The Australian Women's Weekly
Kamala Harris The people’s Vice President
Kamala Harris was raised to believe in a just and equal world, even if she couldn’t see it. Juliet Rieden discovers how America’s new beacon of hope rose from segregation to the second-highest office in the land.
from the early years to her epic love story
She’s been dubbed “the female Obama” and not just because of her skin colour. There’s a purity and energy about Kamala Harris’ courage and resolve that is rare in a political landscape increasingly fuelled by divisiveness. Like Barack Obama she trained as a lawyer, and also like America’s first black President, her passion is to use the law to fight injustice wherever she finds it.
It’s a simple but powerful credo, which is why Kamala Harris is such a relatable figure. “Lawyers have a profound ability and responsibility to be a voice for the vulnerable and the voiceless,” she told her law school’s newspaper, and already this dynamic new Vice President is doing just that.
Kamala’s ethnic background may be unique in her new job, but as the daughter of immigrants she represents a great number of Americans. Add to this her gender – again unique for a VP, but reflecting more than half of the US population – and without even opening her mouth, the 56-year-old Californian is fulfilling her ideal. But while she appreciates the symbolic importance of her migrant parentage, Kamala describes herself as simply “an American” and has spoken about the frustration of politicians having to fit into gender and ethnicity boxes. “I am who I am,” she told a Washington Post reporter in 2019. “I’m good with it. You might need to figure it out, but I’m fine with it.”
As a little girl Kamala was one of thousands of black children who were part of a national desegregation experiment, bussed from their hometowns to achieve an integrated and better
education away from segregated schooling. She knew she had to fight to be seen and heard, and you don’t have to look far to see where Kamala learned that steely determination.
“My mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, was a force of nature and the greatest source of inspiration in my life,” Kamala posted on Instagram last year. “She taught my sister Maya and me the importance of hard work and to believe in our power to right what is wrong.”
Shyamala, who died aged 70 in 2009, was indeed impressive. Born in India, her father a senior civil servant, Shyamala was the oldest of four children. When she was eight India was granted independence from Britain, a topic of much discussion in her politically progressive home. “From both of my grandparents, my mother developed a keen political consciousness. She was conscious of history, conscious of struggle, conscious of inequities. She was born with a sense of justice imprinted on her soul,” writes Kamala in her autobiography, The Truths We Hold.
Shyamala graduated from the University of Delhi at 19, but she wanted more. With her father’s blessing she applied for a graduate program in Berkeley, California, and got in. The barely 155 cm (5ft 1in) Hindu girl in a sari had never been to the US before. But she was fearless. Shyamala achieved a PhD in nutrition and endocrinology, and was later acclaimed for her ground-breaking work in breast cancer research.
“My mother was expected to return to India after she completed her degree. Her parents had an arranged marriage. It was assumed my mother would follow a similar path. But fate had other plans,” Kamala explains in her memoir.
In 1962 Shyamala was at a civil rights rally where the speaker was a radical economics graduate who had recently emigrated from Jamaica. Donald Harris impressed Shyamala and he was equally smitten. They married the following year.
“Her marriage – and her decision to stay in the United States – were the
“I would take off … with the feeling I could do anything.”
ultimate acts of self-determination and love,” notes Kamala of the romanticism of her parents’ union. Kamala Devi was born the following year, and sister Maya Lakshmi two years later.
“Devi is the Hindu mother goddess. Lakshmi is the lotus goddess of wealth, beauty, and good fortune,” explains biographer Dan Morain in his new book Kamala’s Way: An American Life. “Shyamala told a Los Angeles Times reporter in 2004 that she gave her daughters names derived from Indian mythology to help preserve their cultural identity and said, ‘A culture that worships goddesses produces strong women’.” Prophetic or destined, either way Kamala and Maya fulfilled their namings, both becoming lawyers and working in politics.
At the 2020 Democratic National Convention, when Kamala accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to be Joe Biden’s running mate, she retold the story of her parents’ courting, explaining how it shaped her young mind. “They fell in love in that most American way, while marching for justice in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In the streets of Oakland and Berkeley, I got a stroller’s-eye view of people getting into what the great John Lewis [a civil rights activist who led the 1965 ‘Bloody Sunday’ march] called ‘good trouble’,” Kamala noted. “Shyamala raised my sister, Maya, and me to believe that it was up to us and every generation of Americans to keep on marching.”
Kamala remembers her early childhood as happy and carefree. “I loved the outdoors and when
I was a little girl, my father wanted me to run free … I would take off, the wind in my face, with the feeling that I could do anything.”
Kamala’s mother had a fine singing voice and their house was filled with music, gospel for Shyamala and jazz for Donald – and today music is Kamala’s soul food too. She’s also
partial to busting some moves! But when Kamala turned five, cracks started to appear in her parents’ marriage. Her father moved around, employed on short-term contracts as an academic at various universities – he was later given a permanent tenure at Stanford, the first black economics professor to hold office at the university.
