WASHINGTON – Vice President Kamala Harris broke the barrier that has kept men at the top ranks of American power for more than two centuries when she took the oath Wednesday to hold the nation’s second-highest office.
Harris was sworn in as the first female U.S. vice president – and the first Black woman and person of South Asian descent to hold the position – in front of the U.S. Capitol by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Later, she presided as Senate president for the first time to swear in three new Democratic senators, including her replacement.
The moment was steeped in history and significance in more ways than one. She was escorted to the podium by Capitol Police Officer Eugene Goodman, the officer who single-handedly took on a mob of Trump supporters as they tried to breach the Senate floor during the Capitol insurrection that sought to overturn the election results. Harris was wearing clothes from two young, emerging Black designers – a deep purple dress and coat.
After taking the oath of office, a beaming Harris hugged her husband, Douglas Emhoff, and gave President Joe Biden a fist bump.
Her rise is historic in any context, another moment when a stubborn boundary falls away, expanding the idea of what’s possible in American politics. But it’s particularly meaningful because Harris is taking office at a moment when Americans are grappling over institutional racism and confronting a pandemic that has disproportionately devastated Black and brown communities.
Those close to Harris say she’ll bring an important – and often missing – perspective to the debates on how to overcome the many hurdles facing the new administration.
“In many folks’ lifetimes, we experienced a segregated United States,” said Lateefah Simon, a civil rights advocate and longtime Harris friend and mentee. “You will now have a Black woman who will walk into the White House not as a guest but as a second in command of the free world.”
Harris – the child of immigrants, a stepmother of two and the wife of a Jewish man – “carries an intersectional story of so many Americans who are never seen and heard.”
Harris, 56, moves into the vice presidency just four years after she first came to Washington as a senator from California, where she’d served as attorney general and as San Francisco’s district attorney. She had expected to work with a White House run by Hillary Clinton, but President Donald Trump’s victory quickly scrambled the nation’s capital and set the stage for the rise of a new class of Democratic stars.
After Harris’ own presidential bid fizzled, her rise continued when Biden chose her as his running mate last August. Harris had been a close friend of Beau Biden, his elder son and a former Delaware attorney general who died in 2015 of cancer.
The inauguration activities included nods to her history-making rise and her personal story.
Harris used two Bibles to take the oath, one that belonged to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the late civil rights icon whom Harris often cites as inspiration, and Regina Shelton, who helped raise Harris during her childhood in the San Francisco Bay Area.
After the ceremony, she and Emhoff escorted former Vice President Mike Pence and his wife, Karen Pence, out of the Capitol, a gesture that would normally be performed by the incoming and outgoing presidents, but Trump did not attended the inauguration. Harris, Pence and their spouses spoke for several minutes before the Pences departed.
To celebrate the occasion, the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the nation’s oldest sorority for Black women, which Harris joined at Howard University, declared Wednesday as Soror Kamala D. Harris Day. Members of the sorority watching the celebrations across the country were clad in pearls, as was Harris, and the sorority’s pink and green colors.
“There is a pride I can’t put into words,” said Elizabeth Shelby, a member of the sorority’s Alpha Psi chapter, who watched from her home in Nashville. “It is such a joy to see her rise to this place in our country. It is such a joy to know that she is one of us, that she represents us.”
Biden, in his inaugural address, reflected on the 1913 march for women’s suffrage the day before President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, during which some marchers were heckled and attacked.
“Today, we mark the swearing in of the first woman in American history elected to national office, Vice President Kamala Harris. Don’t tell me things can’t change,” Biden said.
As vice president, Harris will expand the definition of who gets to hold power in American politics, said Martha S. Jones, a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and the author of “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.”
People who want to understand Harris and connect with her will have to learn what it means to graduate from a historically Black college and university rather than an Ivy League school. They will have to understand Harris’ traditions, like the Hindu celebration of Diwali, Jones said.
“Folks are going to have to adapt to her rather than her adapting to them,” Jones said.
Her election to the vice presidency should be just the beginning of putting Black women in leadership positions, Jones said, particularly after the role Black women played in organizing and turning out voters in the November election.
“We will all learn what happens to the kind of capacities and insights of Black women in politics when those capacities and insights are permitted to lead,” Jones said.
(By Kathleen Ronayne, who reported from Sacramento, California, and Alexandra Jaffe. Associated Press journalist Christine Fernando in Chicago contributed.)