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.

Our research into Indian women professionals in the US challenges prevailing discourses about migrant women, who are often portrayed as either family migrants, following in the paths of men, or as desperate victims taking refuge in the US. Rarely are they seen as agents of change themselves. Even in stories of immigrant success, which is common among Indians in the US, men are typically the heroes. The story of Indian women is often relegated to the household and they are viewed as immigrants who, after following their husbands to their adopted country, focus on raising their children.

However, our research shows that in the last decade, nearly half the Indian women who moved to the US relied on work – not family sponsors – as the path to immigration. In other words, close to 50% of recent women immigrants made independent journeys to the US, in search of professional opportunities, much like Shyamala Gopalan.

Shyamala Gopalan with a young Kamala Harris. Photo credit: Twitter.com/KamalaHarris

In the footsteps of pioneers

For the most part, Indians came to the US after the passing of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which explicitly challenged earlier race-based immigration quotas. This made Gopalan, who arrived in 1958, part of a group of pioneering women who presaged the wave of immigrant professionals from India.

Even before Gopalan, there had been trailblazers. In the late 19th century, a steady stream of Indian women – including early feminist scholar Pandita Ramabai and medical student Gurubhai Karmarkar – had made independent journeys to the US. Their voyages were not only instrumental in paving the way for successive generations of migrants, but they also contributed to the expansion of ideas about women’s roles and feminism in the US. Ramabai, for example, questioned the restrictive notions of femininity and focus on materialism that constrained American women even as she exchanged ideas on feminism with the leaders of the early American women’s movement. Apart from this, she recognised the central fissures of racial discrimination in her writings about the US.

Following in Ramabai’s footsteps were immigrant women like Gopalan, who helped challenge gender stereotypes in both India and the US. The women we interviewed travelled on their own to the US to live, study and work. While they viewed their journeys as an empowered choice that allowed them to deviate from gendered expectations in India, they also had stories to tell about the gendered and racialised hierarchies in the American workplace. Many Indian women professionals noted that, in the US, they often face what one respondent called the “discrimination of assumptions”. These include the assumptions, also common to other race-gender minorities in the US, that Indian women are meek and unable or unwilling to lead, and that they have a secondary interest in their careers.

Racial disparities

Much like Gopalan, Indian immigrant women have been consistently making dents in the professional ceilings such assumptions create, and in the process expanding the scope and understanding of women’s work and ambition in the US. In fact, research shows that, like Indian immigrants, women from others migrant groups tend to outpace native-born women when it comes to participating in the paid labour force. Yet migrant women and their contributions are largely missing from popular narratives, which would rather emphasise their victimhood.

Decades after Ramabai’s writings appeared, several women in our interviews recognised the racial fissures in America. They noted the privileged position of Indian immigrant women in comparison to African American women and other women of colour. This disparity stems from the fact that, like Gopalan, many independent Indian immigrants belong to middle-class or wealthy upper-caste families, whose primary path for immigration has been their education. It is easy to see, then, the journeys of Indian immigrant women as stories of well-to-do, upper-caste privilege, which, indeed, they are. But they are also something else: they are stories of how the choice to immigrate also leads to expanded and self-critical worldviews. Their journeys illustrate the sizeable, and under-recognised, contributions that immigrant women have made as active agents of progress.

As Kamala Harris, the daughter of two immigrants, makes history as the first Black and Asian woman to be a major party’s vice-presidential candidate, it is time to recognise the coalitions and support networks that make successes like hers possible.

Ramya Vijaya is Professor of Economics at Stockton University. Bidisha Biswas is Professor of Political Science at Western Washington University.