Her parents were growing apart; they separated in 1969 and officially filed for divorced in 1972. While Donald remained in his daughters’ lives, Shyamala essentially became a single mum. “The final divorce judgment, dated July 23, 1973, shows Shyamala gained physical custody, but that Donald was entitled to take the girls on alternating weekends and for 60 days in the summer,” writes Morain in Kamala’s Way. Donald took the girls to Jamaica to meet their relatives, and to learn about his childhood and the different living standards in poorer nations, but it was Shyamala’s Indian culture that was in the sisters’ everyday lives.
For Shyamala, the failure of her marriage was a blow. Donald had been her first ever boyfriend and the reason she left India and her family, but she wasn’t going to let her girls suffer. “She had only two goals in life: to raise her two daughters and to end breast cancer,” says Kamala proudly.
Building her daughters’ self-esteem in a nation riven with racial discrimination was paramount. “My mother understood very well that she was raising two black daughters. She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as black girls and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women,” says Kamala.
“She’d tell us, ‘Don’t sit around and complain about things; do something.’ So I did something. I devoted my life to making real the words carved in the United States Supreme Court: Equal justice under law.”
On Sundays Kamala and Maya would go to church and on Thursday nights to The Rainbow Sign, a black cultural centre filled with arts, entertainment and fabulous food. It also played host to some of the most influential black thinkers of the day, including Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm while she was preparing to run for President and writers Alice Walker and Maya Angelou. Kamala was enthralled.
When Shyamala was passed over for a promotion at her job at Berkeley, she found a new teaching post in Canada. “My mother was offered a unique opportunity in Montreal, teaching at McGill University and conducting research at the Jewish General Hospital. It was an exciting step in advancing her career. It was not, however, an exciting opportunity for me,” writes Kamala. “I was 12 years old, and the thought of moving away from sunny California in February, in the middle of the school year, to a French-speaking foreign city covered in 12 feet of snow was distressing.”
But while she found the move challenging – especially mastering French – she also met Wanda Kagan, whose story she recalled in her 2020 campaign. When Shyamala realised Wanda was being abused at home, Wanda came to live with them.
The two girls formed a tight bond and the experience profoundly affected Kamala.
At some point in those high school years, Kamala came to the conclusion that she wanted to be a lawyer. It was a calling for the serious-minded teen who above all valued “fairness”.
She applied to Howard University in Washington DC, which historically supported the careers of black America. Kamala won a place and will never forget her first days. “I thought, ‘This is heaven!’ There were hundreds of people, and everyone looked like me.”
While at Howard Kamala interned for California Senator Alan Cranston, who coincidentally held the very seat she was elected into 32 years later. When she took her bar exam in 1989, Kamala faced her first real setback. She failed. She was devastated, especially as her peer group had all passed. But she didn’t give up, passed on her second attempt and her legal career was born.
Family was always Kamala’s touchstone, and she and sister Maya are very close. When Maya became pregnant with daughter Meena while 17 and still at high school, the Harris women pulled together. Meena shares the same birthday as Aunt Kamala and was raised with her grandma and aunt pitching in – a feisty and effective combination. “That was my world,” Meena proudly told The Times in a recent interview. She ended up studying law at Harvard; her mum was a policy advisor on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign and worked on her sister’s campaign.
In 2003 Kamala ran for District Attorney of San Francisco. In a hardfought campaign she pledged to never seek the death penalty and to prosecute three-strike offenders only in cases of violent felonies. She won 56 per cent of the vote, becoming the first person of colour elected to the office.
In 2010 Kamala ran for California Attorney General, endorsed by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, and became the first woman and person of colour to be elected to the position. In 2017, she was sworn in as a Senator from California and in 2019 began her campaign for the presidency. She eventually dropped out, but was announced as Joe Biden’s running mate in August 2020. Many feel it was Kamala who helped push the vote in the Democrats’ favour.
“She’d get up on those stages when she was campaigning without an autocue, unprompted, without any kind of speech or script, and she came across as really personable, warm, laughing and smiling and reaching out to people in the audience. There was a genuine sense of trust,” says BBC World News’ Yalda Hakim, who flew to the US to cover the election.
“She’s part of the generation that understands segregation, understands what it means to be a minority in America, understands the impact on African-Americans. I think there was a real boost to [Biden’s] ticket because of her. She offered something more humane with a sense of empathy. But she’s also tough. When we watched her grill Trump nominees in the Senate, she had a laser-eye sharp response. She’d listen, then cross-examine. She’s super clever, super sharp.”
When the votes were finally in and Kamala was elected as the 49th Vice President, she hit world headlines. “A glass ceiling had shattered; for people of colour, for immigrants, for young girls who thought, ‘She looks like me, she sounds like me and she speaks to me’,” says Yalda, who was in the crowds when the result came in. “People said, ‘This is the America that we feel we lost in the last four years.’ There was this great sense of hope and relief.”
Kamala’s victory speech was all her supporters hoped for and more. Vice President Kamala Harris had arrived. “I’m thinking about [my mother] and about the generations of women – black women, Asian, white, Latina and Native American women throughout our nation’s history who have paved the way for this moment tonight,” she said. “Women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality, liberty, and justice for all, including the black women, who are too often overlooked, but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy. What a testament it is to Joe’s character that he had the audacity to break one of the most substantial barriers that exists in our country and select a woman as his Vice President. But while I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”
Finding ‘the one’: Kamala Harris talks about falling in love, page 56.