Kamala Harris makes history. Her swearing-in as vice president shows ‘strength of our democracy.’

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Eileen Rivers, USA TODAY Opinion
·26 min read
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Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris

At noon on Jan. 20, America will usher in a new administration.

Despite attempts by pro-Trump rioters (and the president himself) to overturn the electoral process, American democracy has prevailed.

The swearing-in of the president-elect and vice president-elect is one of many affirmations of our system. Every four years, the ceremony reminds all watching that it’s the voices of the cooperative electorate that count, not the actions of the few who might try to override them.

And this year, after the chaos dies down, Kamala Harris will make history as she raises her right hand to become the first woman to take the vice presidential oath of office. Her African American and Asian American roots are empowering groups whose voices (especially in political circles) are often overlooked.

Harris’ victory is not only a win for women — of all colors, nationalities and party affiliations — but, as political strategist Donna Brazile states below, it's also a win for American democracy.

Several women have started a Facebook group encouraging others, no matter their politics, to wear pearls on Inauguration Day. The call was made not to uplift a particular party, but to uplift the power of women. And photos of famous women throughout history who have proudly donned pearls of all shapes, sizes and colors quickly filled the page: Harris, Barbara Bush, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Diana, even Wilma Flintstone.

The group has amassed more than 411,000 members and counting. Many plan to wear necklaces, earrings and rings passed down from their mothers and grandmothers or, in some cases, newly purchased for the day (full disclosure: I am one of them, and will be rocking my pearls and my Chucks in honor of Harris).

We invited female authors, newsmakers, activists, politicians and pundits to tell us what Harris' election means to them. Read their collection of essays below.

(Want to join the discussion? Tell us: What does the election of the nation’s first woman to the second highest office in the free world mean to you? Send your comments to letters@usatoday.com.)

Eileen Rivers is the digital content editor for USA TODAY’s Editorial Page.

REP. ILHAN OMAR
REP. ILHAN OMAR

Rep. Ilhan Omar

U.S. Representative, Minnesota’s 5th congressional district

In January, we will turn the page on President Donald Trump’s America and welcome back hope and optimism into our country. I know President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will use their positions to govern with respect and empathy to better the lives of all Americans. As Harris first addressed the nation as vice president-elect, my 8-year-old daughter Ilwad turned to me and said, “She looks like me, Mama.”

Representation is powerful. Women, and especially women of color, have waited generations to finally see themselves at the highest level of government. Not only is Harris the first such woman to ascend to the second highest office in our country — she is also the daughter of immigrants. Her story reflects the experience of millions of Americans. Little girls will finally be able to see themselves fully reflected in their government. As Vice President-elect Harris said in the address she gave after her win, “Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourselves in a way that others may not simply because they’ve never seen it before.”

This is our chance to create the America I dreamed about as a refugee, a country where anything is possible.

Omar is the first Somali-American woman elected to Congress from Minnesota.

Ai-jen Poo

Executive director, National Domestic Workers Alliance

Democracies are living, breathing entities that work best when more of us participate and see our experiences reflected. We, the people, give our democracy life. Systemic racism and sexism have prevented us from seeing large segments of our electorate participate. Those isms have also prevented us from electing some of the nation's best leaders to seats of power.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ inauguration is a marker that the arc of history is bending toward the democracy we deserve. It’s not about symbolism. It’s about solutions that will make life in America better, that leave no one behind.

As a senator, Harris was the sponsor of the national Domestic Workers Bill of Rights Act, federal legislation to protect the essential workforce in our homes, a workforce that is predominantly women of color, whose labor is too often undervalued and invisible.

In the 1930s, when many of our foundational labor laws were passed as part of the New Deal, domestic workers (and agricultural workers) were excluded, a decision rooted in our nation’s legacy of slavery. For the entire history of this nation, the people who have been making the rules have failed to represent the rich diversity of who we are. The rules have been made to reflect the reality of the few, rather than the many. Imagine the different choices that would have been made throughout our history if more women of color were in positions of power.

We’re in another moment, like the New Deal era, where we will need strong leadership and bold solutions that meet our challenges and address long-standing inequities. Harris and other women of color in seats of power see value and power where others don’t, and lead accordingly. When voters overwhelmingly chose this administration, they chose the promise of our multiracial democracy and leaders who see the value we each bring to that project. It truly is cause for celebration, and a good reminder of the work we all must continue to do, to realize this promise together.

Poo is also a 2014 MacArthur Foundation "genius award" fellow.

