What You Should Know About Shyamala Gopalan Harris — The Woman Who Raised the First Female Vice President
When 19-year-old Shyamala Gopalan immigrated to the United States in 1958, she could never have known the impact that choice would have on American history. How could she have known her decision would forever change the face of American politics? Gopalan would go on to raise the first female vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris.
"I keep thinking about that 25-year-old Indian woman — all of 5 feet tall — who gave birth to me at Kaiser Hospital in Oakland, California. On that day, she probably could have never imagined that I would be standing before you now speaking these words: I accept your nomination for vice president of the United States of America." —Kamala Harris, formally accepting the nomination for vice president of the United States
In August 2020, Maya Harris, a lawyer and political commentator and Kamala’s younger sister, tweeted, “You can’t know who Kamala Harris is without knowing who our mother was.” Kamala herself has referred to her mother as a “force of nature and the greatest source of inspiration in my life” as well as “the reason for everything.” So, who exactly was Shyamala Gopalan?
Back in 1958, young Shyamala, to her parents’ surprise, decided to attend UC Berkeley’s nutrition and endocrinology master’s program. This was after already earning her BS in Home Science at Lady Irwin College in Delhi. Moving from her native India to the United States back in 1958 would not have been an easy feat, but the gifted teenager was determined.
Shyamala would go on to receive her Ph.D. in nutrition and endocrinology from UC Berkeley in 1964. As her parents did not have access to a phone, Shyamala relied on aerograms, a type of airmail, to communicate with them while she completed her studies. These letters would typically take two weeks or more to arrive, making the communication between the family difficult. Still, they remained close.
"My mother always use[d] to say, ‘Don’t just sit around and complain about things. Do something."
In 1962, while still completing her Ph.D., Shyamala attended a meeting of UC Berkeley’s Afro American Association. The civil rights protest would turn out to be an important day for the young activist. It was there that Shyamala met Donald Harris, an economics graduate student, fellow civil rights’ activist, and the speaker for the day. The two immigrant students were both passionately involved in the civil rights movement. Donald, a native of Jamaica, and Shyamala soon struck up a relationship. “That’s how they met — as students, in the streets of Oakland, marching and shouting for this thing called justice, in a struggle that continues to this day,” Kamala Harris said of their first encounter.
In a departure from tradition, despite the fact that Shyamala had never even introduced Donald to her parents, the couple married the next year, in 1963. Though they divorced in the early 1970s, the marriage produced two daughters, Kamala and Maya. “My parents would bring me to protests — strapped tightly in my stroller,” Harris recalls.
With her Ph.D. under her belt, Shyamala threw herself into breast cancer research and found a home in UC Berkeley’s Department of Zoology and Cancer Research Lab. She also spent time as a cancer researcher at both the University of Wisconsin and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as in Italy and France. Sixteen years of her illustrious career were spent at the Lady Davis Institute for Medical Research and at McGill University Faculty of Medicine in Montreal, where she received tenure. Her two daughters lived with her in Canada, from when Kamala was 12 until she graduated from high school.
“My mother always use[d] to say, ‘Don’t just sit around and complain about things. Do something.’” –Kamala Harris
Though Shyamala’s career may be overshadowed by that of her accomplished daughter Kamala, her own achievements are quite impressive. The biomedical scientist served as a peer reviewer for the National Institutes of Health, a site visit team member for the Federal Advisory Committee, and even on the President’s Special Commission on Breast Cancer. The last 10 years of her research career were spent in the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
"Kamala, well, you may be the first to do many things — make sure you're not the last."
In addition, Dr. Gopalan’s work advancing breast cancer research has been extremely influential. Her research into the isolation and characterization of the progesterone receptor gene in mice advanced research surrounding the hormone-responsiveness of mammary tissue. In short, Shyamala’s work created great advancements in what scientists now know about the hormones related to breast cancer.
Throughout their marriage and even after, both Shyamala and Donald felt it was important to bring their daughters to their home countries. Kamala and Maya spent time in India and Jamaica, learning about their roots. They also spent some time in Zambia during the late 1960s when Shyamala’s father, their grandfather, was staying in the newly independent country on an advisory assignment. However, Shyamala raised Kamala and Maya on her own as a single mother for the most part.
Though often remembered and admired for her brilliant mind, Shyamala was also known for her kind heart. Of her mother, Kamala Harris has famously said, "I was raised by a mother who said that to me all the time: 'Kamala, well, you may be the first to do many things — make sure you're not the last.’" Hearing that, it should come as no surprise that Dr. Gopalan spent hours mentoring dozens of students in her labs throughout the years, taking a special interest in students of color and those who were the first in their families to pursue a science career. According to her obituary, this mentorship “often stretched beyond the lab to encompass lessons in life. Whether helping a student negotiate the UC bureaucracy, find an affordable apartment, or enjoy a home-cooked meal, Shyamala was there.” She also counseled women in the Black community on breast cancer prevention and treatment.
When her daughter Kamala was a teenager, one of Kamala’s friends confided in her that she had been molested by her stepfather, leading Kamala to go to her mother for help. Shyamala responded by moving the teen into their home for their senior year of high school and helping her figure out how to get the support she needed to be independent from her family.
"From both 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."
Unsurprisingly, Shyamala also encouraged her daughters to get involved in political activism. In Kamala Harris’ 2019 autobiography, The Truths We Hold, the former senator wrote, “My mother had been raised in a household where political activism and civic leadership came naturally. From both 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.”
Tragically, Shyamala Gopalan would not live to see her daughter become the first female, Black, and South Asian vice president of the United States. Dr. Gopalan succumbed to colon cancer on February 11, 2009. Kamala traveled to Chennai, India, to scatter her mother’s ashes into the Indian Ocean.
In a 2018 op-ed in The New York Times, then-senator Harris wrote of her mother, “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 health care for us all. There is no title or honor on earth I’ll treasure more than to say I am Shyamala Gopalan Harris’s daughter. As I continue the battle for a better health care system, I do so in her name."
As the daughter of two immigrants from two different cultural backgrounds and as a woman, Kamala Harris faced an uphill battle to get to the vice presidency. It should come as no surprise that the woman who raised her would be intelligent, compassionate, and formidable.
As the first-generation daughter of an Indian immigrant myself, I can’t help but feel a connection to Dr. Gopalan’s story. Shyamala managed to immigrate to the United States at the age of 19 in 1958, an ethnic minority during a time of racial turmoil, a young woman in science during a time when that was a rarity. When she divorced her husband in the 1970s, divorce was still taboo for an Indian woman and still is in many places today. But Shyamala was a trailblazer. And that trail led right to the White House.