13 Trailblazing Facts About Kamala Harris

Senator Kamala Harris speaking at Howard University in January 2019 after announcing her candidacy for president
Senator Kamala Harris speaking at Howard University in January 2019 after announcing her candidacy for president
Al Drago/Getty Images

Kamala Harris, who announced her entry into the 2020 presidential race on January 21, 2019, is known as a trailblazer. When she was first sworn in as a Democratic senator from California in 2017, she became only the second African-American woman to serve in the Senate, as well as the first-ever person of South Asian descent to serve. But being a pioneer isn’t new for her. The child of immigrants from Jamaica and India, Harris was also the first woman elected as District Attorney of San Francisco and the first woman, the first African-American, and the first person of South Asian descent to become Attorney General of California. Those are just a few of her inspiring firsts—read on for more facts about Harris.

1. Her name is just divine.

Her full name is Kamala (pronounced “comma-la”) Devi Harris. Her mother, Shyamala, a Hindu, gave her daughters names taken from Hindu mythology in part to connect her children to their heritage. “A culture that worships goddesses produces strong women,” Shyamala told the Los Angeles Times in 2004.

Kamalā is one of many Sanskrit words meaning lotus, as well as a name for Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of wealth and good fortune. Harris’s middle name, Devi, is a Sanskrit word used within Hinduism as the general term for a goddess. (Shyamala named her second daughter Maya Lakshmi, continuing the goddess trend.)

2. She comes from an impressive and international family.

Kamala Harris in 2010 after winning the nomination for Attorney General
Kamala Harris in 2010 after winning the nomination for Attorney General
Steve Rhodes, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kamala Harris was born in Oakland, California to two ambitious graduate students—both immigrants. Her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, was raised in southern India and completed her undergraduate education at the University of Delhi at just 19, at which point she came to the U.S. to pursue a doctorate in endocrinology at the University of California, Berkeley. Shyamala was supposed to complete her studies and then return to India for an arranged marriage, but instead, she became active in the American civil rights movement. There she met Donald Harris, a Jamaican native who also came to the United States as a young adult to pursue doctoral work at Berkeley in economics. Shyamala ended up marrying Donald, and stayed in the U.S. By marrying for love outside her Brahmin caste—and outside her culture entirely—Shyamala made a bold choice.

But Shyamala had been raised to act on her conscience. Her father, P.V. Gopalan, was active in the Indian independence movement and then became a high-ranking civil servant who fought corruption and acted as an adviser to newly independent nations, including Zambia. Her mother, Rajam Gopalan, had been betrothed at 12 and married at 16, but grew into a self-assured woman who used her position as an upper-caste wife to advocate for less advantaged women. During the 1940s, Rajam would drive around in her Volkswagen bug with a bullhorn, telling poor women how to access birth control. “My grandfather would joke that her community activism would be the end of his career,” Harris wrote in her book, Smart on Crime. “That never stopped her.”

3. She grew up in the civil rights movement.

Harris likes to say she grew up with “a stroller-eye view of the civil rights movement.” Her parents would bring her to rallies and demonstrations around the Bay Area, and she has written that her “earliest memories are of a sea of legs marching around the streets and the sounds of shouting.”

Harris’s parents divorced when she was seven, after which she and her sister spent most of their time with their mother in an apartment in the flatlands area of Berkeley, a working-class neighborhood that was primarily African-American. Even as a small child, Harris picked up the language of the movement. Shyamala liked to recount the time her eldest daughter, then a toddler, was fussing and, when asked what she wanted, cried out, “Fweedom!”

4. She had a multicultural childhood.

Harris also grew up steeped in multiple rich cultures. “I grew up with a strong Indian culture, and I was raised in a black community,” Harris told AsianWeek in 2003. “All my friends were black and we got together and cooked Indian food and painted henna on our hands, and I never felt uncomfortable with my cultural background.” The two Harris girls, Kamala and Maya, sang in the choir at a black Baptist church and attended a Hindu temple with their mother.

They also had the chance to travel extensively. The sisters traveled to Jamaica with their father to visit his family and, every two years, went to India with Shyamala.“When Kamala was in first grade,” Shyamala toldSan Francisco Magazine, “one of her teachers said to me, ‘You know, your child has a great imagination. Every time we talk about someplace in the world she says, “Oh, I’ve been there.’ So I told her, ‘Well, she has been there!’ India, England, the Caribbean, Africa—she had been there.”