Donna Brazile

Former interim chairwoman, Democratic National Committee

Recognition. That’s what Kamala Harris’ election as the first female vice president means to me. But her election isn’t merely a recognition of women. It’s also a recognition of women of color and the strength of our democracy — especially on the centennial anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ election is a recognition of the more than 81 million Americans who voted not based on gender or color, but rather on qualifications, and who stood up for America’s core principles of inclusion and merit.

These principles couldn’t be more personal to me. Growing up in Louisiana, my mother and grandmother weren’t recognized. In the Jim Crow South, they weren’t even allowed their right to vote until the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But I was able to when I turned 18. And I’ve spent my entire life believing that the right to vote is the key to America’s future — especially the future of women and people of color.

So today, let us rejoice that America has finally achieved this milestone, and achieved it by voting. Let’s also recognize that our nation still has many divisions. Even as Vice President-elect Harris’ victory reinforces our democracy, it also mandates that we now see women as leaders.

For now, we must prepare for the backlash or resistance from those who still believe that women must simply wait our turn. More than 74 million Americans voted for the status quo. While some may be uncomfortable with seeing a woman in such a highly visible leadership role, I firmly believe that millions more Americans are ready to see an authentic and wise leader who will help lead this great country.

Here I stand as a grateful American and a grateful Black woman who proudly recognizes that, in my lifetime, I have finally seen what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us was possible simply if we had access to the ballot box.

We have made this country what it said it always was — a country for all of us.

Brazile is also a Democratic strategist and the author of several books, including "Hacks: The Inside Story of the Break-ins and Breakdowns that put Donald Trump in the White House."

Rahna Epting

Executive director, MoveOn.org

The fact that the next vice president of the United States, the second most powerful person in the free world, is a Black and Indian woman sends a powerful message at home and abroad.

When Vice President-elect Kamala Harris takes the oath of office on the steps of a building erected in part by slave labor, she will do so on the shoulders of so many who have organized, marched and fought for equality, justice and fairness. Many of them will be looking down from above and smiling.

We still have much work to do in this country to root out the forces of hate and evil and bring needed reform to our democracy. That was true before the deadly insurrection on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, and it is even more true now.

As the likely tie-breaking vote on many important issues over the next few years, Harris will play a key role, including potentially casting the crucial vote that will bring democracy reforms to President-elect Joe Biden’s desk. We will have finally established a government that represents all people.

Nonetheless, we must never lose sight of what a remarkable and historic moment this is for our nation. As an American, I am in awe. As an organizer, I am motivated. And as a mother, I can not wait to sit and watch it with my young daughter so she can see that she, too, can be whatever she wants to be in life.

Epting is the director of MoveOn Civic Action and MoveOn Political Action.

Susan Del Percio

Republican strategist

Historic, groundbreaking and significant are among the words that will be used when Kamala Harris, the first Black woman and person of Indian descent, is sworn in as vice president of the United States. This moment will be inspiring and should be celebrated and recognized.

Unfortunately, yet not surprising, there are also those who will say she simply checked the political boxes for President-elect Joe Biden and will not fully appreciate the value she will bring to the administration.

During the campaign, Biden promised to select a female running mate, and that he would bring diversity to his Cabinet and throughout his administration. He has delivered. However, somehow the word diversity has been tossed around as a political term. It is not.

What makes Harris’ ascendance to the vice presidency so important, to all Americans, is not just her professional accomplishments, but also her life experiences and perspectives as a woman and as a person of color.

No matter how much he may try, Biden, a 78-year-old white man from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who served in the U.S. Senate for 35 years and as vice president for eight, cannot look at the economy, health care or social justice through the same lens as Harris does.

As a Republican who voted for Biden and Harris, I know I will probably have several disagreements with them on policy issues. That’s OK, as long as those policies are not made in a vacuum. And with Harris serving as vice president, I know they won’t be.

Watching Harris getting sworn in should make all Americans proud, not simply because she is a woman, but because of what the election of a woman means — finally America has been able to get past its blind spot when it comes to seeing a qualified female candidate run for the second highest office in the land.

Del Percio is also a senior adviser to the Lincoln Project, an organization dedicated to eradicating polarization in American politics.

Monique Truong

Vice president, Authors Guild

A tightrope walker, that’s the image that will come to my mind when Kamala Devi Harris takes her oath of office to become our nation’s next vice president.

Attracted to great heights, determined to find equilibrium, she’ll be traversing the in-between space, connected by a taut line, which could give way. Practiced and a professional through and through, she’ll be sure-footed and calm. Her eyes will flash bright, revealing not fear but self-knowledge. She’s in a position now where failing will have dire consequences not only for herself but also for those who are watching, witnessing and etching her into memory and into American history.

