed on to or introduced several bills that had little chance of passing but were nevertheless symbolic, including 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.
Harris was just two years into her Senate tenure — but at the top of the candidate list — when Democrats started speculating about who would be best positioned to run against Trump in 2020. Then, at a moment when the Democrats were grappling with how best to represent their increasingly diverse coalition, many party members found a flaw in Harris, who — as a child of immigrants, an HBCU graduate and a woman — had seemed like a good fit.
Her record as a prosecutor became the subject of intense scrutiny, with key voting blocs — young Black men, older Black voters and far-left voters — concluding in significant numbers that she had not done enough to combat systemic racism in the criminal justice system when she had the power to do so.
Allies argued that Harris was ahead of her time in reducing marijuana convictions, creating a reentry program for nonviolent offenders and trying to use the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office to address other social issues like truancy.
Support flagged, pulled down by shifting campaign messages that never seemed to click with the candidate or voters. The energy around her campaign dissipated, and she could never dislodge deep-rooted Black support for Biden, which limited her ability to expand her base.
When her campaign ran out of money in early December, Harris abruptly withdrew from the race. Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who urged Biden to pick a Black woman as his running mate, said he “made it very clear that putting a Black woman on the ticket would be a great thing to do.” Harris was one of several Black women Biden considered, including Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams.
When he chose Harris in August, the decision was met with tremendous enthusiasm. The campaign raised $34.2 million in the two days after she was added to the ticket.
In the months since, Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, have gained even more national prominence. Tuesday evening, hours before polls began to close, Harris and Emhoff joined an all-staff call with the Biden team from a campaign stop in Philadelphia. Harris was still bundled in the coat she’d been wearing all day. Emhoff, described by people inside the campaign as an unrelentingly, almost incomprehensibly enthusiastic surrogate, began to cry as he thanked his staff.
Harris patted him on the back, comforting the man who was so concerned with his wife’s well-being on the trail that he would often surveil the audience during her events, sometimes appearing out of nowhere to step between Harris and anyone who seemed to be moving toward her in the wrong way.
Emhoff is breaking ground, too. He will be the first Jewish person to be among the group of presidents, vice presidents and their spouses — and the first male spouse, ever. No one is even quite sure what he’ll be called in his role. For 2½ centuries, presidential and vice-presidential spouses were known as first and second ladies. Some floated a title of “second gentleman,” though he, too, is a first.
But it is Harris who will punch through the glass ceiling, raised there by decades of work by generations of women who could never quite reach it, but hoped someday someone would.
“I wake up in a different curl — you know how you curl up to go to sleep? During these past four years, I’ve curled up in a tight knot,” Sanchez, the poet and activist, said in an interview from her home in Philadelphia. “But I woke up this morning in a curl all over my bed. I had taken over the expanse of this big bed because one feels a breath, the possibility of progress and of teaching us the real idea of democracy.”