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Rutgers expert discusses historical significance of Harris as vice president, women in Biden Cabinet

Vice President Kamala Harris is 1 of only 3 women throughout history to be nominated for vice president of the U.S. – Photo by Wikimedia.org

Alongside Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman and the first woman of color to be sworn in as vice president, five women were nominated by President Joseph R. Biden Jr. for Cabinet positions, breaking previous records set by former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

After Harris was elected in November, Debbie Walsh, director of the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics’ Center for American Women and Politics, said her identity as a woman of color would bring a new perspective to the White House, The Daily Targum previously reported.

Now that Harris has officially taken office, and more women are expected to occupy Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions, Walsh discussed the historical context for these changes.

“The election of ... Harris comes (after) a long history of (the) struggle for political equality for women and people of color,” she said. “As (Harris) has said, she stands on the shoulders of the women who came before her.”

Walsh noted several prominent women throughout national history that paved the way for the increased representation that is being seen today.

“The suffragists like Alice Paul, who fought for women to have the right to vote, the civil rights activists like Fannie Lou Hammer, who fought for equal access to the ballot for Black citizens, (and) the women who ran before (Harris), like (former Rep.) Shirley Chisholm, (former Rep.) Geraldine Ferraro and (former Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton,” she said.

Including Harris, there have only been three women in total who have obtained their party’s nomination for vice president, Walsh said. The other two to do this were Ferraro, who ran with former Vice President Walter Mondale in 1984, and former Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin, who ran with former Sen. John McCain in 2008.

In regards to Cabinet positions, Walsh said that, as of yesterday, three women have already been confirmed to hold Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions in the Biden Administration, with nine more awaiting confirmation. Of these 12 women, 8 are women of color, including Harris, she said.

The women who are expected to serve in these Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions are breaking additional records as well, Walsh said. For instance, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) could be the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, and Cecilia Rouse, a professor at Princeton University, is set to be the first woman of color to chair the Council of Economic Advisers, she said.

The previous record for most women appointed to Cabinet positions was held by Obama, who nominated a total of eight women throughout his presidency, according to the U.S. Senate's website. Additionally, Clinton had the greatest proportion of women holding Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions at any given time during his second term, which was 41 percent, Walsh said.

“Historically, 56 women have held a total of 64 such positions in presidential administrations, (8) of those 56 have served in two different posts,” she said. “The first woman appointed to a Cabinet position was (former Secretary of Labor) Frances Perkins, who was appointed to (the Cabinet) position ... in 1933.”

Walsh said it has always been possible for 12 or more women to serve in these high-level positions, but the president must have the will to make it happen.

“With women and women of color comprising (approximately) half of his Cabinet, ... Biden is ensuring that he will hear from a diverse group of advisors when developing and making policy decisions,” she said. 

While this year has been historic in terms of representation, Walsh said, there is still much work that needs to be done going forward. 

“Women (makeup) 51 (percent) of the population but still hold only (approximately) 27 (percent) of the seats in Congress, only 9 of the 50 governorships and 31 (percent) of all state legislative seats. And we have never elected a woman president,” she said. “Getting to gender equity in elective office is still most certainly a work in progress.”


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