WASHINGTON (AFP) – With Kamala Harris poised to become the first female vice president of the United States (US), and with a record number of women elected to Congress – including more Republicans than ever – considerable history will be made when they all take office in January.
The 56-year-old Harris, a senator, former prosecutor and the running mate of President-elect Joe Biden, will notch a slew of firsts when she is sworn in on January 20: as the first US female vice president and the first Black in that position, as well as the first person of South Asian descent.
“Together, we showed little girls across the country what’s possible,” she said on Twitter last Friday.
It was the latest echo of a speech Hillary Clinton delivered in 2016 in recognising her defeat by Donald Trump.
“I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling” – that of the White House – “but someday someone will, and hopefully sooner than we might think”, the defeated Democratic candidate said.
Clinton then directed these words of encouragement to the country’s ‘little girls’: “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.”
Since Clinton pronounced those words four years ago, women transformed the face of American politics – both in Congress and, soon, in the White House.
“With Kamala Harris, a lot of glass ceilings were shattered in one day,” former chief executive of the Democratic National Committee Amy Dacey said.
Ron Klain, whom Biden named as his chief of staff, said Harris will play a “significant” role, Dacey noted. “And I think (Biden will) bring in a lot of women at all levels of the administration.”
Analysts expect Biden to appoint either progressive senator Elizabeth Warren or Federal Reserve official Lael Brainard, a former Treasury undersecretary, to head the Treasury – a position never filled by a woman.
The US might also see its first woman secretary of defence. Michele Flournoy, a former Pentagon number three, has been frequently mentioned.
There are only two women in the Trump cabinet: transportation secretary Elaine Chao and education secretary Betsy DeVos. Several women served Trump as senior advisors or as White House spokesperson.
But the Republican billionaire also frequently sparked controversy with insulting or sexist comments about women. In October, he referred to Harris as a “monster”.
‘A SUBSTANTIVE IMPACT’
Americans in 2018 already elected a record number of women.
On November 3, they broke that record.
“This election shows continued progress for women in America,” Director of Rutgers University’s Centre for American Women and Politics (CAWP) Kelly Dittmar said.
“It importantly will have a substantive impact on American politics,” she told AFP, “because in addition to literally bringing themselves to government, they bring their lived experiences and distinct perspectives that are still under-represented”.
While some results of the November 3 election are not yet final, at least 140 women will take seats in Congress when it returns on January 3, according to CAWP.
There are currently 127 women in Congress, or 23.7 per cent of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives and the 100 in the Senate.
While that percentage will rise to 26 per cent in January, women still have far to go – they represent half the US population.
Democratic women will claim 105 seats in Congress (89 in the House and 16 in the Senate).
Republican women, for their part, will occupy 35 seats (27 in the House and eight in the Senate) – considerably fewer than their Democratic counterparts but still a big increase from the current 22.
Women Republican candidates “performed better than expected”, Dittmar said.
“They would still be significantly under-represented, but this should send a message about both their electability, and hopefully increase their influence within the party to ensure that more women get elected in the future.”
Asked on Friday about the record number of Republican women elected, House speaker Nancy Pelosi – the first woman to occupy that position – said she would “congratulate and welcome each and every one of them”.
But then the Democratic speaker, rounding the House total upward, quickly emphasised that her party was still doing better by women, casually adding, “Of course, we have 90”.