I do not envy her.

Four years is a long time to be more superhuman than human.

Four years is a long time to never make a misstep, wobble or almost fall. I expect that there will be moments when she experiences all three. I also expect that when she shows us even the slightest of trembles, the area below her will not be a safety net but an unforgiving maw. She’ll be subject to admonishments, critiques and consequences that will far outweigh her weaknesses or faults. She’s a woman who is Black and Asian American. She has been walking that tightrope all of her life.

Here’s who I do envy: The young Harris who looked up and saw a display of courage and unmitigated skills and imagined herself doing the same. I envy that girl who said “YES!” and then began her ascent. On Wednesday, I’ll also envy all the young girls who will look to Vice President Harris and utter that same self-affirming “YES!”

Truong is a Vietnamese American novelist, essayist, librettist and intellectual property attorney based in Brooklyn, New York. Her most recent novel is "The Sweetest Fruits."

Pat Schroeder

Democratic congresswoman from Colorado, 1973-97

Sen. Kamala Harris’ launching through the glass ceiling to become vice president-elect thrills me! I thought after my friend Gerry Ferraro’s great job running for vice president in 1984, we would never see an MGO (male gender only) ticket again. In fact, I was so sure about that, I even contemplated a run for president in 1988. Talk about being wrong!

But as women celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and Harris' win, MGOs may finally be a thing of the past. Hurrah!

Americans proudly say we are the world’s only multiracial and religious democracy. Harris’ nonwhite background finally solidifies those professed beliefs into reality. Further, the national discussion as to why people of color didn’t vote in even higher numbers for Democrats is making me crazy. Seems to me the debate should be why a majority of white people voted against all the norms our Founders believed in and created and that we said we supported?

Let me be clear. Votes from people of color and women saved the republic this year. Harris is the perfect representative of our nation’s professed beliefs. She is brilliant, knowledgeable and has done what we say one must do to lead, and lead she will! We should all be grateful she is up to and willing to tackle the horrendous task ahead. And we should support her in every way.

Schroeder was the first woman elected to Congress from Colorado.

Patrisse Cullors

Co-founder, Black Lives Matter

One of the simplest ways to measure our society’s progress is to see someone from a historically marginalized group in a position of prominence or power. Whether on a TV show, in a classroom or in the White House, it is important that we see ourselves represented.

Kamala Harris’ inauguration as vice president will accomplish that on so many levels. As a woman, a Black woman, a South Asian woman and a daughter of immigrants, she carries the hope and pride of millions of Americans who work so hard every day to provide for their families in spite of the harassment and discrimination they have endured for much of their lives.

We all know how the decision-making process changes based on who is in the room. For centuries in the United States, it was white land-owning men who acted on behalf of the public — despite not knowing, understanding or respecting their constituents. This ignorance and subjugation meant leaders failed to anticipate or appreciate how their decisions would affect so many people, especially and particularly Black people.

With Harris in the Oval Office, advising President-elect Joe Biden, it is reassuring that her insight and perspective will be heard during the most pressing debates. Black Lives Matter expects her to remind Biden and their administration that the work of Black movements has always been about healing the soul of America. We will need Harris to not just be a representative in name but also in advancing bold progressive policy.

No question, Harris will face merciless criticism just for upending the status quo — regardless of any decisions or comments she may make. But I’m confident her skill, grace and intellect will carry her through the most challenging times, and demonstrate why a Black woman is the right choice not only for vice president, but for president.

Cullors is also the executive director of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation.

Madalene Xuan-Trang Mielke

President and CEO, the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies

I am beyond thrilled to call Kamala Harris our next vice president of the United States. In August, I reflected on how meaningful it was for women of color that Harris was selected as a running mate, specifically for Asian American women.

The ambitions of women of color are no longer dreams. Being a woman with a multicultural background, the election of Harris shows that she honored her personal narrative without having to choose one over the other. Her identity continues to be a strength and an inspiration for others.

We must channel this excitement and build upon this momentum to continue inspiring women and girls across the country to run for office. My organization does this knowing that providing tools for women to take the first step is crucial to building coalitions for women to succeed.

On Wednesday, Vice President-elect Kamala Devi Harris will make history once more, showing us that there is a path to reach the highest offices in our great nation.

