Standing on the shoulders of the women who have gone before her...

History was made in the U.S this week when Kamala Harris was elected to be the first female, first black and first Indian vice-president, writes ELAINE DUGGAN
Standing on the shoulders of the women who have gone before her...

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

THEY say a picture speaks a thousand words… the photo on my Cork friends’ social media account did just that.

More than 5,000 kilometres away, across the Atlantic Ocean, in New York, where she and her family now live, were her two young daughters, sitting together looking up at the TV as Kamala Harris gave an address. The accompanying message on her Facebook post… a simple emoji heart.

It was a scene that was probably replicated in hundreds of thousands of households across the US over the weekend — mothers, daughters, sisters, friends... celebrating a momentous milestone.

Many were joyous not only at the end of the Donald Trump reign, but for the first time ever, the U.S was also to have a female vice-president.

Kamala Harris, 56, is also the first black and Indian-American person to be elected to the role — an achievement she pledged would pave the way for others like her in the future.

Ms Harris’ late mother was born in India, before moving to the U.S at 19 to study at the University of California. She wed a Jamaican, and they named their daughter Kamala, Sanskrit for lotus flower.

Urging children to “dream with ambition” as she delivered her victory speech on Saturday night, Ms Harris said: “While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last.”

 Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks on stage at the Chase Center. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
 Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks on stage at the Chase Center. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In particular she paid tribute to her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris: “Maybe she didn’t quite imagine this moment. But she believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible.

“So, I’m thinking about her and about the generations of women — black women, Asian, white, Latina, and native American women throughout our nation’s history who have paved the way for this moment tonight.

“Women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, liberty, and justice for all, including the black women, who are too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy.

“All the women who worked to secure and protect the right to vote for over a century: 100 years ago, with the 19th Amendment, 55 years ago, with the Voting Rights Act, and now, in 2020, with a new generation of women in our country who cast their ballots and continued the fight for their fundamental right to vote and be heard.

“Tonight, I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision, to see what can be unburdened by what has been — I stand on their shoulders.

“And what a testament it is to Joe (Biden)’s character that he had the audacity to break one of the most substantial barriers that exists in our country and select a woman as his vice-president.”

Ms Harris took to the stage before President-elect Biden at the event in Wilmington, Delaware, just hours after they had clinched victory in a closely-fought election by winning the key battleground of Pennsylvania.

Ms Harris said she would take inspiration from Mr Biden, who was vice-president to Barack Obama between 2009 to 2017, vowing to be “loyal, honest, and prepared”.

“Now is when the real work begins,” she said.

NEWS WELCOMED AT HOME

Welcoming the election of Kamala Harris was chair of the board of Women for Election in Ireland, Alison Cowzer. She said it was great to see Kamala “crash through the barriers” to victory.

“She has fought many battles, as a woman and a woman of colour,” said Ms Cowzer. She added it was great to see this ‘normalisation process’, so that young girls see women in these types of leading positions: “So they don’t start off with barriers in their heads.”

Ms Cowzer said it was important for them to see “women at the top table, making the most important decisions.”

Having women like Kamala in such a post “makes it a little bit easier for women to put their hand up and say - ‘I could do that’.”

She added that while it is great to have Kamala as a role model, we must “back it up” and ensure systems change and put adequate supports in place to allow more women to have a career in politics.

Here in Ireland, she reminded us that participation by women in politics is woefully inadequate. We rank 93rd in the world for the numbers of female representation in parliament. Just 23% of TDs are women and 24% of local councillors are female.

Also welcoming Kamala's victory, Dr Theresa Reidy, Senior Lecturer, Department of Government and Politics at UCC said: "The US is the most visible state on the world stage and a female vice president will be an important symbol of achievement for women everywhere. It will demonstrate that politics is a space for women and men. 

"Speculation has already started that Kamala Harris will be the 2024 candidate for the Democrats for president and this too is a sea change which sees women at the helm of US politics for many years to come."

Jill Biden and Joe Biden.
Jill Biden and Joe Biden.

THE FIRST LADY

While Joe Biden’s Vice President will be a woman, he also has another woman who will have his ear — his wife, Dr Jill Biden, one of his closest confidants.

She had indicated that she would continue teaching if he was to win the election.

In his speech, Mr Biden said he would be “honoured” to be serving alongside Ms Harris and also paid tribute to how important his wife is to him.

“As I said many times before, I’m Jill’s husband,” he said, adding that he would not be where he is without the “love and tireless support” of her and their family.

“They are my heart. Jill’s a mom, a military mom, and an educator. She has dedicated her life to education, but teaching isn’t just what she does, it’s who she is.

“For America’s educators, this is a great day — you’re going to have one of your own in the White House, and Jill is going to make a great first lady,” he said.

Jill Biden. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Jill Biden. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Dr Biden, an educator of more than 30 years, earned a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware in 2007.

She also has two masters’ degrees which she completed while working and raising a family.

When she was second lady of the United States from 2009 to 2017, she continued to teach English full-time at a community college in Virginia, and has previously said she planned to continue teaching if she became first lady.

As second lady, her work included bringing attention to the sacrifices made by military families, highlighting the importance of community colleges, and raising awareness around areas of particular importance to women, including breast cancer prevention.

By Elaine Duggan and PA

Women who fought and sacrified so much for equality, liberty, and justice for all, including the black women, who are too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy.

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