Harris also spent time living in Canada. When she was in her early teens, her mother, by then a scientist studying breast cancer, took a position doing research at Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, Quebec, and teaching at McGill University. Harris completed high school in Montreal and returned to the U.S. for college, attending Howard University in Washington, D.C. Her father had become an economics professor at Stanford, and Harris followed in his footsteps by majoring in economics, adding a double major in political science.

5. She first got a taste of politics during college.

Harris’s first-ever campaign was for freshman class representative of the liberal arts student council at Howard University. Harris also sharpened her public speaking skills on Howard’s debate team and joined the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, all while organizing mentor programs for minority youths and demonstrating against apartheid. “The thing that Howard taught me is that you can do any collection of things, and not one thing to the exclusion of the other,” Harris said in 2016. “You could be homecoming queen and valedictorian. There are no false choices at Howard.”

With Howard located in the nation’s capital, Harris explored a number of potential paths for public service while in college, working as a tour guide at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, serving as a press aide at the Federal Trade Commission, and interning for Senator Alan Cranston of her home state of California.

6. She’s wanted to be a lawyer since she was a child.

Senator Kamala Harris during Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings in 2018
Senator Kamala Harris during Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings in 2018
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Growing up, Harris always wanted to be a lawyer. “They were the heroes growing up,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009. “They were the architects of the civil rights movement. I thought that that was the way you do good things and serve and achieve justice. It was pretty simple.” In particular, she cites Constance Baker Motley, Charles Hamilton Houston, and Thurgood Marshall as her role models.

After completing her undergraduate education at Howard, Harris returned to California for law school, attending the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. But rather than take up civil rights litigation or criminal defense work, Harris decided to become a prosecutor—a choice she’s said “surprised” her family members. But growing up in the Bay Area, she had seen the impact of law enforcement on disadvantaged populations and wanted to use the law to protect the vulnerable and correct imbalances of power. Being a prosecutor gave Harris more power to change the criminal justice system from within—choosing who to prosecute, what crimes to focus on, and which people to present with options for rehabilitation rather than prison.

As a prosecutor, Harris felt that she could counter racially based narratives about crime among other prosecutors. Talking to The New York Times, she recalled hearing colleagues discuss whether to charge certain defendants as members of a gang, which would have made their punishment more severe. “They were talking about how these young people were dressed, what corner they were hanging out on and the music they were listening to,” Harris said. “I remember saying: ‘Hey, guys, you know what? Members of my family dress that way. I grew up with people who live on that corner. […] I still have a tape of that kind of music in my car.’”

Harris was also motivated by a desire to advocate for victims of abuse. While attending high school in Montreal, she realized that a friend was being sexually abused by her father; Harris invited the girl to live with their family, with Shyamala’s blessing. Seeing that friend’s experience was one reason Harris became a prosecutor. “Some of the most voiceless in the community, the most vulnerable, the most powerless, are victims of crime,” she told the Chronicle, “and I wanted to be a voice for them.”

7. As a prosecutor, she stood up for women and children.

After graduating with her law degree in 1989, Harris soon passed the bar (though she failed the first time). In 1990, she took a job as a prosecutor with Alameda County in northern California. She specialized in child sex abuse trials and domestic violence cases, using her power as a prosecutor against those who hurt the vulnerable. She told The New York Times in 2016, “When I was prosecuting child molestation cases, I will tell you, I was as close to a vigilante as you can get.”

In 1998, Harris moved to the San Francisco District Attorney’s office, where she headed the career criminals unit, then transferred to the City Attorney’s office, where she led the Family and Children Services division. In 2003, she ran for the office of San Francisco’s District Attorney, winning the election to become the first-ever female DA in San Francisco and the first-ever African-American DA in the state. As district attorney, she continued to go after abusers in court.

But Harris didn’t just show up for women and children in the courtroom. She helped develop a program with the San Francisco Department of Public Health to help emergency rooms spot evidence of child sexual abuse, and she co-founded the Coalition to End the Exploitation of Kids. She pushed for legislation to strengthen laws on the sexual exploitation of minors, and she worked to get San Francisco its first safe house for children escaping from sex work. Harris used her influence in creative ways to support those facing abuse—and punish those perpetrating it.