Mielke is also the chair of ReflectUS, a nonpartisan organization that works to get more women elected to public office.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton

U.S. delegate, Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C., boasts a host of historical figures, many because of our flagship school, Howard University, the nation’s preeminent historically Black university. Howard now adds Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who graduated from the school in 1986, to its list of accomplished figures — Justice Thurgood Marshall, Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, Sen. Edward Brooke III, R-Mass., and the legendary Roberta Flack.

However, Harris means something uniquely special to Howard, to our country and to me as a Black woman. The first woman to be elected vice president, she is also the first African American to hold this executive office. It matters to the woman she has become that Harris chose to cross the country from her home in Oakland, California, to attend a historically black university during her formative years in pursuit of a college education.

In Washington, D.C., we take special pride in Harris.

After becoming only the second African American woman elected to the Senate, she ran for president during her first term, and was so impressive she was chosen as President-elect Joe Biden’s running mate.

We cannot help but believe that Harris’ education at Howard University helped develop the skills and character that have led her to national leadership.

Norton represents Washington, D.C., in the House of Representatives.

Rosalind Miles

Author of “The Women’s History of the Modern World”

On Jan. 20, Kamala Harris ushers our nation into the future as vice president of the United States under the gaze of millions — from world leaders to little girls watching the inauguration while sitting in front of their televisions.

Harris is making history. But women have long held power all over the world.

Adelaide of Italy survived the poisoning of her husband, abduction and an attempted forced marriage to become a Holy Roman empress in 962. Asma, queen of Yemen who died in 1087, became known as a woman who was “free and independent,” and “bows to no ... authority.” Women have ruled in Jerusalem, Persia, Nigeria and Angola.

Harris’ victory has focused attention on American women who have also lit the way: Shirley Chisholm, the first woman to seek a presidential nomination on a major party ticket, in 1972; Victoria Claflin Woodhull, the first to run for president, in 1872; Belva Lockwood, who ran in the late 1800s on the National Equal Rights Party ticket.

Ever heard of Charlotta Bass? Patsy Mink? Or the better-known Angela Davis, who ran for the vice presidency as a Communist Party candidate in 1980 and 1984?

Each one of these women put cracks in the glass ceiling.

Harris’ win is one small step for a woman, one giant leap for womankind. The vibrant African-American-Indian-Asian-Jewish universe that Harris inhabits is one where her election represents a victory for all men and women, and their children, too. It lights a torch for freedom in a rapidly changing modern age.

Miles is also a lecturer, essayist and broadcaster.

Jennifer Horn

Former chair, New Hampshire Republican Party

As our country confronts an ugly explosion of racism and dangerous assaults on our democracy, the election of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris offers us a moment of shared optimism upon which to build a stronger, more united future.

Sending Harris to the White House gives us hope that we, as a people, will not be forever limited by an ugly history of systemic racism and chauvinistic limitations about gender; that we are able to stand together even in the most difficult of times.

You don’t have to be a Black woman or a California Democrat to see yourself in Harris. I am neither, yet I am inspired and heartened by her extraordinary accomplishment. This is not just a moment for Harris; this is an American triumph, to be celebrated by Americans of all generations and backgrounds.

There are many among my fellow conservatives who balk at the idea that gender or race should matter, but of course they do. As the first woman and the first mother elected to the second-highest office in the land, Harris, through her example, shows my children and yours what we can be. Her experience speaks to the unlimited possibilities that define the very promise of America.

To reject accomplishment just because you are a Republican is to reject the very principles upon which our country was built — principles of liberty, equality and opportunity. We don’t have to agree with Harris on every political issue to recognize that her election strengthens our democracy and opens doors of opportunity for all.

Harris once said that there are people out there who are “burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been instead of what can be.”

We cannot allow ourselves to be one of those people. In this moment of limitless possibility, we cannot allow such limitations to be our burden. Rather than being drawn into the ugliness that so many around us wish to cultivate, let us instead honor this moment by rededicating ourselves to what we know we can be.

Horn is also co-founder of The Lincoln Project, an organization dedicated to eradicating polarization in American politics.

Joy Behar

Co-host, ABC's "The View"

Everything happens too slowly for my liking.

The last times there were strong glimmers of hope of having a woman in the White House were in 1984 (when Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice president), 2008 and, most recently, in 2016 when Hillary Clinton made history as the first woman nominated for president on a major party ticket.

Many people were delighted, especially Italian American women like myself, when Ferraro ran. They held all kinds of parties for her. I had the pleasure of meeting her on more than one occasion. I once asked her, “What do you do with criticism?” As a Democrat and a woman, she was getting more than her share of verbal attacks, and this was before Twitter and other social media platforms.

