Elation, Frustration: For Women, Kamala Harris’ Win Is A Big Step, But Long Overdue

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Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks Saturday, Nov. 7, in Wilmington, Del.

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Wendy Salz and her daughter Moira Johnston were devastated in 2016 when Hillary Clinton lost her bid to become the nation’s first female president. This year they rejoiced when Kamala Harris was elected to become the first woman vice president.

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‘Deep sense of relief, but not exactly exuberance’

So, this year, when the nation elected its first female vice president who’s also Black and South Asian, Zhu felt a deep sense of relief, but not exactly exuberance. But Zhu, an Asian woman herself, said she still did not see it as a moment to rejoice in how far women have come.

«Oh my god, no! Not at all. I don’t think this is a sweet victory,» she said. «Look at how close the vote was. This was not a sweeping victory.» To Zhu, it was also a disappointment to see Harris in the No. 2 slot. «I guess people are [saying they can] accept a woman as vice-president but not as president,» she said.

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Kathleen Zhu sobbed unconsolably in 2016, after learning Hillary Clinton would not be elected the nation’s first female president. Now Zhu’s relieved to see Kamala Harris become the first woman elected vice president.

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Kathleen Zhu sobbed unconsolably in 2016, after learning Hillary Clinton would not be elected the nation’s first female president. Now Zhu’s relieved to see Kamala Harris become the first woman elected vice president.

Tovia Smith/NPR

The past four years have left her much more jaded than she was in 2016. Back then, even in the depth of her despair on election night, she insisted women had to only «wake up the next morning, put on our pantsuits, and fight on.»

Nothing, she thought back then, was beyond reach.

«I was definitely was naïve,» she sighed, recalling it this week.

Today, she says, she tends to be less focused on how far women have come, and more tuned in to how much of the glass is left to be filled. Since she left the «bubble» of her super-supportive «women-can-do-anything» all-women’s college, she said, reality has hit hard. She has encountered everything from little indignities, like being presumed to be a nurse while training to be a doctor, to much bigger challenges, like when she came forward with a complaint of sexual assault, and, as she put it, «No one believed me.»

«It was very eye-opening,» she said. «I got the message loud and clear. Now I recognize how difficult it is. It’s made me grow up a lot.»

‘A country that doesn’t see a place for me’

Another Wellesley graduate, 24-year-old investment analyst Sydney Robertson, also felt more somber than celebratory about Harris becoming vice president-elect.

In retrospect, she said, she too, was living under a «delusion» in 2016, that the nation had made much more progress toward race and gender equity than it actually had. As a Black woman, she said, it was devastating to see how many Americans were voting for a man known for his racist, and sexist comments.

«I look at a country that doesn’t see a place for me,» she said, weeping that night in 2016 «when quite honestly, my ancestors built it.»

The four years since then, she said, have only catalyzed the hate and division in the country, leaving her feeling even less welcome and more fearful. Now, she said, she knows better, and does not expect the election of a woman vice president to make sexism or misogyny disappear, any more than eight years of a Black president eradicated racism.

«I think that this past four years just put a flash light on something that was always there, and Trump is just a reflection of the country, — and not the opposite,» she said. «It’s clear that we’re not as far away from that ugly truth of America as a lot of people thought we were.»

‘We are reenergized’

But as disheartening as it is, Robertson said, it has also left her feeling emboldened to press on.

«Four years ago, I felt like I was being pushed out of the way, and there was no place for me,» she said. «The way I feel now is that it’s my job to take up space in the country that I think I deserve. And I will just force it to be done.»

Wendy Salz feels the same resolve. «We are reenergized,» she said. «Our sleeves are rolled up.»

But at 59, she bristles at suggestions that Harris’s election is anything less than epochal, and cause for jubilation. It may be a generational thing, she said, but she can’t help but rejoice in the part of the glass that is full.

«It’s much more ingrained in who we are that this is a major, major, major accomplishment,» she said. «Every step forward» must be celebrated, she said.

No one should be saying, «It’s only vice president,» she said, but rather, «Thank God, we made it this far.»

  • Sen Kamala Harris
  • 2020 election
  • Kamala Harris

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