Kamala Harris Has Been Breaking Barriers for Years — 'Not Without Sacrifice, Not Without Pain'

Last fall, PEOPLE spoke with the vice presidential candidate about gender in politics, being "the first" in a room and ensuring she's not the last

Kamala Harris
California Sen. Kamala Harris (right). Photo: Maria J. Avila/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty

Editor's note: Last year, PEOPLE named California Sen. Kamala Harris as one of the Women Changing the World, along with Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren — all three of whom were then leading a historic group of female presidential candidates.

PEOPLE spoke with Harris in the fall about gender in politics, being "the first" in a room and ensuring she's not the last.

On Thursday, she was chosen as former Vice President Joe Biden's running mate. The following article was originally published last year.

California Sen. Kamala Harris says she has heard a familiar refrain as she sought higher and higher office: “It’s not your time, it’s not your turn, nobody like you has done it before. They’re not ready for this — not ready for you.”

But she did not listen.

“The optimism that I take away from that experience is that not only did I not listen, but the voters didn’t listen,” Harris told PEOPLE in the fall. "And I won."

"That's where I derive eternal optimism is the ability of the American people," she said, "to be able to see what can be, even if they've never seen it before. And I'm counting on that."

The former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general — the first Black woman to hold either position — in 2016 became the second Black woman to ever be elected to the Senate.

Two of her colleagues, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren, joined her in launching presidential bids last year and, through sheer numbers, helped expand the political conversation with their different backgrounds and platforms.

“I’m really happy that there are so many women in the race,” Harris told PEOPLE. “I think it’s really important for America to just have further evidence of the breadth and depth of what women are and what we can do.”

But Harris knows well that shattering barriers can leave cuts. "It is worth it," she said, "but it is not without sacrifice and not without pain."

2018 San Francisco Pride
Sen. Kamala Harris during the San Francisco Pride Parade in 2018. Arun Nevader/Getty

“Each woman who breaks a barrier and expands the minds of people in terms of what’s possible and what that looks like, they do our country a great service,” Harris told PEOPLE. “I certainly do think about it that way.”

She said her mom, Shyamala Gopalan, always told her to make sure that her journey was not alone.

“My mother had many expressions and one of them was, she would say, ‘Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last,' ” Harris recalled. “So with breaking those barriers, I’ve also felt a responsibility to lay a path for other people to follow.”

Harris noted that she stands on the shoulders of women in politics before her, like former Reps. Shirley Chisholm and Geraldine Ferraro.

All three of Harris, Klobuchar and Warren told PEOPLE they spent much of their time on the 2020 campaign trail interacting with young women either interested in pursuing politics or simply inspired by the politicians themselves.

Mothers and fathers alike have brought their young daughters — even months-old babies — out to meet them. Last year, Harris shared a video on Instagram giving words of encouragement to a young girl about 3 months old.

“Her eyes were so focused and I was having a conversation with her and I was telling her that she is strong and she’s smart and she’s going to be a leader and I want her to remember all these things — 'and I know you can hear me and I know you understand what I’m saying,' ” Harris told PEOPLE. “I was just telling her all the things that I want to make sure she hears from her earliest days of life to just remind her of all that she is and all that she can be.”

The many trailblazing women before Harris have yet to achieve the success she now seeks — in the White House.

“I think that there’s still a lot of work to do to help people imagine women in certain offices and being in charge of and in control of certain things,” she said last year. “But again, the first step is taking the leap to encourage people to have the examples.”

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