8. She sticks to her principles, even when she gets flack.

During her campaign for San Francisco District Attorney, Harris pledged not to seek the death penalty in her cases—a popular stance in liberal San Francisco. But just a few months after she took office, a young police officer named Isaac Espinoza was shot and killed while on duty. Days later, Harris announced that she would not be seeking the death penalty for the perpetrator but would instead pursue life in prison without the possibility of parole. The police union was outraged, as were Espinoza’s family members and a number of prominent California politicians. At Espinoza’s funeral, Senator Dianne Feinstein, who had formerly served as mayor of San Francisco, stood up and declared, “This is not only the definition of tragedy, it’s the special circumstance called for by the death penalty law”—the church full of mourners cheered.

Despite the blowback, Harris stood firm in her decision not to seek capital punishment, which she has argued is no deterrent to crime. In 2007, Espinoza’s killer was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life without parole; Harris spent much of her two terms as DA rebuilding her relationship with law enforcement.

9. She has innovative ways of dealing with crime.

In 2005, as district attorney, Harris launched Back on Track [PDF], a program designed to reduce recidivism by offering nonviolent, low-level drug-trafficking defendants job training, life skill-building, and the chance to avoid prison. Back on Track was highly successful: Two years after it launched, just 10% of graduates from the program had reoffended, versus the normal 53% for drug offenders in California. Plus, the program is cheaper than prison.

“I reject the false choice that you either are soft on crime or tough on crime,” she has said, insisting instead that we must be “smart on crime.” Her approach to criminal justice emphasizes preventing crime rather than reacting to it, and rehabilitating offenders rather than considering them lost.

In that spirit, she focused on truancy among elementary schoolers after discovering that 94% of murder victims under age 25 in San Francisco were high-school dropouts. Students who are chronically absent in elementary school are more likely to drop out of high school, and high-school dropouts are more likely to end up in jail or dead by age 35, so Harris began developing programs to help parents improve their children’s school attendance, with the threat of criminal prosecution for parents whose children were habitually absent and who did not respond to other methods of intervention.

10. She’s a pioneer.

In 2010, Harris ran for Attorney General of California, winning the election to become the state’s first woman, first African-American, and first person of South Asian descent to hold the office. During her time in office, she was a trailblazer in other ways as well, in particular with her attention to technology’s potential for victimization.

In 2012, she sent out notices to app makers reminding them of California privacy laws and warning them her office would pursue penalties should they fail to comply. Harris’s office also prosecuted a San Diego man, Kevin Bollaert, for operating a pair of websites: one inviting people to post “revenge porn” and another that charged those whose photos had been posted to have them removed. In 2015, Bollaert was found guilty on 21 counts of identity theft and six of extortion, and sentenced to 18 years in prison, marking the first time a “revenge porn” site operator had been convicted in California.

Harris made clear her office would take such cases seriously. She told Marie Claire, “This case removes any ambiguity about what's against the law. It also makes clear that a computer can be as lethal as a weapon. Anyone sitting at home with the anonymity of a laptop should be very clear that that will not immunize them from arrest, prosecution, and prison.” Harris’s office also set up a web platform about cyber exploitation, detailing the laws governing it and listing resources for victims.

11. She played hardball with the banks.

In her first year as California’s Attorney General, Harris played hardball during a multi-state suit against five major banks accused of improper foreclosure practices during the mortgage crisis. She pulled out of early negotiations, rejecting a multi-state deal that she felt brought too little money to California and protected the banks from prosecution for their actions, despite pressure from the Obama administration to accept those terms. “I took an oath to represent California, and that’s what I was doing,” Harris told The New York Times. “It was about making sure that Californians got what they needed.” Afraid she was jeopardizing the settlement, some pressured Harris to accept the initial terms. “The Los Angeles Times had an editorial saying I should take the deal,” she told San Francisco Magazine. “I got calls from elected leaders in California saying, ‘I hope you know what you’re doing.’”

Ultimately, she triumphed. Harris and her team secured $20 billion in mortgage relief for Californians, as well as the right to levy financial penalties if the banks failed to fulfill their promises in the deal.

12. She loves to cook and advocates self-care.

Harris has a stress-filled life that requires high levels of energy and commitment. How does she cope? “In order to find balance, I feel very strongly about two things in particular in terms of routine. Work out, and eat well,” she said in a 2016 interview.

She works out every morning, watching MTV and VH1 while she uses the treadmill, or going to SoulCycle. “I love SoulCycle,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It’s like going to the club.” She tells all the young women she mentors that “You’ve got to work out,” insisting, “It has nothing to do with your weight. It's about your mind.”

