Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Nov 10, 2020
What does the election of the first female Veep of the United States mean for women in politics?
Madam Vice President, you have the floor

Kamala Harris, Vice President-elect of the United States of America, has the herculean task of healing a deeply divided, politically fractured country ahead of her. As she attempts to revive and rebuild the American identity along with Joe Biden, young women around the world are building their own identities based on her historic victory. The world is not new to female political leaders – what makes this particular inflection point in history so important?

A historic win amidst a history of female leaders

Countries like Israel and India already boast of having one of the world’s first (and their country’s only) female prime ministers, Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi. Both women were known as strong and decisive ‘iron ladies’, who shaped the economic, political and foreign policy landscapes of their respective nations, often using ruthless measures. Before becoming the fourth Prime Minister of Israel as her party’s ‘consensus candidate’ (after the untimely death of then Prime Minister Levi Eshkol), Golda Meir was one of the signatories of the Israeli declaration of independence and part of the nation’s founding cabinet as labour minister and foreign minister. Indira Gandhi had similar relations to the founding of the Indian nation, as the daughter of the nation’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the elected leader of her party. Both women’s leadership was borne of an electorate that may not have developed an appetite for the kind of anti-incumbency and issue-based divisive politics across party lines that we see today. The known and experienced in nation-building was preferred; the gender being almost superfluous.

Kamala has come to power at a time when cultural fault-lines in the form of race, religion and gender have erupted across the world. Her victory as the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, in a time of such upheaval, is crucial because it reveals to the world that this office has finally been, and can be achieved, by more women in the future. It also reveals that the nation hopes to rise above such differences.

The victory, however, does not hide the fact that polarisation still runs deep; mixed with the economic uncertainty borne from the pandemic, it is easy for resentful factions to use her race and gender against her. The last four years saw diminished funding for family planning and reproductive services, the revoking of mandatory reporting of employee income data by companies to monitor gender pay gaps, and many other policies that should have technically turned the tide of the female vote in Kamala’s favour. However, while sex, race, and age disaggregated data on voter turnout is still limited, initial trends suggest that younger people voted for the Biden-Harris ticket more overwhelmingly than women did.

Kamala, therefore, needs to cement the symbolic victory into actionable reforms by creating an ecosystem that has better representation, better unity, and better conversation amongst a divided electorate. She ran on a progressive platform that was in direct contrast to the policies of the incumbent president—supporting a green new deal, gun control, taxpayer-funded abortions, equal pay certifications for large companies and a path to citizenship for undocumented citizens. This platform, if pursued, will cause a massive backlash from Republicans even if the Democrats manage to swing the balance of power in their favour come January’s run-off elections. If the power is balanced, Harris’s role becomes all the more important as the tie-breaker in passing legislation, which must be used proactively in order to showcase her power as the Veep.

Kamala Harris’s path forward will be both challenging and rewarding. In a highly contested election that was watched by 56.9 million people across 21 networks, her victory speech will resonate and inspire, and her journey navigating these tough times will be watched across the world. How does her victory look in the context of the female political leadership landscape today?

Women’s leadership in the new decade

The past few years have seen significant transformations in the progress women have made in political and economic spaces. In 2019 alone, Zuzana Caputova was elected as the first female president of Slovakia, and Gita Gopinath became the first female chief economist of the International Monetary Fund. The year 2020 started with Finland electing the world’s youngest Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, a woman who also leads a political coalition led by women. The year is ending with New Zealand’s Jacinda Arden having won a second term by securing almost 50 percent of the votes and Kamala Harris becoming the first woman and person of colour holding the office of Veep.

Across the world, women are increasing their foothold in politics. Women comprise 61 percent of the parliament in Rwanda, an emerging economy. Cuba and Bolivia have more women than men in parliament, at 53.2 percent and 53.1 percent respectively. India had a mere 11.3 percent of women as parliamentarians in 2014, which rose to 14 percent in 2019.  Even though women took a giant leap in representation of seats in the 2018 United States midterm elections, with 102 of 435 seats won by women, the US still does poorly in global statistics and does not reach the global average of 24.1 percent of lower house seats occupied by women. While it is encouraging that female political representation is increasing, it needs to be empowered representation as opposed to a mere gender-washing of politics. Women need to be part of the decision-making and planning process as opposed to simply being part of the voting process to pass and fail legislation. Policies and budgets that affect men and women differently need to be vetted by both men and women.

We can only claim to live in an equal world when women’s achievements in political spaces are viewed as regular and usual incidents, as opposed to remarkable ground-breaking occurrences. For this, larger transformations in domains such as education and employment need to be made. Creating the potential for leadership organically, starting from providing equal opportunities in our homes and schooling systems is essential. The new decade needs to tap into the potential of women leaders early on along with cultivating their rise through safe workspaces. As Kamala’s immigrant mother said to her: “You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last.”  While Kamala’s win was historic and extraordinary – we must strive for a society where such wins are deemed quite ordinary indeed.

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Aditi Ratho

Aditi Ratho

Aditi Ratho was an Associate Fellow at ORFs Mumbai centre. She worked on the broad themes like inclusive development gender issues and urbanisation.

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