CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Kamala Harris knows that hearing the word is surprising, and she knows it’s surprising that it’s surprising.
“This is the point,” she told BuzzFeed News here late last month.
It’s really just a pronoun. Earlier that day, in Waterloo, the room broke into shouts of recognition, and then applause, as she spoke it.
“The commander in chief of the United States of America has as one of her most important responsibilities the responsibility of keeping our nation secure,” Harris said in a speech.
She said it at several stops on her swing through Iowa. At other times, there was just a murmur in the crowd. But the gesture almost never slipped by unnoticed.
Using female pronouns to talk about the president, Harris said in an interview, is a small, simple piece of a much bigger goal: convincing Democratic voters to nominate a black woman to take on Donald Trump.
“I’m articulating it more than I have before, but I've always been very aware that for these jobs, we're asking people to see what they’ve not seen before,” Harris said.
It’s necessary, Harris said, “especially in light of the whole discussion about ‘electability,’ which drives me bananas. It’s important for people to understand that they have to really check how they're thinking about these things. But we have to help along the way, and part of it is about how we use language.”
“Electability” has been dogging Harris and other Democratic candidates since the beginning of their campaigns. The idea often hovers at the forefront of voters’ minds — an overarching focus on finding a candidate who can defeat Trump, and, at times, a worry that women and minority candidates might not be able to do it.
Facing falling poll numbers and fundraising struggles, Harris’s campaign refocused in recent weeks on Iowa, the country’s first caucus state. Barack Obama’s victory in Iowa in 2008 is widely credited with convincing voters, especially black voters, of his electability, a question he’d been facing because of his race and inexperience.
Harris is hoping for the same: If she can convince Iowans she’s electable, the rest of the country might follow. That starts, she thinks, with encouraging them to see a black woman as the commander in chief.
Harris can’t remember the first time she started using "she"/"her" pronouns to talk about people in power, though she’s been doing it throughout her Senate career. When she was elected as California’s first woman attorney general in 2010, she said, she noticed gender bias literally written into the law — statutes referring to the attorney general as “he/his.”
“As a fun exercise, we found them and had them changed,” she said.
Lindsey Squire, 14, came to see Harris in Waterloo with her mother and grandmother. She noticed, she said, when Harris spoke about the president as a woman.
“I loved that. It was great,” Squire said.
“Yeah, I think it’s about time we have a woman in there,” her grandmother, Karen Curtis, agreed.
Karen Eckhoff, a retired electrician in Waterloo, called Harris’s choice of pronouns “perfect.”
“It needs to be that. Why shouldn’t the rhetoric be ‘she’? Why shouldn’t the president be ‘she’?”
Not much about running as a black woman surprises Harris, who was the first black woman elected to each of the offices she’s held. But, she said, the drumbeat of electability questions facing certain Democratic candidates has caught her off guard.
“I am actually surprised about this whole electability conversation,” she said. “I shouldn't be, because it’s not new to me. But I have to tell you, I have sometimes said to my team, is this really a thing? Like I know it is, but is it really a thing?”
Harris has had no choice but to deal with the “thing”: She has increasingly been injecting the conversation about “electability” directly into her stump speech, condemning narrow definitions that focus on white voters and encourage candidates, she often says, to speak differently to different audiences.
Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, has not always spoken directly about her own identity. When she announced her presidential run on Martin Luther King Day, a reporter asked Harris: “You’re an African American woman, but you are also Indian American. How do you describe yourself?”
“How do I describe myself? I describe myself as an American,” Harris answered.
But she has tried to make sure voters don’t see her identity as limiting. In a landmark speech last year, she condemned the label of “identity politics,” saying it was used to dismiss the concerns of women, people of color, and LGBT people. In Detroit in May, she told the NAACP that pundits talking about electability “put the Midwest in a simplistic box and a narrow narrative. And too often their definition of the Midwest leaves people out.”
“The spirit, the theme, behind it is not a new one for me,” Harris told BuzzFeed News in Iowa. “Which is challenging people about the limitations and the simplistic categories that even Democrats, even progressive Democrats, relegate people to.”
Harris’s supporters see gender and racial bias in how she is perceived by some voters and covered by the media, especially relative to white candidates and men.
In Cedar Rapids, at a forum to discuss issues faced by LGBTQ Americans, Harris and Elizabeth Warren were both asked by the same moderator, the columnist Lyz Lenz, about changing their position on providing gender affirmation surgery to transgender inmates. Lenz praised Warren for her “great” shift and asked how she would get other Americans to change their ideas about transgender people.
But she asked Harris: “With this history, the question is, how can trans people trust you will advocate for them and not just enforce discriminatory laws?” The stark difference in the exchanges prompted accusations of racial bias.
There is an unprecedented number of Democratic women running for president, and Harris is not the only one to recognize her role in shifting peoples’ perceptions. Warren has gone viral for the “pinky promise” she makes with young girls in her photo lines at campaign events, telling them “I’m running for president because that’s what girls do.”
Male candidates have not always made the same efforts, though many have said they would pick a woman vice president.
“They could be doing everything that we’re all doing,” Harris pointed out of the men in the race.
What else would Harris want to see male candidates doing to change the way people view the presidency?
“I'd like to see them endorse me for president,” Harris said, tipping her head back as she laughed. “That would get the job done.”