Without missing a beat, Ferraro lifted her hand as if to toss something away and she said: “In the garbage.” She said it with such clarity, such assuredness that I am still in awe of her answer.

Now we are finally about to welcome to the White House another woman of clarity and assuredness. Just writing those words gives me a feeling of hope in anticipation of a new era. The country needs that right now. We’ve just been through four years of crushing arrogance, criminality and cruelty. Many of us have been outraged and depressed because of it. I think Joe Biden sensed in Kamala Harris a feeling of optimism and lightheartedness as well as competence, intelligence, integrity and strength.

God knows the man has had more than his share of tragedy. I’m sure he is delighted with her cheerful disposition, I know I am. Like the rest of us, he surely must welcome a woman who laughs, who has fun, who dances, but also someone who can grill the most power hungry and mendacious among us. Who can forget how laser focused she was, as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as she questioned now Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The country was riveted. She understood the gravity of the position he was about to hold and she refused to allow him to wiggle his way out of her questions.

I’ve met Harris twice, and each time she sits down at the table at "The View," she brings with her an air of confidence, poise and a positive energy that says, “Don’t worry, we can handle this. We will make things better.” I can’t help but believe that she will.

It’s certainly about time.

Behar is a comedian, actress and author of "The Great Gasbag."

Nsé Ufot

Chief executive officer, New Georgia Project

Following several weeks of tumultuous, terrifying upheaval, including a violent insurrection fueled by white supremacy at our nation’s Capitol, it’s easy to overlook the significance of this moment.

Kamala Harris’ selection as a vice presidential candidate comes 100 years after the 19th Amendment — which gave white women the right to vote — was ratified. For Black women, it took an additional 45 years of hard, unrelenting organizing before they secured the right to vote. And now, 55 years after that, a woman of color has ascended to the second-highest office in the land. While the symbolism of Harris’ election is important and powerful, it alone will not heal or unify the nation. If our country is to survive, we need deep systemic change.

Harris’ election proves what many of us have always known: We do not need to moderate or shrink from who we are as a party in order to win elections — a winning platform can be rooted in equity and justice.

Finally, finally, a Black woman will be responsible for realizing the reforms our nation sorely needs — and we will encourage and push her to do so. It’s time now for a democracy that works for all of us, not just those at the top — one that prioritizes justice, equality, voting rights, the environment and our well-being. With Harris, America will have a vice president who knows what it means to be a Black woman in a country that too often takes our experiences and needs for granted (until it desperately needs us to save itself).

I have hope that Harris’ tenure marks a sharp turn in the ways that candidates, campaigns and our country relate to Black women and women of color.

Ufot is also the chief executive officer of the New Georgia Project Action Fund.

Kayla Reed

Leader, Movement for Black Lives

As an organizer and someone deeply committed to helping Black people, others of color and gender-oppressed folks build electoral power, I understand and appreciate the historic nature of Kamala Harris being our vice president-elect.

Personally, I’m less moved by the reality that a woman of color will be the second in command than I am by the reality that our communities created the conditions necessary for her to ascend to that position. Her nomination and forthcoming inauguration as our vice president are illustrative of just how powerful Black people and those committed to defending the lives and liberties of all people are when mobilized around a shared goal. Millions of people decided that a change had to come and pushed through the colliding pandemics of COVID-19 and white supremacist terror to get out the vote nationwide. And we won.

On Inauguration Day, the imagery of her standing with President-elect Joe Biden will surely be powerful. I believe it will be a moment when Black women and folks of color see a new kind of possibility take shape. What would mean the most to me, however, is to know that all of the labor and sacrifice Black women endured to move us closer to a more just society will remain an ever-present thought for her. I hope she joins the ranks of other Black female politicians such as my congresswoman, Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., who are bold in leading the charge against the white supremacists who tried to delegitimize our election and undermine the will of the people.

As an organizer, I always say that it’s not my job to celebrate individual candidates, but to work to create the conditions necessary for our people to live safely, with their humanity intact.

But I do wish our new vice president the best of luck, and will advocate for her to receive the just and fair treatment she deserves. I look forward to seeing how she contends with the realities of the massive job ahead.

My hope is that she be successful and that she will be someone we can trust and hold accountable throughout her term.

Our people deserve that.

Reed is an organizer from St. Louis and is also the director of Action St. Louis, which works to build civic engagement and political participation in the city.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kamala Harris swearing-in as vice president shows ‘strength of our democracy.’