Harris Becomes First Female, Asian-, African-American Vice President

multiple barriers broken with new vice president

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Kamala Harris is a groundbreaking vice president of the United States, BBC News reported. Harris is the first vice president to be female, Asian American and African American. The 19th Amendment played a role in women rising to hold political office.

Men and women witness as Colorado governor, Oliver H. Shoup, signs a ratification document for the 19th amendment granting woman's suffrage. Dec. 12, 1919.
On December 12, 1919, in Colorado, a group of onlookers watch as Governor Oliver H. Shoup signs a ratification document for the 19th Amendment granting woman’s suffrage. Photo By Everett Collection / Shutterstock

BBC News noted that Kamala Harris’s swearing-in ceremony to hold the office of vice president was a monumental occasion for several reasons. “Kamala Harris has made history as the first female, first Black and first Asian-American U.S. vice president,” the article said. “She was sworn in just before Joe Biden took the oath of office to become the 46th U.S. president. Ms. Harris […] is of Indian-Jamaican heritage.”

Passed by Congress on June 4, 1919 and ratified August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution gave women the right to vote, not to be denied by sex; however, it included only white women. It was the first step on the path toward voting rights for all American women. Passed by Congress on February 26, 1869 and ratified February 3, 1870, the 15th Amendment had granted African American men the right to vote, not to be denied by race. In the struggle for voting rights in the United States, it was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that garnered the right to vote for African American women.

Women behind the Scenes

Although women couldn’t vote in the 1800s, their voices were still heard to varying degrees in American politics.

“The 19th century was notable for a series of social and political reform movements, many of which were driven by women,” said Dr. Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture, in a lecture released by The Great Courses. “The First and Second Great Awakenings […] gave rise to a number of American religious movements; the Shaker community arose out of this movement.

“It was not only a religion but a utopian social community, and it had several women leaders, such as Ann Lee and Lucy Wright.”

Dr. Kurin said that the temperance movement, which sought to ban alcohol, also emerged from the Second Great Awakening. One of its most famous leaders, Carry Nation, was famous for singing hymns while attacking bar rooms with a hatchet.

Additionally, one of the most famous reform movements of the time was the abolitionist movement, which many women led.

“Thousands of women joined the fight to abolish slavery,” Dr. Kurin said. “They wrote for the abolitionist press, they distributed pamphlets and circulated petitions, [and] they spoke at rallies, a radical act that was often condemned by the clergy of the day.”

Developments after 15th Amendment

After the Civil War, a flurry of amendments to the Constitution were passed. Among them was the 15th Amendment, which stated that the right of citizens to vote shall not be infringed upon due to someone’s “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” However, women were left out.

“The 15th Amendment split the women’s suffrage movement,” Dr. Kurin said. “Some of its leaders refused to endorse the amendment because it did not give women the vote. Others, including long-time women’s rights ally Frederick Douglass, argued that if Black men were enfranchised, their support would help women achieve their goal.”

Dr. Kurin said that in 1887, the movement formed the National American Women Suffrage Association, led by Susan B. Anthony. Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho all granted women’s suffrage by the year 1900.

Twenty years later, following several major marches and demonstrations, Congress passed the 19th Amendment in June 1919.

“It was ratified in 1920,” Dr. Kurin said. “With the passage of the 19th Amendment, the right to active participation in American representative democracy had finally reached all adult citizens over 21.”

However, this milestone came with a caveat. Voting only became equitable for African American women in 1965.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Richard Kurin contributed to this article. Dr. Kurin is the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture

This article contains material taught by Dr. Richard Kurin. Dr. Kurin is the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture. In this position, he oversees most of the Smithsonian’s national museums, libraries, and archives, as well as several of its research and outreach programs. Dr. Kurin holds a BA in Anthropology and Philosophy from the University at Buffalo–The State University of New York. He earned both his MA and his PhD in Anthropology from the University of Chicago.