Kamala Harris's Mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, Inspired Her To Pursue Politics

Savannah Walsh
·8-min read
Kamala Harris's Mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, Inspired Her To Pursue Politics
Kamala Harris's Mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, Inspired Her To Pursue Politics


"While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last." Those were the words from Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will stay with women everywhere long after her historic November 8 acceptance speech. But it was her tribute to another female figure—her late mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris—that hinted at Harris's own political journey:

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, and so I am thinking about her and about the generations of women, Black women, Asian, white, Latina, Native American women who throughout our nation's history have paved the way for this moment tonight. Women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality and liberty and justice for all, including the Black women who are often, too often, overlooked but so often prove they are the backbone of our democracy.

It was far from the first time Harris has spoken at a podium about her mother, who passed away from colon cancer in 2009. The Tamil Indian-American cancer researcher and civil rights activist inspired Harris's role as "Momala" to Cole and Ella, her stepchildren with husband Doug Emhoff. Gopalan also imbued her daughter with the passion that got her elected to attorney general, then senator, before she made history as the first female, first Black, and first Indian American to be elected Vice President of the United States.

Ahead, a look back at Gopalan's life and her influence on Harris's own journey.

Gopalan emigrated to the U.S. from India for a doctorate degree.

Born in Chennai India, Gopalan left her home country at age 19 after graduating from the University of Delhi with a degree in science. While earning her PhD in nutrition and endocrinology from UC Berkeley, she met Donald Harris, who had similarly immigrated to the U.S. from Jamaica for a doctorate. They first saw each other at a civil rights protest and married in 1963 before welcoming two daughters (Kamala in 1964 and Maya in 1967). While the couple separated in 1971, their involvement in political causes inspired both of their children.

"When I was a young girl visiting my grandparents in India, I’d join my grandfather and his buddies on their morning walk along the beach as they would talk about the importance of fighting for democracy and civil rights," Harris wrote on Instagram last September. "Those walks made me who I am today." Donald Harris, 82, is an economics professor at Stanford University but has mostly stayed out of the political spotlight.

She spent decades as a civil rights activist.

It's clear that Harris's childhood has stayed with her. During the 2020 Democratic National Convention, she said her parents "fell in love in that most American way—while marching together for justice in the civil rights movement of the 1960s." She also recalled meeting Martin Luther King Jr. when he came to speak to students at Berkeley in 1967.

In an October cover story interview with ELLE, Harris shared an anecdote from attending protests as a kid:

At some point, she fell from the stroller (few safety regulations existed for children’s equipment back then), and the adults, caught up in the rapture of protest, just kept on marching. By the time they noticed little Kamala was gone and doubled back, she was understandably upset. "My mother tells the story about how I'm fussing," Harris says, "and she's like, 'Baby, what do you want? What do you need?' And I just looked at her and I said, 'Fweedom.'"

In her 2019 memoir, The Truths We Told, Harris wrote that Gopalan had "developed a keen political consciousness" due to her civic upbringing in India. Harris continued, "She was conscious of history, conscious of struggle, conscious of inequities. She was born with a sense of justice imprinted on her soul."

She was a dedicated breast cancer researcher.

After receiving her PhD at Berkeley, Gopalan stayed at the college as a breast cancer researcher before bringing her expertise to the University of Illinois and the University of Wisconsin. Then, Gopalan moved her daughters to McGill University in Montreal, where she received tenure. Harris attended school in Canada from age 12 to the end of high school.

Harris wrote in The Truths We Hold that finding a cure for cancer was of paramount importance in Gopalan's life:

My mother was barely five foot one, but I felt like she was six foot two. She was smart and tough and fierce and protective. She was generous, loyal, and funny. She had only two goals in life: To raise her two daughters and to end breast cancer. She pushed us hard and with high expectations as she nurtured us. And all the while, she made Maya and me feel special, like we could do anything we wanted to if we put in the work.

Sadly, Gopalan lost her own fight with colon cancer in 2009, but not before contributing vital research to the study of breast cancer. "Harris’s work in isolating and characterizing the progesterone receptor gene transformed the medical establishment’s understanding of the hormone-responsiveness of breast tissue," the Breast Cancer Action's obituary of Gopalan noted. "Her discovery sparked many advances regarding the role of progesterone and its cellular receptor in breast biology and cancer. She was innovative in her work, generous in her commitments, and loyal to the causes in which she believed."

Gopalan is often invoked in Harris's speeches.

Maya Harris, Kamala's younger sister, once tweeted, “You can’t know who Kamala Harris is without knowing who our mother was.” In fact, Harris often mentions her mother on some of the largest stages in the world.

At the 2020 virtual DNC, Harris said of Gopalan:

When I was 5, my parents split and my mother raised us mostly on her own. Like so many mothers, she worked around the clock to make it work—packing lunches before we woke up— and paying bills after we went to bed. Helping us with homework at the kitchen table—and shuttling us to church for choir practice. She made it look easy, though I know it never was. My mother instilled in my sister, Maya, and me the values that would chart the course of our lives. She raised us to be proud, strong Black women. And she raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage. She taught us to put family first—the family you're born into and the family you choose.

In her first speech after being announced as Joe Biden's running mate, Harris also paid tribute to her late mother:

My mother, Shyamala, raised my sister, Maya, and me to believe that it was up to us and every generation of Americans to keep on marching. 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.

Gopalan directly inspired Harris's political aspirations.

If it wasn't already evident from her speeches, the VP-elect has given Gopalan complete credit for her history-making career. On Instagram, the Harris often writes of her mother's impact: "She was the kind of parent who if you came home complaining about something, she’d say 'Well what are you gonna do about it?'" Harris posted on Instagram in July 2019. "So I decided to run for President of the United States."

Earlier that year, Harris tweeted that Gopalan had been her "first campaign staffer" and expressed desire for her mother to witness her presidential campaign. "Thinking of my mother today. She was smart, fierce, and my first campaign staffer—and I dearly wish she was here with us for this moment. Her spirit still drives me to fight for our values."

Despite Harris's monumental achievements, she wrote in a 2018 New York Times op-ed that being known as Gopalan's daughter was her most important accomplishment. "And though I miss her every day, I carry her with me wherever I go. I think of the battles she fought, the values she taught me, her commitment to improve healthcare for us all," Harris noted. "There is no title or honor on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’s daughter."

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