One by one, Democratic leaders who tried and failed to put a woman in the White House appeared on-screen at the Democratic National Convention last night to crown Kamala Harris as their successor. “I know a thing or two about the slings and arrows coming her way,” said former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “Kamala can handle them all.” Despite the intense disappointment of 2016, many Democrats firmly believe that having a woman on the ticket is the key to kicking Donald Trump out of office this November. Harris is stepping into her role at a profoundly challenging time for women—which may make women voters grateful to see a candidate who looks like them on the ticket.
When Clinton became the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee four years ago, she tied her victory to Seneca Falls, the 1848 convention at which a group almost exclusively made up of white women declared women’s political rights for the first time in American history. Harris reframed that history as she accepted her nomination for vice president last night, nearly 100 years to the day after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women suffrage.
“So many of the Black women who helped secure that victory were still prohibited from voting, long after its ratification,” Harris said. She ran through a list of Black women who were firsts in their own time, such as Constance Baker Motley, the first Black woman appointed as a federal judge and the first to argue a case before the United States Supreme Court, and Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first to run for president. “These women inspired us to pick up the torch and fight on,” she said.
As Democrats look to women voters for victory in November, this is the story they are telling: It’s time for all women, and not just white women, to finally claim their place in politics.
The numbers are clear: Women will determine the outcome of the 2020 election. Suburban voters helped sweep Trump to victory in 2016, but a Washington Post/ABC News poll published this week shows Joe Biden and Harris leading Trump and Mike Pence by double digits among suburban women. Black voter turnout fell sharply from 2012 to 2016, but Black women’s enthusiasm could give Democrats a powerful boost in 2020, just as it did in 2018. Harris repeatedly signals that she cares about these voters’ interests. “The litmus test for America is how we are treating Black women,” she said in a promotional video before her acceptance speech. The overall messaging of the third night of the DNC, which also featured New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, was pink and pointed: “Joe Biden knows a stronger America is one that works for women,” said the voice-over in one promotional segment, full of images of the Women’s March and suffrage protests. “Go ahead and celebrate, you rabble-rouser, you rule breaker, you force of nature. Our country, our world, needs you.”
Harris is pitching herself as the ultimate feminist candidate to take on Trump, whom she describes as misogynistic. “I know a predator when I see one,” she said in her speech. But she also emphasized her place in a long line of formidable women. This is the same story Clinton and Geraldine Ferraro, the Democratic Party’s first female vice-presidential nominee, told about their candidacy. Last night, Clinton spoke of her mother, Dorothy, a “strong, no-nonsense” woman. “Boy, did Joe pick the right partner in Kamala Harris,” Clinton said. “Another daughter of an extraordinary mother.” Harris credited her mom, Shyamala, an immigrant from India who came to the United States and joined the civil-rights movement, with shaping her identity—not just as a woman, but as a woman of color. Shyamala raised Harris and her sister “to be proud, strong Black women,” Harris said. “And she raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage.”
As historic as it is for Harris to take up the mantle from Clinton and Ferraro and attempt to claim the White House for women, theirs is an ill-fated club to join. Women were elated when Ferraro accepted the vice-presidential nomination at the 1984 convention, cheering and waving banners that read A WOMAN IS THE TICKET. Ferraro and her running mate, Walter Mondale, went on to lose every state but Minnesota and the District of Columbia. Clinton couldn’t help but sound bitter as she warned voters against complacency in 2020: “Remember, Joe and Kamala can win 3 million more votes and still lose. Take it from me.” Because of COVID-19, there were no cheering crowds or epic balloon drops when Harris accepted her nomination—even her closest supporters joined her by video on a giant board behind her lectern. In the room where Harris made her speech, it was just her, a few journalists, and the daunting task ahead.
Even though a white man is at the top of the Democratic ticket, 2020 will be a women’s election. The issues most on Americans’ minds are the practical ones that Democrats emphasized last night, such as securing child care and putting kids back in school during a pandemic—basic challenges that often fall to women to figure out for their family.
Although some feminists might regret that the country will not elect a woman president in 2020, Harris’s candidacy is one more reason for women to show up to the polls in November: “#VoteForHer,” tweeted Cecile Richards, the former head of Planned Parenthood.
No woman has made it to the Oval Office or gone before Harris to show how it’s done as vice president. But as Harris said last night, citing the Bible, her commitment is “to walk by faith, and not by sight.” After the 2016 election, feminists felt burned, and argued that the country still wasn’t ready to elect a woman president. Since then, American women have only gotten angrier and more politically active, and if polling is any indication, it just might be time for a woman leader up top.