Harris also advocates eating well, and enjoying your food. She loves cooking, and since she married attorney Doug Emhoff in 2014, she likes to cook with him. “[W]e have fun making meals,” she told Essence. “He's my sous chef and has these goggles that he puts on when chopping onions. It's hilarious.” When things get “really stressful” and she doesn’t have time to cook, she reads recipes to relax.

13. She may be the first, but she doesn’t want to be the last.

Kamala Harris speaking onstage in 2014
Kamala Harris speaking onstage in 2014
Jason Merritt/Getty Images for Variety

Despite her hectic schedule, Harris has made a point to mentor young women. One mentee, Iyahna Smith, now a senior at Howard University, met Harris when she was a high school student in San Francisco. Smith told Essence, “I was part of College Track, a program that provides students from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to go to school. I gave a speech, and during it I mentioned my desire to go to Howard. Afterward, Ms. Harris came up to me, told me it was her alma mater and said she wanted to help.” Harris assisted Smith with her college essays, connected her with internships, and sends her cards with notes of encouragement. “It's just incredible that someone who is so busy and has so much responsibility has been so involved,” Smith said.

For Harris, her commitment to helping others achieve their potential is a value she learned from her mother, who was committed to mentoring her graduate students, simultaneously supporting them and demanding their very best. Harris’s sister Maya said of their mother, “Until her dying day she never lost sight of this notion that if you’ve been able to walk through doors, you don’t just leave the doors open. You bring others along.” Both sisters were inspired by Shyamala’s example. Harris has repeatedly said that her motto is “A saying my mother had, ‘You may be the first, but make sure you're not the last.’”

A version of this article first ran in 2017.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is Now a Funko Pop!

Funko/Hot Topic
Funko/Hot Topic

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a.k.a. Notorious RBG, has inspired museum exhibits, bestselling books, and even fashion accessories. Now, the Supreme Court Justice is receiving an honor shared by many of the biggest icons in pop culture: A new Ruth Bader Ginsberg vinyl figurine has been added to the Funko Pop! collection.

The doll is part of the line of American History Pop! figures that Funko debuted last year. Other characters in the category include presidents like George Washington and John F. Kennedy as well as fictional icons like Rosie the Riveter and Uncle Sam. Ginsburg is one of the few living figures in American politics to receive her own Funko.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Funko Pop!
Hot Topic/Funko

The figurine depicts RBG as she appears on the Supreme Court bench today, complete with her black-framed glasses and the white jabot she wears at the front of her robes. Like all classic Funko Pop! dolls, it's made of vinyl and stands 3.75 inches tall.

Head here to purchase the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Funko Pop! online from Hot Topic for $12.50. For more unique collectibles, check out these Funko Pops! worth a small fortune.

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10 Surprising Facts About Richard Nixon

Keystone/Getty Images
Keystone/Getty Images

Often maligned but rarely boring, Richard Nixon (1913-1994) was the nation’s 37th president and the first to resign from office. Although his involvement in the Watergate break-in scandal tends to overshadow much of his life, there was more to Nixon—who was born on January 9, 1913—than his political improprieties. Check out some facts about his early law enforcement aspirations, why he got criticized for commenting on Charles Manson, and his infamous encounter with RoboCop.

1. Richard Nixon was a Quaker.

Also known as the Religious Society of Friends, Quakers have roots in 17th century England and promoted pacifism and spiritual equality among genders at a time those thoughts were not in fashion. When Nixon’s father, Frank, married Quaker Hannah Milhous, he joined a Quaker congregation and the couple raised their children as Quakers. Nixon’s religious faith allowed him an exemption from serving in World War II, but he waived it to enter the Navy. Later, when he was facing impeachment for his role in Watergate, Quakers in Milwaukee and Minneapolis apparently didn’t like the affiliation with the outcast president, petitioning for him to be removed from office months before he resigned.

2. Richard Nixon wanted to join the FBI.

A photograph of Richard Nixon's 1937 FBI application
Brendan Smialowski, Getty Images

In retrospect, it’s easy to imagine Nixon’s mannered disposition fitting comfortably in the stiff-necked legion of G-men that populated J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A little over a month before graduating from law school, Nixon applied to the Bureau in 1937, when he was just 24. After an in-person interview and physical, Nixon waited for a response. He never got one. Later, when Nixon was in office as vice president and queried Hoover about why he had not been accepted, Hoover told him it had been due to budget cuts.

