In her address at the Democratic National Convention last night, Sen. Kamala Harris made it clear that her historic vice presidential nomination wouldn’t have been possible without a large, supportive extended family, especially the women in it who have helped her become who she is. Her speech underscored a major theme of the night — the roles women play in supporting each other — that was also reflected in other speeches, including those of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Hillary Clinton.
“That I am here tonight is a testament to the dedication of generations before me,” Harris began, after being introduced by three of her closest family members: her sister Maya Harris, her niece Meena Harris, and her stepdaughter Ella Emhoff.
DNC Night 3 was also all about mothers — both how we honor them and how, as a society, we don’t value them nearly as much as we should. Harris spotlighted her late mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris, an immigrant who grew up in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu and moved to the U.S. to pursue her dream of finding a cancer cure. She raised her two daughters, Kamala and Maya, alone after splitting from her husband Donald Harris when Kamala was 5. Harris’ speech drew a connection between her family’s history and her own work for justice in a way that hadn’t been done on a national stage before. As a Black and South Asian woman, she also painted the intergenerational history of her family’s activism in a way that white women speaking on a major political stage historically have not.
“My mother instilled in my sister, Maya, and me the values that would chart the course of our lives,” Harris said. “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.”
“She taught us to be conscious and compassionate about the struggles of all people,” Harris continued. “To believe public service is a noble cause and the fight for justice is a shared responsibility. That led me to become a lawyer, a District Attorney, Attorney General, and a United States Senator.”
In a departure from other politicians, Harris acknowledged that family is a broader concept than Western nuclear family ideals will have women believe, honoring an expansive network both born and chosen, including her Howard University classmates and Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters. “Family is my uncles, my aunts — my chitthis,” Harris said, using the Tamil word for maternal aunt. Many South Asian women said this resonated with them, as it let them see themselves represented onstage. “Family is my husband Doug, who I met on a blind date set up by my best friend. Family is our beautiful children, Cole and Ella, who as you just heard, call me Momala. Family is my sister. Family is my best friend, my nieces, and my godchildren. Family is Mrs. Shelton — my second mother who lived two doors down and helped raise me.”
Both my (also Tamil American) roommate and I started crying when Kamala said “chithi” and didn’t stop for the rest of her speech. So proud to be the daughter of immigrants. So incredibly excited to vote for @KamalaHarris and @JoeBiden in November #DemConvention2020
— Vedika Gopal (@vedika_gopal) August 20, 2020
Chittis for America!!!!!
— Meena Harris (@meenaharris) August 20, 2020
I literally have tears in my eyes. @KamalaHarris just said “chithis” which means auntie. My heart is so full right now
— Padma Lakshmi (@PadmaLakshmi) August 20, 2020
Harris wasn’t the only speaker last night to cite her family as a core source of support. Sen. Elizabeth Warren told the story of her aunt Bee, who stepped in to help take care of her children when Warren was juggling a full-time teaching job and childcare in Texas. It’s a story that she often told on the campaign trail during her presidential run to underscore the need for her universal childcare policy, a core part of her platform.
“I had tried holding it all together, but without reliable childcare, working was nearly impossible,” Warren said, speaking from an early-childhood education center with colorful blocks spelling out “BLM” behind her that caught many people’s eye. “And when I told Aunt Bee I was going to quit my job, I thought my heart would break. Then she said the words that changed my life, ‘I can’t get there tomorrow, but I’ll come on Thursday.'” While her Aunt Bee stayed for 16 years, Warren acknowledged that “if you have a baby and don’t have an Aunt Bee, you’re on your own.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, women, particularly women of color, have been disproportionately affected by the childcare crisis: One in five childcare jobs has vanished since February, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Warren, who has also introduced universal child care legislation in Congress, pointed out that “childcare was already hard to find before the pandemic.” And now, parents are making the difficult choice of whether to send their children back to school before it’s safe while having few childcare options. Warren used her speech as an opportunity to highlight Joe Biden’s plan for childcare (“I love a good plan”), which is very similar to her own; it focuses on free preschool and support for childcare workers. “It’s time to recognize that childcare is part of the basic infrastructure of this nation — it’s infrastructure for families,” she said.
In her speech, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reminisced about her mother Dorothy Rodham, about whom she once wrote, “No one had a bigger influence on my life or did more to shape the person I became.” “Everyone has a story about Joe’s thoughtfulness and empathy,” she said, citing her longtime friendship with Biden. “I remember him calling after my mother, Dorothy, died. We talked about being raised by strong, no-nonsense women.” But it was the symbolism before Clinton’s speech that really spoke to the night’s chief theme: We were treated to a long montage called Women’s Suffrage to Women’s March, full of homages to women activists and politicians — women who built on each other’s work to achieve progress.
It was a night that celebrated women, but also one that reminded us where society has failed women, such as during a segment on domestic violence that marked the first time this issue had been recognized at length during a convention. It was also a reminder that while women often protect one another, the system fails us. Because, yes, aunts can step in when you need them, but women should not have to rely on the kindness of their family members for childcare. At some point, it’s time for our lawmakers to step in. Like Harris’ mother said, life only matters when we look beyond ourselves. “My mother taught me that service to others gives life purpose and meaning,” Harris said.
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