Kamala Harris’ nomination as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate has spurred another cultural reckoning in the United States. Reams and gigabytes are being spent examining her multicultural identity and discussing women’s ambition. But while Harris’ story is undeniably distinctive, it is her mother’s story that foregrounds ambition among a group that is seldom recognised as having any agency – immigrant women.
Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was born in India in 1938 and immigrated to the US in 1958. After earning a master’s degree, she completed a doctorate in nutrition and built a career as a breast cancer researcher. Her journey, arduous and successful, is part of a long history of independent immigrant women who have contributed substantial labour and intellectual resources to the economy and to the women’s movement in the US.