On Wednesday, I will take my virtual seat alongside an online audience of millions to watch the swearing-in of United States President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. It’s an inauguration that would have been historic no matter what, given the events of the last four years, but one that takes on an even greater significance with the election of Kamala Harris as VP. We will hear a term we haven’t used before, and one that will soon become ubiquitous: “Madame Vice President”.
his razor-sharp politician steps into her role shattering many glass ceilings. She will be the first female vice president in the history of the United States. She is also the country’s first Black and South Asian VP. Millions of young girls will witness this watershed moment for women’s leadership and see that their potential includes one of the highest offices in the land.
I remember my own watershed moment, the spark of inspiration and representation I felt at just eight years old, as I watched Mary Robinson become the seventh president of Ireland. President Robinson’s term would be significant in many ways for our nation. She would famously keep a candle burning in Áras an Uachtaráin for the Irish diaspora around the world, she would meet with LGBT groups when same-sex relationships of any kind were still illegal in Ireland, she’d make massive diplomatic moves for Anglo-Irish relations, including a much-documented tea with Queen Elizabeth. She took on the Catholic Church to legalise contraception.
But her term in office also left a personal legacy for so many young girls in Ireland, myself included, who grew up knowing that they could be anything they wanted to be – right down to the president – because they’d seen it with their own eyes. “I was elected by the women of Ireland, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system,” Mary Robinson said of her history-making election. The sense of pride and potential I developed, having grown up in a country where I saw women at the top of the political sphere, has only been compounded in recent years when I talk to US colleagues about the “dream gap” experienced by young girls here in America.
Starting at age five, many girls begin to develop limiting self-beliefs, believing that women are less valuable and capable than men. The same generations of young girls walk into elementary schools, day in and day out, to see the faces of the many white men and one black man who’ve led their country adorn their classroom walls.
They’ve learned about the 48 men who have been vice presidents, from Adams to Pence. They’ve understood, however subliminally, that there is no place for them alongside the men.
Now those girls will see Kamala Harris celebrated as vice president, and know there finally is a place for them – something Kamala Harris herself acknowledged when her and Joe Biden’s victory was affirmed on November 7 last year. In front of a cheering audience on a Delaware stage, she said: “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.”
I spoke to President Robinson recently for the Irish American Partnership about the election of Biden and Harris, 30 years to the day after she was elected, and she expressed a similar excitement: “I was so impressed with her acceptance speech because I could see that she understands completely her role, not only in the US, but for women and girls globally.”
Kamala Harris, like President Robinson, has spent her life smashing through barriers and collecting hard-won “firsts”. On her journey to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, she was the first female district attorney of San Francisco, the first female attorney general of California, the first Indian American in the US Senate, the first Indian American candidate of a major party to run for vice president. And her presence, everything she represents, offers hope, despite the grave reckoning around race that the United States has faced recently.
Kamala Harris’s identity brought to the forefront the intersectionality of modern politics – as the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, she is a role model of inclusiveness – yet the US press sometimes neglected her South-Asian heritage. She was elected in a year marking the 100-year anniversary of the 19th amendment, allowing white women to vote, yet it would take decades more before women of colour were given that right in America.
Kamala Harris also brings to the White House an inter-faith blended family with a mix of her Christian faith and Hindu heritage and her husband’s Jewish heritage. We were first introduced to “Momala”, the name that her step children affectionately call her, during the Democratic National Convention.
I first met Kamala Harris in 2018 when we named her one of the Glamour Women of the Year. It was my first time hosting the event as editor-in-chief and Senator Harris’s speech was a highlight, not just for me personally, but for the thousand-strong audience attending.
When she took to the stage in New York that November night, Kamala Harris talked about the need for women of colour to be seen and heard, and for their stories to be told.
She spoke about truth, and the importance of telling it, no matter how uncomfortable it might make people feel. And she spoke about “this inflection point in the history of our country” that still stands as true today as it did in 2018.
“We need to bring folks together,” she continued. “Let’s also recognise this moment will pass. At some moment, this will pass. And years from now, people are gonna look in our eyes, each one of us, and they will ask us, ‘Where were you at that inflection moment?’ What we’re all going to be able to say is that we were here together, and we were fighting for the best of who we are.”
I say to that, Kamala Harris now represents the best of who we are, and can aspire to be. On Wednesday, as much as I am looking forward to the inauguration itself, I will also be watching on social media, as millions of young women flood our feeds with the first photographs of our first Madame Vice President taking office – and millions more young girls, no doubt, learn the term for the first time. One that, in good time, I hope will soon be replaced by another ceiling-smashing term, “Madame President”.
Kamala Harris and Mary Robinson both feature in the upcoming book Glamour: 30 Years of Women Who Have Reshaped the World, now available on pre-order
Source: Irish News