‘We could do anything’: Young women connect with Harris

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris waves to the crowd outside the Chase Center in Wilmington last week. (Special to the Delaware State News/Joe Del Tufo)

When Kamala Harris took the podium for the first time as vice president-elect, she spoke directly to the “little girls watching.”

“While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities,” she told the crowd in Wilmington, and the nation.

On the centennial of women’s right to vote — and about five decades after the Voting Rights Act — Sen. Harris had achieved the highest office a woman in the United States had ever reached: a spot in the White House.

And young women were watching.

Priya Gupta, a senior at Caesar Rodney High School, spent Election Day as a poll worker at Fifer Middle School. She described the day as busy, with 300 people coming to her booth alone. She was among those who tuned in days later, as Sen. Harris and President-elect Joe Biden announced victory.

“I liked how both Sen. Harris and President-elect Biden focused on the future, instead of looking to the past and what’s already happened,” she said. “Instead they looked into the future, about what potential changes could be made and how we can improve as a country.”

She said it’s nice to see a woman — particularly a woman of color — elected to the role.

“I think it’s helping our American government be a little more representative of what the United States looks like,” she said. “And just seeing that representation reflected in our government — it’s really important to me, especially.”

Amirah Torain, a sophomore at Caesar Rodney High School, agreed. She spent the days after the election checking in almost every hour to see where the electoral votes fell.

From the beginning of this country, she said, women have been relegated to the domestic sphere: cook, clean, get married, stay at home.

“Now, this is showing that we aren’t just that,” she said. “We could do anything, and sometimes, even more than a man can do, and we can get farther.”

Oviyanna Umoh, a junior at Dover High, had gotten more involved in politics over the summer, following the Black Lives Matter movement.

Sen. Harris checked off several firsts: She’ll be the first woman, first Black person and first South Asian individual to be elected to the vice presidency. A “triple threat,” Oviyanna noted.

“I just think that many young people can look at this and see that one day, they may also be in this position, or they completely have the opportunity to do this, as well,” she said.

And, in theory, they’ll do just that. There’s the idea of the “role model effect,” said Dr. Erin Cassese, political science and international relations professor at the University of Delaware. Or, colloquially, of “see it, be it.”

“It’s basically the idea that having these visible examples of female candidates stimulates political interest in women, particularly young women, women who are just entering the electorate,” she said. “It makes them more likely to vote, but also more likely to discuss politics and be engaged in politics more generally.”

Some of Dr. Cassese’s colleagues are looking at political role models and children. Their research shows that children do pick up on leader characteristics displayed, she said. The research was conducted in 2016, after Hillary Clinton lost her bid for the presidency. Her concession speech also took the time to acknowledge young girls.

“I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but someday, someone will and, hopefully, sooner than we might think right now,” she said at the time. “And to all the little girls who are watching this, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world to pursue and achieve your own dreams.”

That message can filter down, Dr. Cassese said.

“Whether their parents are showing it to kids directly or just parents are discussing female candidates, that has an effect on childhood political socialization,” she said. “So the candidates speak directly and that can have an effect, but also just their mere presence can affect how children see political leadership as a career and who counts as a political leader.”

That won’t really extend across party lines, however.

“Party is more central to people than gender,” she said. “I think it’s because the parties are so polarized. … Harris’ positions don’t really appeal to Republican women who have a strong Republican identity.”

For instance, the Democratic Party is more a “coalition party” that makes more appeals to gender and racial identity, Dr. Cassese said.

“I do think that part of selecting a ticket is going to be consolidating the base, appealing to these different constituencies,” she said.

For Republicans, it’s less clear, she said.

“It’s possible that they will add a female candidate to the ticket, like Sarah Palin,” she said. “But I don’t know that it’s going to mobilize the space the way it will for the Democratic Party.”

That said, this year, there were more women running on Republican tickets. In 2018, there was a perception that the “political climate wasn’t really amenable” to Republican women, she said.

But in 2020, that changed, in part due to U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y.
“In 2020, there was a record number of women running for House seats from the Republican Party,” Dr. Cassese said. “(Rep. Stefanik) was in charge of recruitment and support of female candidates, and she really did an outstanding job. So in 2018, the number of Republican women in the House delegation fell, and this year, it increased a lot.”

They’re running different campaigns, though — stressing different issues, describing their political motivations and priorities in different ways.
“It’s unlikely there’s going to be a lot of crossover appeal,” she said. “But we are seeing an increase in Republican women.”

This year, there are 101 women serving as U.S. representatives, comprising just less than a quarter of the total population. There are 26 women in the U.S. Senate. In Delaware, women comprise about 30% of the House and Senate. The margins thin more for women of color.

The 2020 election was historic locally, too, with Sarah McBride elected as the first transgender state senator in Delaware and in the nation. Also in the First State, Sherae’a Moore became the first Black woman elected to the General Assembly south of the C&D Canal. Marie Pinkney, who ousted an incumbent, is the first openly gay woman to join the Delaware legislature.

“I’m just very optimistic that having these additional women and women from all different perspectives, will help us to continue to build on those successes and move gender equality forward,” said Melanie Ross Levin, director of the state Office of Women’s Advancement and Advocacy.

Her office is responsible for overseeing women’s rights work, including leading the ongoing implementation of women’s rights legislation, evaluating current women’s rights measures, building support for new laws and advising the governor’s office, the legislature and the secretary of the Department of Human Resources.

“We just look forward to working with members of the legislature to move things forward for women and girls in Delaware,” she said. “By having more legislators that are interested in our issues, it can only be helpful.”

For Amirah and Priya, Sen. Harris’ election has changed what the vice president can look like.

“I think it’s really important for teenage girls to see women in leadership positions because I think it’s really inspiring, and I think that teenage girls should understand that they have the potential to achieve these positions themselves and that they should not feel restricted in any way,” Priya said.

“I’m really starting to see, especially with this generation, not just girls, but minorities in general, starting to get more active in politics and speaking on their views and pushing for change,” Amirah said. “And I think that’s really cool.”

Oviyanna was 8 when Barack Obama was elected to his second term, which served as an inspiration, she said.

“At that young age, I was like, ‘Wow, someone who looks like me can make it this far. I can make it this far,’” she said. “I know that younger kids will see Kamala as vice president and think that they could completely do this when they grow. And I just hope that people look at that and it’s more embraced and accepted. I think her vice presidency will definitely set a tone for the nation and for younger generations.”

That transcends beyond politics, too. Priya serves as the national secretary for the Technology Student Association, which targets developing students’ skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Sometimes, as a girl, she “felt a bit restricted.”

“I think it’s showing that times are changing, and it’s not crazy for a woman to hold a major political position, and that is completely possible,” she said.

That in mind, Oviyanna noted that while acknowledging this historic achievement, it’s important to hold elected officials accountable.

“I’d still like to be vocal about the things I would like to see change in the future,” she said. “I would like my peers to be vocal, because this is a great opportunity for us to develop real change, and this shouldn’t stop here. I think people should continue to be aware, continue to be interested, continue holding politicians, everyone in government, accountable and responsible.”