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Sen. Kamala Harris of California was elected the first female vice president of the United States, putting a substantial crack in what former candidate Hillary Clinton called the “highest and hardest glass ceiling" between women and the White House.

With former vice president Joe Biden declared the winner of the presidency by the Associated Press, Ms. Harris, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, will also be the first Black vice president and first of Indian descent when the pair is inaugurated in January. Ms. Harris becomes the highest-ranking woman ever in the line of presidential succession, ahead of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

In a speech from Wilmington, Del., on Saturday, Ms. Harris, dressed in all white—the colour of the women’s suffrage movement—paid tribute to the women who paved the way for her. “I reflect on their struggle, their determination and the strength of their vision to see what can be unburdened by what has been. I stand on their shoulders," she said.

“And to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before."

Ms. Harris was one of a record number of women who sought the Democratic nomination in 2020. On the campaign trail in Iowa last year, Ms. Harris tried to address concerns that the country might not be ready to be led by a woman. “I’ve heard this conversation in every campaign I have—and here is the operative word—won," she said.

During the primaries, some Democratic voters said they were worried a female nominee would face a double standard after Mrs. Clinton’s loss in 2016. Mr. Biden, who had announced before securing the nomination that he would select a woman as his running mate, was urged by some Democrats to choose a Black woman, as protests over racial injustice swept the country after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis police custody.

Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat who has known Ms. Harris for more than two decades and who started her own career working for Rep. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run for president, said Ms. Harris becoming the first female vice president will be “the culmination of a heck of a lot of struggles and challenges" that Black women have faced.

Rep. Lee called Ms. Harris the “right woman, for the right time, for the right position" to take on the challenges facing the country. “I’ve known her all of these years to be someone who’s a unifier, and she is very smart and very prepared," she said.

While Ms. Harris’s election marks a milestone, some female leaders who lauded her achievement emphasized that her record of accomplishments should be recognized in its own right. “She is amazingly well-qualified for this job," said Carly Fiorina, former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard Co. and a Republican who ran for president in 2016. “She earned it, and she’s there, because she’s the best person for the job."

Ms. Harris is taking on her new role as women and Black and Latino communities across the country have been especially hard hit by the economic fallout and disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which female voters also listed by far as their top issue, according to the AP VoteCast survey, a major election survey of roughly 140,000 registered voters nationally.

Ms. Harris and Mr. Biden, who campaigned on a pledge to do a better job than Mr. Trump of steering the national pandemic response, got a boost from women voters, who made up 53% of the electorate, according to the survey. The Biden-Harris ticket built an 11-percentage-point advantage among female voters, while 52% of men backed Mr. Trump.

Ms. Harris, 56 years old, grew up in Berkeley, Calif., and was raised by a single mother who had immigrated from India at the age of 19. Before their divorce, Ms. Harris’s parents were active in the civil-rights movement and participated in marches and sit-ins. In speeches, Ms. Harris has spoken of the influence her “family of fighters" had on her career.

She became the first woman to serve as California’s attorney general and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2016. As attorney general, she supported re-entry programs aimed at keeping low-level offenders out of prison and required body cameras at the state Department of Justice, the first state agency to implement such a mandate. Still, some criminal-justice advocates argued Ms. Harris didn’t do enough to end mass incarceration.

In the Senate, she became known for her tough questioning of Trump administration nominees who came before the Judiciary Committee. She also worked on legislation to overhaul the policing system and other bills focused on helping women and people of colour.

“That lens is the kind of lens she will bring with her to the White House to make sure that these issues, which some might consider to be small issues or not top 10 issues, are actually top 10 issues," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who worked with Ms. Harris on legislation to tackle maternal mortality.

Ms. Harris ran for the Democratic nomination for president last year, but she struggled to gain traction with voters and dropped out before the primaries started. Despite a surge of attention and in fundraising early in her presidential campaign, Ms. Harris struggled to identify a geographic focus and campaign message.

Mr. Biden chose her as his running mate in August, calling her “one of the country’s finest public servants." Republicans criticized her as too liberal, pointing out that she had taken positions on issues such as fracking that were to the left of Mr. Biden, who campaigned as a relative moderate. Ms. Harris’s earlier embrace of a ban on fracking, a drilling practice in which oil and gas are extracted from shale, was used by Mr. Trump against Mr. Biden, who has said he would limit fracking on federal lands.

As the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, Ms. Harris was deployed by the Biden campaign to try to connect with voters in immigrant and minority communities. Her campaign events typically featured discussions with Black women, Latino small-business owners, and Black and Latino activists. She was also a prolific fundraiser, bringing in tens of millions of dollars for the campaign.

Ms. Harris frequently repeats the advice her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, gave her when she was growing up. “My mother would look at me and she’d say, ‘Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last,’ " Ms. Harris has said in interviews and speeches.

In 2016, Mrs. Clinton was the first female presidential nominee by a major party. Two women had previously been nominated for vice president—Democrat Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Republican Sarah Palin in 2008—but both lost.

© 2020 dow jones & company, inc

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