Always Intersectional... Always Overlooked
Kamala Harris first received national attention when Peter Byrne wrote a 2003 profile piece on her, entitled Kamala’s Karma, which documented her career up to that point. She had been seeing success in the then-ongoing election for San Francisco District Attorney. The piece covered how while her rivals largely shared her platform, they still attempted to hurt her through sexist optics. They implied that due to a political appointment she received from mayor Willie Brown while the two were dating, she had gotten where she was due to a patronage appointment. A more repugnant version of this narrative has recently been revisited by specific news outlets and I am totally willing to bet on the bottom feeders trying to get traction on it as we get closer to the election.
It is important to mention that even in the most charitable reading of their attacks, they could only hold water if voters accepted that political favoritism was something new, special, or extraordinary. And if you wanted to treat this as a “sex scandal”, hypocrisy is no strange bedfellow to these cheap efforts. The basis of their attack revolved around holding a woman responsible for something that is, unfortunately, exceedingly common in U.S. politics—and it’s illustrative of the number of ways we try to hold women to a higher standard. Too often, it has worked.
On August 11th, 2020, it was announced that Kamala Harris would serve as Joe Biden’s running mate for the 2020 Presidential Election. This makes her the first black woman to be nominated for the position of Vice President on a major party ticket. Her nomination is notable for the fact that she was widely seen as the safest choice.
August is historically significant for women in ways that make the Harris nomination a kind of ironic remarkable that speaks to the women in general and black women in particular have inhabited for far too long.
August 6th marked the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which gave marginalized voters (principally people of color) the kinds of protections that had historically barred them from the polls. August 18th was the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote.
Both of these landmarks were far too long in the making and in any instances have been pitted against one another to deny both. In many respects, Kamala Harris is the embodiment of a centuries long struggle that we have yet to fully reconcile. If we are willing to look at the foundation of that fight, I believe we will find the most capable people who have always had to “play politics” in ways that most mens’ brains would have been scrambled by if they were put in this position. I hope that this essay gives you some insight into the oftentimes-fractious relationship women of color were caught in and the strength and perseverance it has taken to get to this “safe” place.
Historically, Black suffrage and women’s suffrage often had to work together. To take an intersectional approach. This is, in some ways, exemplified in microcosm, looking at the relationship between Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Both Anthony and her contemporary, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, referred to Douglass as a “woman’s rights man.” With good reason—Douglass was one of the few men present at the Women’s Rights Convention held at Seneca Falls in July 1848. It is an event largely agreed upon as the beginning of the women’s suffrage movement.
Their alliance and friendship was fraught, however, with the passing of the 14th amendment, which extended citizenship to black men but made no mention of women. Susan B. Anthony commented, “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman.” Douglass, believing that the inclusion of women’s rights would destroy the entire amendment, argued, “When women, because they are women, are hunted down through the cities of New York and New Orleans; when they are dragged from their houses and hung upon lamp-posts; when their children are torn from their arms, and their brains dashed out upon the pavement; when they are objects of insult and outrage at every turn; when they are in danger of having their homes burnt down over their heads, when their children are not allowed to enter schools; then [women] will have an urgency to obtain the ballot equal to our own.” But Douglass seemed all too willing to split hairs. Overlooking a crucial factor: that everything he describes was happening to women. Black women.
This meant that Black women were fighting on multiple fronts. And they did. Women such as Sojourner Truth— who escaped slavery with her daughter, and went to court to recover her son, soon become the first person to win such a legal battle in a case against a white man, in a remarkable victory. Her best-known speech was delivered at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention. The speech, Ain’t I a Woman?, co-opted the phrase, “Am I not a man and a brother” that was used by many British abolitionists to decry the inhumanity of slavery. That her rhetoric invokes a racial element in a women’s rights convention is remarkable. There were reports that Truth’s speech was preceded, in the words of an organizer, Frances Dana Barker Gage, with many white women pleading with her to stop Truth from speaking. “…again and again, timorous and trembling ones came to me and said, with earnestness, “Don't let her speak, Mrs. Gage, it will ruin us. Every newspaper in the land will have our cause mixed up with abolition and niggers, and we shall be utterly denounced.” My only answer was, “We shall see when the time comes.” This was and is the kind of world black women have had to navigate for centuries—and how little this world is seen or remarked on in the dominant narrative of the suffrage movement.
Another example being someone as widely known as Harriet Tubman. A woman who campaigned for women’s rights in her later years but is largely solely remembered for her work on abolition and the Underground Railroad.
It is notable that Black women, despite being one of the most politically involved groups of people in this country, have rarely had a chance to see themselves reflected in elected officials. This can be said of all women regardless of ethnicity, but white women have not had to deal with the extra layers of violence and degradation.
And even during the Civil Rights Movement, women were largely the behind-the-scenes organizers. There are many notable examples of how the movement simply wouldn’t have existed without Black women. Black men were often at the forefront, and women were often working on organizing.
In the fall of 1947, the Southeastern Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs gathered at the Alabama State Teachers College, at a time when the very act was risking their own safety and aimed to plan the future for the south. They created pragmatic policy plans to abolish poll taxes and secure safe access to the ballot box while also supporting critical public services like the underfunded schools and hospitals of the Jim Crow south.
The Alabama Teachers College, now Alabama State University, was often the site of black women’s organizing and strategizing—even serving as a meeting place for the Women’s Political Council, the group behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott. More recently, they were critical in the support of Doug Jones in a crucial senate race against Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore.
That said, there were a number of women who remained upfront during the Civil Rights Movement. Women like Dorothy Height. A woman considered a member of the Civil Rights Six, among such company as Martin Luther King Jr., James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and John Lewis. This did not change the fact that she was arguably snubbed from making a speech during the March on Washington, despite being an award-winning orator and one of the chief organizers and settlers of disputes during the buildup.
After the Voting Rights Act, the power of the Black female voice has been a driver of crucial cultural and political change. Attempts to get around the Voting Rights Act with I.D Laws and gerrymandering are proof of the various institutional powers who were threatened by their voices and trying to threaten it to this day. It is said that Kamala Harris is the safe choice for this election.
This isn’t true.
Kamala Harris isn’t the safe choice. She is the deserved choice. She is the overdue choice. She is the embodiment of a road too-long traveled, littered with women both black and white. Smart, effective, and capable of not just being representative of their gender and their race, but representative of the many marginalized factions in America and the interest of the country at large. She is the culmination of centuries of work to bring our constitutional promise to those who have needed its protection the most. Not just women, the poor and poorly educated. The starving and the resource starved. The battered of body and spirit. Black women have always stood at that intersection.
The fact that so many finally feel safe looking at her, says more about them than it does about her and all those who proceeded her.