“Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking,” said Sen. Kamala Harris, holding her hand up and looking directly at Vice President Mike Pence after he interrupted her during their nationally televised vice presidential debate last October.
Those five words resonated with women throughout the country, and quickly became a slogan printed on mugs, tote bags and T-shirts.
Simple words, but for many women, the meaning was profound. Harris, now the vice president-elect, had captured what they wanted to say every time in their lives men have interrupted them.
It also signified a battle Black women have been fighting for centuries in the United States — to speak and be heard as equal citizens, to be represented in their government.
Half a century after Shirley Chisholm — the first Black woman elected to Congress, and the first Black woman to run for president — famously remarked, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” Black women are finally getting a seat at one of the most powerful tables in government, as Harris, on Jan. 20, will become the first Black woman, the first South Asian woman and the first woman vice president the country has ever had.
Her ascension to the second-highest political office in the U.S. comes at a particularly fraught time in this country’s sociopolitical history.
Mere months after Harris transcended from political figure into the vaunted ranks of cultural icons with five now-famous words, and on the same day that Georgia elected its first Black senator and the first Black Democrat from the South to the Senate to give Democrats a majority — with the Senate split 50/50, Harris, as vice president, gets the tiebreaking vote — a mob of extremists and white supremacists infiltrated and besieged the Capitol in Washington, D.C.
The mob bore Confederate flags, racist T-shirts, guns and “Make America Great Again” paraphernalia.
Meanwhile, in Washington state, armed extremists broke onto the grounds at the governor’s mansion in Olympia. Two days later, T’wina Nobles was sworn in along with other freshmen and became Washington’s first Black state senator in a decade.
It’s no accident that the attack on the Capitol and the governor’s mansion in Washington coincided with these historic firsts. There is a long history of racist violence accompanying gains for Black people, particularly when it comes to voting rights and Black people gaining representation in government. In 2019, the Washington state legislature became more diverse than ever, with 16 women of color. In 2020, the number of Black women in the legislature tripled from two to six.
We spoke to several local women of color leaders about this historic moment and what a woman of color vice president means for the country.
“You can’t be Black and be a political leader … and it not be [seen as] an insult to others that you have voice, an insult to others that you can make demands,” Nobles said in an interview Jan. 7, less than 24 hours after the insurrection in Washington, D.C.
“It’s an insult to others that you are speaking,” said Nobles. “But I’ve seen [Black women] navigate that and it encourages and empowers me.”
“Ain’t I a woman?”
When the women’s suffrage movement told Black women they’d have to wait their turn, Sojourner Truth demanded inclusion with her famous “Ain’t I a woman?” speech. Formerly enslaved herself, Truth’s activism came at a time when free Black people and formerly enslaved Black people were being kidnapped and sold back into slavery under the freshly established Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Almost 60 years before Harris was fed up with being interrupted, voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer declared she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” She was active during the violence of the Freedom Summer and helped co-found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party after being beaten on the orders of police and left with permanent physical effects.
During her campaign for president, Chisholm faced physical threats, and running against her was George Wallace — the man Martin Luther King Jr. called “the most dangerous racist in America.”
It’s fitting then that after the attack on the Capitol, Vice President-elect Harris shared a Chisholm quote on Twitter to address the violence: “I don’t measure America by its achievement, but by its potential.”
As the country reels from a rise in hate crimes, an armed attack on the Capitol by white supremacists and a pandemic that has hit Black and Indigenous communities particularly hard, Harris, for many, represents that potential.
Poised on the precipice of history, Harris stands on the shoulders of Black women who helped fight for a place at the table, and she’s part of a growing cadre of women of color in government and in leadership roles at institutions that have long been dominated by white people, especially white men.
“Now all eyes are on you,” said Rosa Franklin, who in 1993 was the first Black woman elected to Washington State Senate. “She will have a heavy load to carry, but she is not carrying this alone.”
Franklin served until 2010 and, for years, was the only Black woman in the Washington Senate; she looked to role models like Chisholm and Hamer for inspiration in dealing with the unique challenges she faced.
While Harris is the first woman and first woman of color to serve as vice president in the U.S., “she is standing on the shoulders of others, just as I was,” said Franklin.
And many of those are women who never held political office.
Women of color activists in the U.S. have a storied history of grassroots organizing for equal rights, against voter suppression, and championing issues that have paved the way for the women of color now bringing their voices to the table as insiders.
U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who came to politics from a long history of activism for immigrant rights, says she was initially cynical about politics because she didn’t see people who looked like her, but now she understands that you need both insiders and outsiders to make change.
“This is just another platform for change,” she said. “It’s activism on the inside.”
Now, as an immigrant and a South Asian American woman, she brings an underrepresented voice to the table in the House of Representatives.
