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Column: The thrill of Kamala Harris’ rise comes with a dash of sorrow

California Sen. Kamala Harris, former Vice President Joe Biden's choice as his Democratic vice presidential running mate, sits behind him as he speaks during a campaign event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2020.

California Sen. Kamala Harris, former Vice President Joe Biden's choice as his Democratic vice presidential running mate, sits behind him as he speaks during a campaign event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2020. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

We’re number 2! We’re number 2!

There was a lot of cheering the other day when Joe Biden announced that Kamala Harris would be his running mate, the number 2 position, on the 2020 Democratic presidential ticket.

Harris, a U.S. senator from California, is poised to become the first Black woman and first person of South Asian descent to be nominated as vice president on a major party’s ticket. She’s only the third woman to score the number 2 spot on the ticket, the second Democrat since Geraldine Ferraro ran and lost way back in the antediluvian era called 1984.

For people who care about equality of opportunity, even if they don’t care for Harris, there’s a lot to cheer about. She represents several kinds of breakthrough, including a major one for women, which is why a lot of women feel a certain team spirit about her nomination.

But in the midst of the jubilation, some of us have felt a pang of sorrow, or its gentler relative, frustration. When a breakthrough is so overdue, the cheering is mixed with other feelings.

Do you cheer full throttle because the thing that should have happened sooner really might this time? Or cheer with a sigh because it took so long?

Do you cheer loud because number 2 is pretty close to the top? Or cheer with a sigh because women so often have trouble rising above the number 2 spot?

“We’re number 2!” just doesn’t have the ring of “We’re number 1!”

For those of us who’ve been around awhile, Harris’ nomination is far from shocking. What’s shocking is that this country has never had a female vice president or president. Two hundred forty-four years of these United States and not one woman in either spot.

More than once in in my lifetime the country has seemed on the verge of opening the top spots to a woman. Then, bam, up pops the barricade.

I’m old enough to remember the excitement among Democrats when Walter Mondale chose Ferraro as his running mate. I also remember how on the day it happened an editor hustled over to my desk carrying the printout of a story on the historic announcement, written by another reporter. He asked me to rewrite it so that it avoided sexist references, like the mention of Ferraro’s shoes and “gams.” I had to look up “gam.” That was the day I learned that a gam is “an attractive female leg.” In the rewrite, I deleted all references to Ferraro’s body parts.

In the years since, women of various races and ethnicities have gained political power. Reporters have become a little, if only a little, less reckless in their depictions of female candidates. By now, we take it for granted that women can be senators and congresspeople and big-city mayors. Sarah Palin was a Republican vice presidential nominee.

And yet, in many realms, whether it’s presidential politics or the average workplace, women still have trouble making it all the way to the top. Women still get stuck as almosts, also-rans, the actor with second billing, the associate, the second banana. Number 2.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, was almost elected president of the United States. She did, in fact, win the most votes, but in the end she became just another woman who almost made it to the top.

This year, Elizabeth Warren and other women, including Harris, seemed to have a shot at being the Democratic presidential nominee. A couple almost made it.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not advocating voting for a woman “because she’s a woman” and I don’t know any woman who ever has. But a lot of us get excited when a woman rises to the top because it signals that women can rise, that the path is open, that the “No Girls Allowed” sign is down.

Every woman who rises in her field makes it a tiny bit easier for the next one simply by showing that it can be done.

After Biden announced Harris as his running mate, I heard a woman in her 70s marvel at the progress Harris represents. “Amazing what I’ve seen in my lifetime,” she said.

She has a point. Until 100 years ago this month, American women didn’t have the right to vote. There are people alive today born into that backward time.

We have to trust that the rise of Kamala Harris moves us a little closer to the day when we take it for granted that in presidential politics and everywhere else, women can be number 1.

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