Asking Students to Measure Change through the Lens of the Kamala Harris's Historic Election

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The first woman elected vice president, Kamala Harris, is also the first person of Indian descent and the first African-American elected to the position. Her husband, Doug Emhoff, will be the first “second gentleman.” The fact that this historic moment meets us in the year of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment provides a rare opportunity to allow our students to look at the evolution of politics and gender roles over the period of exactly a century.


One of the simplest but most memorable lessons a history professor taught me during my undergraduate years was not to assume that change in the face of a tumultuous event would be permanent. Case in point: white women and black Americans saw significant gains in wages during World War I. When the war ended, however, they found themselves relegated once again to low-paying service jobs. Change, therefore, is a gradual process. Women were able to vote in 1920 but it would be many more years until they were respected as a voting block. There is still no Equal Rights Amendment and the regulation of women’s bodies is a consistent topic of debate in national elections. 


In the shadow of the 2020 election, for this week’s short writing assignment, I’m asking students in my US Women’s History and Black History classes to identify the specific changes that they believe led us to this historic moment. Here is my assignment:


Think about the concepts of historical cause and effect: identify three moments in our nation’s history that, in your opinion, had to happen for a bi-racial woman to be elected vice president of the United States. In other words, without these three moments/events the historic change brought by last week’s election could not have happened. For each moment/event that is identified, explain briefly how it contributed to Harris’s election. (200-300 words)


I’m *hoping* that my students will have a difficult time narrowing down the influential factors to three. For this assignment, however, I do not intend for there to be right or wrong answers. Instead, I want them to think about the continuum of change and to see Harris’s election as a step in the process of development that has occurred as our comparatively young nation continues to mature. I look forward to sharing the students’ perspectives in a future blog. 


How are you working with students to understand the historical significance of this election year? Please share.  

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.