More than a century after women fiercely fought for the right to vote, Kamala Harris—the first woman, and the first woman of colour to hold the office of vice president in the U.S.—stood tall and proud as she gave a powerful victory speech.
While Harris’ win for the Democrats is definitive in itself, the victory is historic due to the fact that she is the first Black and South Asian woman to hold the position. She is also the highest ranking female elected official in U.S. history. In a rousing speech on Saturday night, Harris—dressed in suffragette white—accepted her place in history alongside honouring the women who she said “paved the way for this moment tonight.” The vice president-elect also said a powerful sentence which is sure to go down in history: “While I will be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last,” she said. “Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”
This sentence resonated with a teenager more than 13,000 kms away. “This is an inspiration to all of us,” 18-year-old Shastika Jagadambal, who hails from Harris’ ancestral village near the southern Indian city of Chennai, told VICE. “Many women will come out of their cocoon now and liberate the world.”
Jagadambal isn’t the only one feeling the waves of change.
For Aikum Bhatti, a 26-year-old entrepreneur from the northern Indian state of Punjab, Harris’ story, struggles and grit have served as a source of encouragement for business women like herself.
In 2015 and 2016, Indian women owned a little over 20 percent of all micro, small and medium businesses across the country, while men accounted for the overwhelming 80 percent of the industry.
“Before she was running as Vice President, she was also a strong candidate for presidency, and learning about her tough tenure as the attorney general of California has been incredible,” Bhatti, the co-founder of a fashion startup called Entrepret, told VICE. “I feel like I can relate to her, and when someone you can relate to achieves something at this scale, you feel like you can too.” For Bhatti, Harris’ close connection to her mother, whom she credits as a “source of inspiration”, has also been a relatable factor.
Kamala Harris’ mother, Shyamala Gopalan, immigrated from India to the U.S. when she was 19, and soon found her calling as a reputed cancer researcher. She married Jamaican immigrant Donald J Harris in 1963, but divorced him after a decade, raising Kamala and her sister Maya, on her own.
“When she came here from India, at the age of 19, she maybe didn’t quite imagine this moment. But she believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible,” Harris said about her mother’s journey in her victory speech. Women in India don’t have great South Asian feminist role models in politics to look up to. But Harris—with her connection to the country where her beloved maternal grandfather was from—shakes that up.
“Kamala Harris grew up poor and was raised in a feminist, single mom household,” said Bhatti. “This is going to be such a strong example for all the little children, not just girls, who dream of breaking through societal barriers.”
For many young women, Harris’ historic triumph sends the message that anything is possible, no matter where you come from. But for many, her election also comes with a deep sigh of relief. “She has challenged everything that the previous presidency stood for,” Bhatti pointed out.
This feeling of overwhelming relief is especially heartwarming for young South Asians who’ve immigrated to the U.S. to pursue their education and career. “The pandemic proved that female leaders are just as efficient as their male counterparts, if not more, and I hope that this is just one more step towards equality,” Shrishti Matthew, a 22-year-old graduate student from Harris’ hometown who is currently in New York, told VICE. For Matthew, seeing an immigrant’s daughter hold this position of power has made her feel more confident about trying to achieve a better future in a foreign country. While she acknowledges the privilege Harris might’ve had to get to her position, she is also deeply inspired by the fact that a woman of colour now holds an office known for housing straight, white men. “I hope that Harris’ election as a woman and person of colour will put us onto a path to solve issues like the wage gap, reproductive rights, and in general feel more respected as women,” she said.
Though Harris’ ascendancy and her recent moving speech have inspired women in South Asia who finally have a female role model in politics to look up to, she’s of course inspiring women and people of colour everywhere—some of whom have said they feel represented in national politics for the first time.
Even while some women find themselves at odds with some of Harris’ centre-left politics, they also acknowledge that her victory is for the greater good.
“I may or may not agree with all her views, but at least she brings a fresh perspective—a perspective that isn’t fuelled by testosterone,” Sampriya Bhandare, a 24-year-old visual designer from Goa, India, told VICE. Like many other South Asian women, Bhandare feels inspired to watch someone from a family of immigrants create opportunities for themselves. “She put South Asian women on the map and that makes it even more special for me.”
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