Vice President Harris Marks New Era For Women In Politics

Lauren Cincotta, Editor in Chief

On November 7th 2020, a crowd gathered at a drive in event in Wilmington, Delaware. Vice President Elect Kamala Harris took the stage to address the nation for the first time since the election had been called. The world watched as Harris delivered her speech, which was met with great enthusiasm, in the form of honking car horns and cheers from the crowd. The feeling of hope was palpable. Months later, even before she was officially sworn in as Vice President,  Harris’s leadership has been on full display. As the country faces challenges and harsh divisions, the incoming Vice President has been in the spotlight as she responds to the most important issues facing the nation. On January 20th 2021, a new chapter in American history began. The inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States brings with it many changes in leadership. For the first time in history, the office of Vice President is held by a woman. Former California Senator Kamala Harris is the first Black and South Asian person to have the title. Harris has broken many barriers throughout her career becoming the first African American, Asian American, and first woman to become Attorney General of California. When elected to the Senate in 2016, Harris became the first Indian American and second African American woman to serve in the Senate.

These recent firsts demonstrate how far women have come in a country that did not grant them the right to vote until the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1920. However, one of the first women to run for president was Victoria Woodhull in 1872. At that time, women could not vote and Woodhull’s name did not appear on many ballots. She was a controversial figure for her support of women’s independence in relationships and other aspects of life. Nominated by the Equal Rights Party, Woodhull lost to Ulysses Grant in a landslide.

 It would be years before a woman was elected to a spot in the federal government. In 1917, three years before the passage of women’s suffrage on the national level, Jeanette Rankin of Montana was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives. There was debate at the time over whether a woman should be permitted in the House, but ultimately Rankin was accepted. Rankin was committed to suffrage and improving the welfare of women, children, and laborers. She was also a noted pacifist, voting against U.S involvement in the world wars that occurred during her two nonconsecutive terms. After a failed Senate bid in 1918, Rankin was reelected to the House in 1940. After her time in Congress, Rankin frequently spoke out about her opposition to war and the treatment by the United State of developing countries. 

Some women that joined Rankin in Congress during her time were appointed after the deaths of their husbands, a concept known as the Widow’s Mandate. Most often, this was to fill a seat during the transition period until another man could be elected. It was through this practice that the first women entered the U.S senate. Hattie Caraway was appointed to her husband’s seat after his death in 1931. Caraway made Senate history by not only winning the special election and completing her husband’s term, but by being reelected for another full term in 1932. This made her the first woman to do so. She was also the first to chair a Senate Committee, The Enrolled Bills Committee, where she was appointed in 1933. Reelected to a second term, Caraway served in the Senate until 1945. 

The first woman to serve in the Senate without being previously appointed to a seat held by her husband was Margaret Chase Smith of Maine. Her election to the Senate occurred after she had previously served over four terms in the House of Representatives making her the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. Her decades-long career was defined by her work on foreign policy and military matters. During her time in the Senate, she delivered her Declaration of Conscience, one of the first rebukes of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and his unproven accusations of the presence of communists in the U.S government. In 1964, she made history by vying for the presidential nomination of the Republican party. However, she did not receive enough delegates to secure the Republican party’s nomination. Margaret Chase Smith remained in the Senate until 1972, the end of a career that broke many barriers for women in the federal government. 

When the United States government was founded, elected leaders were wealthy, white, male landowners, which represented the voting population. As more people in the United States have gained and exercised their right to vote, Congress has become more diverse, better representing the people in the United States. These changes have been gradual over the past 60 years.  Patsy Takemoto Mink was the first woman of color and the first Asian American woman to serve in Congress. After serving in the Hawaii state legislature in the early 1960’s, Mink was elected to the U.S House of Representatives in 1964. Mink served from 1965-1977 and was reelected in 1989 and served until her death in 2002. Throughout her Congressional career Mink supported legislation that would prevent gender discrimination. The Women’s Educational Equity Act, passed in 1974, was one of her biggest accomplishments. Additionally, she was instrumental in the passage of  Title IX, a part of larger educational amendments in 1972. Title IX prohibits federally funded institutions from discriminating against students or employees on the basis of sex.  Mink joined with other representatives to form the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. Throughout her time in Congress she supported healthcare and education and other liberal causes.  

