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Stanford News Service
December 11, 2020

Breaking barriers: Madame Vice President Kamala Harris

On Jan. 20, Kamala Harris will be sworn in as Vice President of the United States, making her the first woman, and the first Black and South Asian person, to hold this position. Here, Stanford scholars reflect on this historical milestone.

By Melissa De Witte

Harris Kamala (D-CA) official U.S. Senate photo

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) will step into the White House as vice president on Jan. 20 (Image credit: Renee Bouchard)

Kamala Harris has cemented herself in history by becoming America’s first woman, and the first Black and South Asian person, to be elected vice president.

As she steps into the White House on Jan. 20, she will be breaking one of the country’s highest concrete ceilings – a term often used to describe the insurmountable barriers that women of color in particular face. Indeed, Harris has an impressive track record of overcoming them. A child of immigrants from Jamaica and India, Harris became the first woman and person of color to serve as the district attorney of San Francisco – firsts she achieved again later when she became the attorney general for California. She also made history as the Golden State’s first Black senator and then as the first Black and South Asian woman nominated vice president by a major political party.

But what challenges remain and what new opportunities will be open to her? Here, Stanford scholars Jisha Menon, Shelley Correll, Marianne Cooper, Estelle Freedman, Sarah SouleNeil Malhotra and Adrian Daub discuss the symbolic milestone of Harris’ nomination and what impact she will have in inspiring future generations of young women to pursue public service and other leadership positions. As Harris herself remarked in her victory speech: “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.”


Jisha Menon
Director, Center for South Asia; Associate Professor, Theater and Performance Studies, School of Humanities and Sciences

“The historic appointment of Kamala Harris to the second-highest office in the nation is momentous and will inspire generations of young girls, and especially Black and Brown girls, to aspire to positions of leadership in the nation’s highest echelons of power.

“Kamala Harris symbolizes alternative visions of race relations, both via her own background and in her interracial marriage to a white Jewish man. She was raised by a village of Black women, and it was the organizing by Black women that led her to victory. Multiple constituencies, including Black, South Asian, Asian American, have claimed her, and these gestures of claiming also remind us of the tenuous ways in which racialized minorities in the United States experience and assert national belonging. Her presence augurs the possibility of new connections across racial formations, a horizon of Black-Brown solidarities, of African American and Asian American affiliations, and an affirmation of South Asian Americans within the larger group of Asian Americans. She draws on her own alternative family ecosystem and crafts a new blended interracial family that imagines new kinship arrangements. This is what the future in the U.S. looks like – mixed-race, modern, diverse – and in such polarized times as these, our task is to ensure that this promise of new affiliative communities exceeds the realm of representation and infuses policies and practices on the ground.”


Shelley Correll
Michelle Mercer and Bruce Golden Family Professor in Women’s Leadership; Director, Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab; Professor of Sociology, School of Humanities and Sciences
Marianne Cooper
Senior Research Scholar, Stanford VMware Women’s Leadership Innovation Lab

“As the first woman and first woman of color elected to be vice president, Kamala Harris shattered several glass ceilings in one night. Her election marks a watershed moment for women’s leadership – ushering in a new era of possibilities.

“While women have made great strides in business, academia and government, they remain woefully underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership. One of the biggest obstacles preventing women from reaching senior positions are gendered stereotypes about leadership – namely, that women are not a good fit for leadership. To overcome these stereotypes, women often must prove they have what it takes to be strong leaders in ways men do not. Yet in doing so, women can face backlash because people perceive them as being too assertive, angry or, as Kamala Harris has been described, ‘too ambitious.’ It is a classic double-bind.

“Undoing this double-bind requires chipping away at the societal stereotypes about gender, race and leadership that create it. Given the realities of systemic racism and sexism, culture change on this order is exceedingly hard. Indeed, even after Obama’s presidency, the representation of Black men in leadership positions remains low. Yet, the election of Kamala Harris sets the stage to break down barriers. Over the next four years, as Americans become accustomed to the designation ‘Madame Vice President’ and become familiar with a multiracial woman occupying the second highest office, our collective image of what a vice president looks like and sounds like will begin to broaden and change.”


Estelle Freedman
The Edgar E. Robinson Professor in U.S. History, School of Humanities and Sciences

“Kamala Harris’ vice presidency is a milestone on the path toward women’s full political participation in the U.S. It is also a reminder of the intersections of gender and race throughout this history. Given the long association of politics as a male sphere, it took more than a generation after the ratification of the 19th Amendment for American women to vote in the same proportion as men. Despite racially exclusively state laws, where black women could vote they often did so more frequently than white women.