“This is what we’re trying to do, is change representation,” she said. “Me serving as an immigrant means we’re having a hearing on detention for the first time. It’s about the policies we make, the hearings we hold.”
Without the organizing efforts against voter suppression by Stacey Abrams and other Black women organizers in recent years, Harris and President-elect Joe Biden might not have won the popular vote, and Democrats would not have won the Senate majority.
Abrams served as minority leader in Georgia’s House of Representatives before losing a bid for governor in 2018 — she would have become the first Black woman governor in the U.S. Afterward, undeterred, she led the fight against voter suppression in Georgia, particularly in Black communities, and is credited with turning Georgia blue for the first time since 1992.
So while Harris becoming vice president represents an important gain for women of color, the activists and political leaders who came before her cleared the way.
The ones at work in Congress and on the streets today won a Senate majority that will help Harris exercise her power. They’re creating a more inclusive legislature, and introducing policies to continue that trend.
“Everybody wins when we’re in positions of leadership,” Nobles said. “I understand what it means to be oppressed and I want that for no one else. So I fight hard to keep them from experiencing that.”
“The wind behind the sails of Kamala Harris”
For Washington state Sen. Manka Dhingra, Harris’ “I’m speaking” moment hearkened back to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 run for president, before four years of overtly racist and sexist verbal attacks against women of color became the norm in the White House pressroom.
Dhingra watched last fall’s vice presidential debates with her daughter to show her that women of color can try for one of the highest offices in the country.
“To see a woman of color stand up and say that is huge … I love that my daughter gets to see that,” she said. “The hope for me is that she’ll be calling out more things like that.”
Dhingra first encountered Harris at a convention for South Asian women years before either woman was a senator. Harris, then California’s attorney general, was the keynote speaker, and she showed up wearing a sari.
“I was just so impressed by her,” said Dhingra. “I casually followed her career.”
The racist violence and hate crimes Dhingra witnessed in the years following 9/11 gave her that final push to run for political office.
“I’ve never been so scared of living in this country in my life,” said Dhingra.
When she heard that several Indian kids in Washington state were being told at school that they were going to be deported, she knew it was time. In 2017, Dhingra became the first Sikh person elected to any state legislature in the U.S., and she doubled the number of women of color in the caucus from one to two.
That number doubled again the following year, and now with Nobles’ election to state Senate, there are five women of color in the caucus. Though it remains predominantly white and male, it is part of a trend, both local and national, toward an increase in women of color serving in political office.
“There’s momentum taking place now,” said U.S. Rep. Marilyn Strickland, who represents Washington’s 10th Congressional District. “There’s a record number of women of color in Congress right now.
“Women of color are showing up in spaces where people least expect to see us.”
Sworn in earlier this month, Strickland became the first Black woman to represent Washington at the federal level, and one of the first three Korean American women in Congress, beginning her term with California Republicans Young Kim and Michelle Steel. She was among the Congress members who had to shelter in place during the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Jayapal, who in 2016 became the first person of color from Washington state elected to Congress, waited with other members for an hour and a half in the gallery before security escorted them to a secured room where, she tweeted, “Several Republicans not only cruelly refused to wear a mask but recklessly mocked colleagues and staff who offered them one.” This week, she tested positive for COVID-19.
In interviews days before the insurrection, both Strickland and Jayapal were hopeful but frank about the realities of being a woman of color in leadership as they reflected on their experiences and the challenges awaiting Harris after she becomes vice president.
“People see their futures differently when they see someone they can identify with in these positions. That’s part of what we do, is change the future,” said Jayapal, who was elected to Congress the same year Harris was elected to the Senate.
Based on her experience as an Indian woman and immigrant in Congress, Jayapal says that while Harris’s vice presidency will be an inspiration to many, that comes with “an enormous responsibility and challenge.”
“You are also expected to and you want to represent issues that are important to your community,” said Jayapal. “In this time of multiple crises … we just have to deliver real results for people, and I hope that we’re the wind behind the sails of Kamala Harris to changing the dynamics of this country so we have a more equitable and inclusive country.”
But that doesn’t mean other women of color in politics plan to go easy on Harris.
“We’re going to push her,” said Jayapal.
In the meantime, their work continues. This week, Jayapal and other Senate women of color have led the charge to impeach President Donald Trump for inciting the insurrection at the Capitol.
Locally, women of color are stepping up to address the issues of white supremacy and extremism in their own communities.
“There’s a lot of mess to clean up,” said Washington state senator and Deputy Majority Leader Rebecca Saldaña. “But I think there’s enough good still in our democratic institutions to be worth the fight of trying to breathe new life into them, bend them … and build a democracy that houses more of us.”
Correction, Jan. 16, 7:38 p.m.: This story has been edited to reflected that Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman to run for president. A previous version of this story stated that she was the first woman to run for president.