If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

— Shirley Chisholm

 In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to Congress. She served seven terms in Congress, before leaving the House and continuing advocacy work. She was a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus, an organization that aims to help women get elected at all levels of government. Additionally, she became the first black woman and second woman to serve on the House Rules Committee, which determines scheduling of votes of bills being considered in the House.  During her time in Congress she committed to working on gender and racial equality. Chisholm supported federal assistance for education and guaranteed minimum incomes for families. In 1972, she made history again for becoming the first African American woman to run for a major political party’s presidential nomination. She was ultimately unsuccessful, and barred from taking part from debates on television. She made only one televised speech to announce her candidacy. After that campaign, Chisholm continued to serve in Congress until 1983.

Current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was first elected to Congress in 1987. She was the first woman elected to serve as House Speaker in 2007. Throughout her time in Congress she embraced liberal policies. Pelosi worked particularly closely with former President Obama on major legislation, like the Affordable Care Act. After Democrats lost control of the House, Pelosi was elected minority leader. During the Trump administration, Pelosi attempted to unite the Democratic Party and was an outspoken critic of President Trump. In 2018, after Democrats gained control of the House in the midterm elections, Pelosi was reelected as Speaker of the House. 

In 1989, the first Hispanic woman and first Cuban American was elected to Congress. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen served from 1989 until her retirement in 2019. She was devoted to foreign policy work during her time and was known as a strong advocate for immigrants. She was a co- sponsor of the Violence Against Women Act and outspoken against human rights abuses. Ros-Lehtinen also worked on the President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) and was one of the founders of the Congressional Hispanic Conference.

1992 was known as the year of the woman. The elections of November of 1992 saw more women elected to Congress than any election prior. The first African American female Senator, Carol Moseley-Braun, was one of the women that made history during that election. During her time in the Senate, she became the first woman to serve on the Finance Committee, which handles matters of taxation and debt at the federal level. She worked on legislation to support families, and education. Moseley-Braun also compellingly argued against the renewal of a federal patent for the United  Daughters of the Confederacy, because of the Confederate flag imagery in the logo. The patent was denied after her speech. After her groundbreaking Senate term, Moseley-Braun taught political science. 

In 1998, Tammy Baldwin became the first non-incumbant openly gay or lesbian person to serve in Congress. She was the first woman to represent Wisconsin in Congress and became the first openly gay or lesbian person to be elected to the Senate. During her time in the House, Baldwin advocated for the Affordable Care Act and supported other healthcare legislation. Baldwin is still currently serving in the Senate and has introduced legislation to help with college affordability and the student debt crisis. 

Mazie Hirono was the first Asian American woman elected to the Senate. After previously serving in the State House in Hawaii, and as lieutenant governor of that state, Hirono, was elected to the Senate in 2012. She is currently serving in the Senate where she is a member of the Senate Armed Services and Veterans Affairs Committees. During her time in the Senate, Hirono has worked on healthcare legislation and legislation to support veterans. 

But 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.”

— Vice President Kamala Harris

In recent years, Americans have seen more women elected to Congress. In 2021, the 117th Congress broke a record for the number of women serving in Congress. Some of the most prominent members of Congress are women. During the 2018 midterm elections four democratic female lawmakers, known as The Squad, were elected to Congress. This group includes the first Muslim women elected to Congress, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Another member, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, was the youngest woman to be elected to Congress. These women are some of the most recognizable lawmakers and have demonstrated their strong influence on the political future in the U.S. After years of valuable contributions, women are breaking new barriers and shaping America’s future, and as of January 20th, have reached the second highest office in the United States. As the Vice President elect said during her victory speech in November, “But 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.”