3. Richard Nixon wrote love notes to his wife-to-be.

Nixon met his wife, Patricia, while the two appeared in a 1938 Whittier Community Players theater production titled The Dark Tower. Nixon set about courting her, writing letters that seemed uncharacteristically maudlin for the future president. He wrote: “And when the wind blows and the rains fall and the sun shines through the clouds (as it is now) he still resolves, as he did then, that nothing so fine ever happened to him or anyone else as falling in love with Thee – my dearest heart.” The two married in 1940.

4. A dog helped save Richard Nixon's political career (for a little while).

A family portrait of the Nixons and their dog, Checkers
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Controversy dogged Nixon early on. In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower considered dropping Nixon as his vice-presidential running mate after allegations surfaced that Nixon was benefiting from a trust fund filled by his supporters to help offset his political and personal expenses. Going on radio and television to address the issue, Nixon cleverly slipped in an anecdote about his 6-year-old daughter being in love with a cocker spaniel named Checkers that had been “donated” by a campaign supporter. Believing that any man who loved dogs couldn’t be all bad, the public sentiment turned and he remained on the ticket.

“It was labeled as the ‘Checkers speech,’ as though the mention of my dog was the only thing that saved my career," Nixon later wrote. "Many of the critics glided over the fact that the fund was thoroughly explained, my personal finances laid bare, and an admittedly emotional but honest appeal made for public support."

5. Richard Nixon literally made the mornings darker.

In 1973, to save fuel during an energy crisis, Nixon signed a law that mandated that daylight saving would be in effect year-round starting on January 6, 1974. But kids wound up waiting for their school buses in pitch-black conditions, and there was a fear they might get hit by traffic—so the idea was scrapped in 1975.

6. Richard Nixon had a bowling alley installed under the White House.

Richard Nixon in the bowling alley at the White House in 1971
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Nixon, an avid bowler, was pleased to see that the love of bowling that inspired Harry Truman to build lanes in the White House in 1947 was still going strong when he took office in 1969. That alley was moved in 1955, and Nixon actually ordered that a new lane be built underground under the North Portico entrance and favored the new location because it was more private than the lanes that were open to other staffers. Nixon reportedly bowled a respectable 232.

7. Richard Nixon wanted the Secret Service to wear uniforms.

The president’s security detail is usually dressed for business: Suits, ties, and sunglasses are the normal attire for many agents, while those patrolling the White House grounds wear police-style uniforms. When Nixon took office, however, he wanted his men to resemble the palace guards he had seen in other countries. The Service assigned to his personal detail wore white double-breasted tunics and hats that vaguely resembled the Empire’s underlings in a Star Wars film. After he was criticized by the press, Nixon abandoned the idea and the outfits were eventually donated to a high school marching band.

8. Richard Nixon almost messed up Charles Manson's murder trial.

Richard Nixon frowns during a public appearance
AFP/Getty Images

Nixon’s first year in office coincided with the national obsession over cult leader Charles Manson and his followers, some of whom had gone on a murder spree in 1969 that left actress Sharon Tate and several others dead. During Manson’s trial in August 1970, Nixon proclaimed Manson “was guilty, directly or indirectly, of eight murders without reason.” Manson’s lawyers moved for a mistrial based on Nixon’s comments. The president quickly retracted his statement, with a spokesperson suggesting he neglected to include the word “allegedly.”

9. Richard Nixon met RoboCop.

In 1987, Nixon attended a national board meeting for the Boys Club of America. Also on hand to fete organizers and kids was a guy dressed as Robocop. (The unknown actor was definitely not Peter Weller, star of the 1987 feature, and the ill-fitting costume was definitely not the original.) For years, an image of the meeting circulated on the internet without context before a crack sleuth determined it had been snapped for Billboard magazine.

10. Richard Nixon's meeting with Elvis Presley made National Archives history.

Richard Nixon greets Elvis Presley at the White House in 1970
National Archives/Getty Images

On December 21, 1970, Nixon greeted one of the more colorful characters to ever enter the White House: Elvis Presley. The singer apparently wanted a badge or other token of law enforcement; as the King was high on fighting the war on drugs at the time. (Unfortunately, Presley had drug issues of his own that may have contributed to his death in 1977.) A photo of the meeting between the two is (as of 2015) the most requested image in the National Archives, outpacing requests for the moon landing, the Declaration of Independence, or the Bill of Rights.

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