“When second-wave feminism encouraged greater political participation, two women of color, U.S. Representatives Shirley Chisholm and Patsy Mink, sought the 1972 Democratic nomination for president. It would take another generation, however, for a gender gap in national voting to emerge, and yet another one for sufficient numbers of women to successfully run for office to create a pipeline to the executive branch. Periodic events accelerated the process, including the sexist and racist treatment of Anita Hill in the Senate in 1991 and the exposure of Donald Trump’s literal as well as political assaults on women in recent years.

“Thus a confluence of racial justice and feminist histories enabled Kamala Harris to succeed politically, while prior campaigns like Hillary Clinton’s made even the presidency imaginable for her. Equally important, Harris showed that embracing racial and gender identities can be an advantage rather than an obstacle to political success at the highest level.”


Sarah Soule
The Morgridge Professor of Organizational Behavior and Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, Graduate School of Business

“The term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by a law professor, Kimberlé Crenshaw, in the late 1980s and quickly migrated into my own discipline of sociology. In its original use, the term described how different stigmatized identities can overlap and, as such, amplify the oppression experienced by a person with a single stigmatized identity. In the midst of what seems to be a less than smooth transition to the White House, it is important for us to pause to consider how profoundly important our new Vice President Kamala Harris’ intersectionality is to our country. At the Democratic National Convention in August, Vice President Harris reflected on her late mother, who raised her to be a proud Black woman and to be proud of her Indian ancestry. Because of her own upbringing and experiences, we can hope that Vice President Harris will bring an intersectional lens to policy and governance.

“As a sociologist, I was trained to think analytically about how the intersection of categories of people, organizations, institutions and products influences a variety of outcomes. In research on social movements, for example, many have found that when a movement represents multiple identities, more people will feel affinity with the movement and subsequently join. Thus, we can also hope that Vice President Harris’ intersectionality will appeal to the multitude of people in the United States with intersectional identities, and that this appeal will inspire many others to aspire to public service.”


Neil Malhotra
The Edith M. Cornell Professor of Political Economy, Graduate School of Business

“The election of Kamala Harris to the vice presidency elucidates the complex nature of identity in our society. In her previous elections, particularly at the local level, the media focused narrowly on Harris’ identity as a ‘Black woman.’ In this election, the media and society grappled with Harris’ complex and nuanced identities: a Black woman, a woman of South Asian descent, a daughter of immigrants, a stepmother in a blended family, etc. The changing media coverage maps onto society’s increasingly more sophisticated understanding of identity.”


Adrian Daub
Barbara D. Finberg Director, Clayman Institute for Gender Research; Director, Program in Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies; Professor of Comparative Literature and of German Studies, School of Humanities and Sciences

“What’s striking to me about Kamala Harris’ election is in fact how much less dramatic the reactions to her breakthrough achievement have been, compared to the treatment of other, and quite recent, ‘first’ candidates. While Harris faced the predictable racist and sexist attacks, the scripts of racism and sexism which are so reliably activated in American society when barriers are broken had trouble attaching themselves to this candidate. The fact that they didn’t so far stick to her the way they stuck to, say, Hilary Clinton may be due to her appearing on a ticket with a politician hand-picked to be reassuring to the kinds of people Harris might otherwise alarm. Or Americans may have been too busy surviving a global pandemic to pay attention to the kind of conspiratorial and culture-war tropes flung at, say, Michelle Obama. But perhaps it’s also about a metaphor Hilary Clinton used at the end of the 2008 primaries about the millions of cracks in the glass ceiling.

“The election of 2016 set the stage for an unprecedented mass mobilization of women, and particularly women of color, in U.S. politics, and that mass mobilization was far more closely tied to electoral politics than women’s organizing in, say, the 1970s. It made such obvious political sense that Biden’s vice presidential pick would have to be a woman, and – given the unprecedented organizing around racial justice of the last seven years – made it equally obvious that a woman of color was the most prudent pick. This is different from Walter Mondale picking Geraldine Ferraro, in other words. The remarkable momentum that allowed the Harris nomination and Harris’ election victory to proceed comparatively smoothly reflects the changing relationship between social justice activism and electoral politics over the past two generations.”



Melissa De Witte, Stanford News Service: (650) 723-6438, [email protected]


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