Like millions of people around the world, Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson woke up Wednesday morning and turned on her television to watch a moment more than two centuries in the making as Kamala Harris became the first female vice president of the United States.
“In history, it’s just a powerful moment,” Wilkerson said. “You see somebody who looks like you - that is powerful.And for years until today, it has been all male, and I’m not taking anything away from males, but today is different and it will be different from this day forward in our country.”
Harris is the first Black and South Asian person to serve as vice president. Her oath of office was administered by another groundbreaker, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic person to serve on the Supreme Court.
For Spokane Superior Court Judge Michelle Szambelan, watching Sotomayor perform the oath was surprisingly emotional. On her lunch break while conducting a trial, Szambelan took a few moments to watch the inauguration.
“It sends a message to little girls, and particularly little girls of color, that they can do anything they want,” Szambelan said. “Maybe that’s why it resonated with me, is I remember very clearly both the first time I was sworn in and when I was sworn in as a Superior Court judge. There’s so much work going into it, growing up as a little girl, at least in my area, you just didn’t assume that would happen.”
As a child, Szambelan remembers playing on a girls soccer team in Phoenix, where she grew up, and there was only one other girls team to play. A few boys teams agreed to play her team , but after they beat a few boys teams, the boys didn’t want to play them anymore, Szambelan recalled.
“It’s not like it’s ancient history,” Szambelan said. “That’s why it’s really wonderful that today happened. But it’s also a head-scratcher on why it’s taken so long to get where we’re at.”
Sotomayor is the third woman ever appointed to the United States Supreme Court. Both women who came before her have sworn in vice presidents. Sotomayor also administered Biden’s oath of office as vice president in 2013. Traditionally, the chief justice of the Supreme Court administers the presidential oath of office. One woman, however, has administered the oath. Federal Judge Sarah T. Hughes administered the oath to Lyndon B. Johnson aboard Air Force One after John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Before a long day of work Wednesday, Regina Malveaux donned a Howard University T-shirt, Converse sneakers and pearls, a nod to her fellow Howard alumnus, Harris.
During her full day of meetings as director of the Washington Women’s Commission, Malveaux made time to watch snippets of the inauguration, including youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman’s reading.
“The threads that she wove together were particularly extraordinary,” Malveaux said of Gorman.
The Washington Women’s Commission’s goal is to advise the Legislature and the governor on policies that impact women, to create an environment that not only allows equal opportunity but fosters an environment in which women feel empowered.
“What we know is that so much policy and funding flows from the federal government,” Malveaux said. “We certainly know that the policies of the incoming administration are going to be far more aligned with the issues that the women’s commission cares about.”
In her past, Harris has brought a “women’s style” to leadership, which Malveaux said she is excited to see on a larger stage.
“We know women tend to be more collaborative as leaders,” Malveaux said.
On a personal note, Malveaux said she is excited to show her two young granddaughters that anything is possible. She even purchased for them copies of children’s books written by Meena Harris, the vice president’s niece.
“I’m just so excited they’ll be able to see the wealth of opportunity,” she said.
The founder of the Strong Women Achieving Greatness (SWAG) mentorship group, Jaime Stacy, spent the morning explaining to her daughter, Mikala, 9, who each person was as they arrived to the inauguration.
“This is Justice Sotomayor, she’s the first Hispanic (Supreme Court) judge,” Stacy told her daughter. “And look, there’s the first African American president and his wife.”
Stacy said she is excited for SWAG participants to see Harris lead. SWAG is an organization for mainly middle school girls to grow and support each other in achieving their goals during their difficult teen years.
“I’m elated that all of my SWAG girls are getting to see this,” Stacy said. “These things help them to understand that it’s Kamala today, but it could be you tomorrow.”
Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney said Harris’ inauguration sent a “powerful message” to women and girls around the world that they can be whatever they want to be.
Kuney, a Republican, said despite policy differences she may have with Harris, her inauguration was exciting for women.
“I think it’s really exciting for women to see that their voices get to be heard on our national level of politics,” Kuney said.
Being a woman in leadership can be difficult, Kuney admitted, but she said the mentorship and support she received from those who came before her, like former Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn and Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman, was invaluable.
“It has been great to have strong women kind of mentor me,” Kuney said. “Hopefully, I can help do that for other women that come after me. I think this does transcend politics. It’s about helping support women in the future.”
Beva Miles, chairwoman of the Republicans of Spokane County, said she would like to see a day when voters aren’t looking at a candidate’s gender.
“We should be able to run a woman against men and not let gender be the factor,” Miles said. “Qualifications count way more than gender.”
Miles said she doesn’t believe Harris is qualified for the role of vice president and that her gender has no bearing on her qualifications.
“Honestly, for me because I am a woman and I am assertive and I am successful in what I do, I’ve never felt, ever, that ceiling where politics are concerned,” she said. “Sometimes we make more of things than we should.”
Four years after helping organize the Spokane Women’s March, Amanda Mead said Harris’ new position as the second-highest elected official in the country signifies that the United States has come a long way.
While the Biden-Harris administration does not completely embody the “true progressive policies” Mead believes in, it is a step in the right direction, she said.
Despite the progress, Mead said that as member of the LGBTQ+ community, an often marginalized group, it’s important to hold politicians accountable to their promises.
“As someone who belongs to a marginalized group, I don’t know, I just think every politician is a politician,” Mead said. “It’s in our best interest to eye them with a little bit of suspicion.”
For Spokane City Councilwoman Karen Stratton, watching Harris get sworn in was “bittersweet” after the death of Stratton’s mother, Lois, last year.
Lois Stratton spent her career as a state legislator unafraid to cross party lines if it meant representing her constituents.
“She would be so proud,” Stratton said of the inauguration. “She was kind of the pioneer for me. She was my strong role model, along with my grandmother and my seven aunts.”
Like many women of her time, Lois Stratton broke barriers as a wife, mother and elected official, something Stratton said she doesn’t take for granted. Harris’ inauguration was “symbolic” of women everywhere who fought for fair pay in the workplace, the right to vote and many other things, Stratton said.
“Women have fought for a long time for places of power, where they can make change, and to me that’s kind of a big endorsement that, yes, woman can do this,” Stratton said of Harris’s inauguration. “The fight was worth it.”
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