What Aunt Kamala taught me about ambition

Meena Harris
·4-min read
Photo credit: Meena Harris / Instagram
Photo credit: Meena Harris / Instagram

From Harper's BAZAAR

Meena Harris is a lawyer, activist, and the author of “Ambitious Girl,” a children’s book dedicated to girls who’ve been told they’re “too much.” She is also the niece of Kamala Harris, the first woman, first Black person, and first South Asian person to become vice president. During Harris’s campaign, the former California senator was accused of being “too ambitious.” Below, Meena writes about her aunt’s history-making moment and the importance of valuing ambition.

If you don’t know why a song might be called a “strut anthem,” take a minute to watch my mum’s sister, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, wearing Chucks and dancing in the rain to her walk-out song, Mary J. Blige’s Work That.

“Don't sweat, girl, be yourself,” Mary sings. And when people try to hold us back? “Let ’em get mad, they gonna hate anyway,” she says.

This song is an ode to the type of woman my grandma raised my aunt, my mother, and me to be. There’s a word for this type of woman: ambitious. And I want my daughters, and every other girl in the world, to understand that this word describes something powerful and good.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realise that not everyone sees ambition the same way my family does. In the Harris household, ambition means courage. It means living your purpose. But to a whole lot of other people, ambition—women’s ambition, that is—is code for taking up space that wasn't intended to be yours.

Over the past few years, Americans have gotten better at recognising sexist dog whistles, which, nowadays, feel more like bullhorns. This presidential campaign reminded us we still hear them all the time. And it’s not just the word “ambitious”. We also hear its evil stepsisters: Loud. Assertive. Bossy. Persistent.

You could spend your whole life hiding from these words. Instead, we need to reframe and reclaim them.

We need girls and women to learn to take up space and own their power. Following the example of generations of strong women, they should say: “I’ll wear the words thrown at me, and I won’t take no from anyone.” As my aunt showed us last week, when we encourage ambitious girls, they become ambitious women. And ambitious women can break barriers, shatter ceilings, and win.

Photo credit: Meena Harris / Instagram
Photo credit: Meena Harris / Instagram

I hope this will be taught in homes, where all too often girls are sheltered and supervised, taught to value humility and politeness over drive and persistence—at the risk of being seen as “too this” or “too that”.

I hope this will be taught in schools, where girls tend to be given more praise than boys for doing things the “right” way—neatly, quietly, when it’s “their turn”—and less freedom to play and take physical risks. It’s one reason why girls’ confidence levels fall 30 percent as they enter their teens, a systemic gap that lingers through college and into the working world.

And I hope grown-ups will learn it, too. Because when it comes to our own ambitions, we all have some unlearning to do. For men, this means recognising that the ambitions of women, particularly trans women and women of colour, aren’t a threat to their own. For women, it means celebrating our achievements, valuing our desires, and unapologetically speaking them out loud.

Some of this unlearning comes from watching other fierce, ambitious women get what they’ve earned. Women like Ayanna Pressley, Serena Williams, Mindy Kaling, Megan Rapinoe, and Megan Thee Stallion. Women like Kamala Harris.

Photo credit: Tasos Katopodis - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tasos Katopodis - Getty Images

This past Saturday, Work That introduced my aunt to the world once again—this time, as our future vice president. I stood on that stage with my two young daughters, listening to a victory speech delivered by the first Black, first South Asian, first female Vice President-elect of the United States. She spoke directly to children everywhere: “Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourselves in a way that others may not.”

That evening, amid the dazzling lights and honking cars of a euphoric crowd in Delaware, I wasn’t just celebrating a historic win. I was also celebrating the reality that, to my little girls up on stage—and little girls all across the country—the ambition that propelled my aunt to the White House will finally be seen as normal.

Because like her, more and more ambitious women aren’t running from what they could be. Instead, they’re chasing the dreams they were born to achieve, and demanding a more equal world where they can succeed.

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