I’m USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you’d like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.
Many years after elementary school, “Mrs. Frances Wilson attended my law school graduation,” Harris said, remembering with a smile. “She was, like every teacher I’ve known, invested, dedicated, convinced me and all of her students that we could be and do anything.”
Next she spoke about Regina Shelton, who took care of Harris and her little sister when their mother, a scientist and prominent breast cancer researcher, was at work. Her parents divorced when she was 7.
“My mother worked long days and she worked weekends often, and my sister and I would walk down (to) Miss Shelton’s house. And she was our second mother. She took care of us.”
National columnist Suzette Hackney and I were interviewing Harris to kick off USA TODAY’s Women of the Year project, where we’ll recognize and celebrate the achievements and contributions of American women.
Oscar, Tony, Emmy and Grammy winner Rita Moreno, who loved to sing and dance since she was a girl, remembers a New York dance teacher who nurtured her natural talent. “That’s where it all began,” she said.
Civil rights advocate Ruby Bridges talks lovingly of Barbara Henry, her first-grade teacher in 1960, the year she integrated William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. She first met Henry in an empty classroom; other families wouldn’t let their children learn next to her. The school would be integrated, but Bridges would be taught in a class of one.
“Every time I got inside of the school building and into my classroom, this white woman greeted me who showed me her heart,” Bridges said. “She was amazing. She made school fun. I knew that she cared about me, and I felt safe and I couldn’t wait to get to school. I knew that if I just got past the mob, inside of that classroom, I just knew that I was going to have a good day.”
More than 2.5 million women have left the workforce, compared with 1.8 million men, since January 2020, many because of lack of child care when schools closed, others because they did not have the flexibility to take care of their own loved ones.
Harris said we need to “value the dignity” of that work.
“When we look at the jobs that women are performing, in particular in lower-wage positions, these are the jobs that invariably are about caring for other human beings. And we, as a society, should value that,” she said.
“It’s an incredible gift that they give us as a society, but we have sadly diminished our recognition of its value and the reflection of our diminishing appreciation of its value is that we’re not paying people enough money to do the work that they’re doing.”
During the pandemic, we’ve seen who is essential, the jobs needed to keep our lives and communities going. The grocery store workers, social workers, pharmacy technicians, child care providers, health care workers. The teachers.
During our interview, Harris mentioned how just this week, she met with the superintendent of the Duval County School District in Florida.
Vice President Kamala Harris embraces role of representing American women
Staff Video, USA TODAY
“She was describing how teachers and educators have been going to the bus stops where the school bus normally went to make sure they were there to bring food to the kids who are hungry, who are really facing so many challenges,” Harris said.
“She described how they have what they call blessings in a backpack and how educators, in schools that are open, have been filling the kids’ backpacks on Friday afternoon, knowing that they’re going to go home and probably over the weekend not have any food.
“Teachers, just the heroes among us.”
When women are pushed out of the workforce, it impacts far more than just the women themselves.
Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free experience or electronic newspaper replica here.