While this presidential election has been nothing short of historic on many fronts, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris may well represent the shattering of the political glass ceiling. Senator Harris has accrued an impressive list of firsts throughout her political career, and her ascension to the vice presidency is no small feat. She’s set to be the first woman, the first Black American, the first woman of South Asian descent, and the first daughter of immigrants to hold either the presidency or vice presidency. She’s had to work tirelessly to get to where she is today and is already making huge statements—notably through her style choices.
Stepping on stage the night the Biden-Harris ticket was confirmed to win the 2020 election, Harris glowed in an all-white pantsuit and white pussy-bow blouse. But this was more than an outfit: It was a deliberate message to the world that women are solidifying their place in politics.
Clothing has always been a key element of women’s involvement in politics. They’re held to a different standard than men, even when it comes to their dress. Every outfit is picked apart and judged, drawing attention away from policy toward presentation. Our nation’s first congresswoman, Jeanette Rankin, faced media commentary on her coiffed hair and feminine fashion as soon as she took office in 1917. This disproportionate focus on appearance and standards of femininity was aimed at delegitimizing her, but others were even more blatantly criticized for their fashion—and still are.
Since Hilary Clinton entered the public sphere, she has been routinely criticized for wearing pantsuits. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has similarly been targeted for wearing her signature bright-red lipstick.
Meanwhile, female politicians of color carry the weight of both sexism and racism within this kind of dialogue. Ilhan Omar had to fight to wear her hijab on the House floor. Black women are decried as unprofessional for wearing their hair in braids or natural hairstyles.
But style can also be used as a form of resistance. Back in 1913, the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage adopted the color white to signify the moral importance of their cause, while at the same time presenting themselves within a classically feminine and “pure” image. While early suffragists often left out women like Kamala Harris—those with darker skin, whose voting rights are still contested today and whose experiences with femininity are stained by misogynoir—the color white nonetheless solidified its place within the women’s rights movement. And Harris isn’t the first to step out in a white suit: Hilary Clinton similarly paid homage to this movement at Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017.
More recently, the women of the Democratic Party used white dress as a form of silent protest at President Trump’s joint address to Congress in 2017 and his State of the Union address this year. A raft of white stood out against a darkly-dressed sea of male Congressmen, bringing symbolic attention to issues like reproductive rights and equal pay.
The pussy-bow blouse has similarly become a symbol of women’s empowerment. The United Kingdom’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, made the style her own, demonstrating that a woman in a position of power can embody professionalism and seriousness through her clothing.
While Kamala Harris is quickly becoming a beacon of hope for minorities and a figure of female achievement, her task of trailblazing her way to the vice presidency may not be finished. Vice presidents have sometimes been seen as an empty role in the White House. There are countless television shows portraying the vice president as a meaningless placeholder or a scheming cheat. For Ms. Harris to continue to make an impact, she must fight against this stagnant stereotype about her office, alongside a culture that has long picked apart women in powerful positions.
Kamala Harris has a real chance to do something special and profound as the vice president in the coming term. While she’s notably paving the way for women and people of color across America, it will mean much more if she actively works to dismantle the systemic injustices built into this democracy. Just as she took initiative in what she wore and how she acted throughout the campaign and her career beforehand, she could do the same to enact real change in this country and its relations with others around the world.
Being that she represents several underrepresented and marginalized communities, Ms. Harris also has the opportunity to change the narrative around who gets to lead this country. It is not often in American history that public officeholders look like the parts of our populace that aren’t white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, or upper-middle-class; before Kamala Harris, the only person of color in the presidential office was Barack Obama. She has now broken the precedent of white men holding our highest positions and has a unique authority to change how Americans view women, people of color, and immigrants.
Kamala Harris will not be overlooked. She doesn’t wait to seize an opportunity, and she certainly will not be spoken over. If she continues to be such an empowered and motivated figure throughout Biden’s presidency, her list of “firsts” and symbolic style won’t stop with her election. Kamala Harris can continue to inspire healing and progress dressed in a tailored suit, unwilling to submit to patriarchal authority, reflecting her iconic phrase, “Mr. Vice President, I am speaking.”