Commentary: At the DNC, Kamala Harris didn’t apologize for her ambition. She embraced it
The third night of the Democratic National Convention featured a veritable who’s who of strong women from the world of politics: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
All Washington veterans, they were there to support the vice presidential nominee and headliner of the two-hour event, Sen. Kamala Harris. All would speak to the challenges of climbing up the Hill as a woman, and the resolve it would take to defeat its current top dog, President Trump.
Yet from the minute Harris first appeared onscreen early in the night and offered a casual greeting to her virtual audience — “Hey everybody, it’s me, Kamala” — the former prosecutor and attorney general from California exuded the confidence of someone who’d already won her audience’s trust. The Democrats’ prize fighter had arrived, if only for a quick “Get Out the Vote” spot at the beginning of the broadcast as a sort of prelude to her forthcoming speech.
The tone of Wednesday’s event made it clear that much had changed since the last DNC, when the top female candidate took great pains to soften her tough-as-nails reputation and to make herself more palatable to an American public that was wary of her ambitious nature, her feminist education, her former life as a lawyer, her political life and, yes, even her pantsuits.
Hillary’s leadership strengths were often considered deficits by the press and public: She was too aggressive, too combative, too serious. Why didn’t she smile more? Her marriage to Bill Clinton was weaponized by the right, and lionized by the left. Her role as mother to Chelsea was scrutinized, but in the end proved to be one of the few aspects of her background that that wasn’t used as proof that she was the wrong woman for the job.
Flash forward to Harris’ big DNC night. The intro played before Harris stepped out onstage to give her acceptance speech as Joe Biden’s running mate on the ticket featured a litany of folks singing her praises, both as a defender of the people and as a stepmom, auntie and sister.
It was a refreshing change from the nuclear family norm women have had to adhere to on the campaign trail. Little to nothing has been made about Harris’ background as a wife or mother. She married husband Douglass Emhoff in 2015, becoming a stepmother (or “Momala”) to his two grown children from a previous marriage. End of story, at least as it pertains to selling her to the electorate.
Instead Harris, 55, has been primarily judged by her decade in politics, and now, as a symbol of hope for those who never imagined anyone like her — i.e. like themselves — getting this close to the White House. Poised to become our first female VP, Black VP and South Asian VP, Harris has inspired optimism, not fear, among Democrats, and that’s a feat in itself for a formidable female candidate in contentious times.
Wednesday felt like proof that Harris had smashed yet another glass ceiling: she was being celebrated rather than shamed for breaking tradition. When Pelosi, Clinton and Warren, all of whom helped pave the way for Harris, spoke in support of her, they made a point to highlight the warrior side of Harris — and the challenges of being a woman, especially in Trump’s America.
When Clinton spoke, she went out of her way to say that Jill Biden would continue her job teaching if she became first lady. It was notable considering the flak Clinton took for being a career woman when her husband first stepped into the political arena. And she celebrated Harris’ reputation as a formidable fighter. “I know something about the slings and arrows she’ll face and believe me, this former district attorney and attorney general can handle them all.”
Warren, too, spoke from experience. But she referred to her time as a young mother, rather than her lengthy political career, to drive the point home that the government needs to do more for strapped parents struggling to work and raise kids: “I loved teaching,” she said of her former life as an educator. “When I had babies and was juggling my first big teaching job down in Texas, it was hard. But I could do hard. The one thing that saved me was child care.”
“A woman of many firsts,” as she’s been called, Harris addressed the DNC at the close of the evening, accepting her nomination as vice president. Following an address from former President Obama (he spoke live from Philadelphia, she from Wilmington, Del.), she arrived on stage beaming.
Democrats from Stacey Abrams to Bill Clinton drew on the Trump playbook Tuesday, using the virtual DNC to urge voters to cast him off POTUS island.
In her speech, Harris, the biracial daughter of immigrants, spoke of her mother, who came here from India at the age of 19. She spoke of her father, who was from Jamaica. She recounted her parents’ divorce, and watching her single mom who always “made it look easy, though it never was. She raised us to be proud strong black women and she raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage. And she raised us to put family first, the family you’re born into, and the family you choose.”
Harris’ mention of her family background wasn’t a homey platitude meant to downplay her powerful past or placate those who are still apprehensive, even hostile, toward the possibility of a woman of color a heartbeat away from the Oval Office. It was a call to arms, to rise up and fight injustice, racism, and corruption, together.
“Let’s fight with conviction,” she said. “Let’s fight with hope. Let’s fight with confidence in ourselves and a commitment to each other. To the America we know is possible.”
Her speech played into the theme of the evening, which was “a more perfect union,” and the role women have played in perfecting it. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, actress Kerry Washington, musical performers Jennifer Hudson and Billie Eilish all echoed the theme, along with the other speakers. But in a night of strong women, it was Harris’ compelling presence, and story, that drove the point home.
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