SOUTHSIDE STORIES

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American Trilogy Part 3 : The Purple Mirror of Possibilities

by Dakshina Gammanpila

Politics ideally should be about representation; representing the needs, concerns and welfare of the electorate. Representation can also be about reflecting the demographic. The roll call of US vice presidents was notable in that every single predecessor was a white man of a certain age; a veritable network of ‘old boys’. Then along came Kamala – a woman not of advanced years, and who ticks not one but two ethnic ‘minority’ groups. A different reflection in a long awaited mirror.

Whilst so many of us applaud this seemingly seismic shift, others around the globe ask what took you, the United States, so very long?  Such sentiments in no way diminish or denigrate the superb and timely election of Kamala Harris to office. When Hilary Clinton was set to lead the country in 2016, by winning the popular vote only to be scuppered by the electoral college, the idea of a woman in the White House served as a role model for millions of young American women and girls. The potential example they could aspire to felt like a long time coming, but, like many women’s aspirations, it was thwarted by an anachronistic system.

Still the idea of possibility makes a difference. Many look to Indira Gandhi or Margaret Thatcher as the first female premiers. However, the world’s first female political leader was Sirimavo Bandaranaike prime minister of Sri Lanka in 1960 – before Kamala Harris was born. As a Sri Lankan girl growing up in Britain in the ’70s as I was, having that role model as part of one’s cultural heritage cannot be underplayed.

Closer to home my mother was the only female to win a scholarship to study medicine in Russia in the early ’60s. She was heralded as a national treasure, articles about her appeared in newspapers and magazines and she, along with a fellow student (one of whom was to become her husband and my Father) were given a hero’s send-off by none other than Prime Minister Bandaranaike herself. In Moscow my mother was introduced to President Kruschev and her full length portrait was painted to hang in a Moscow gallery.

For me equality was the norm, I saw it in action everyday. Both of my parents worked as doctors and both of them were hands on when it came to running the home and bringing up children. At school in the UK I had strong role models both my Head Mistress and her Deputy were women, leaders who told us every day that things were attainable for women and we were deserving of it, that barriers established by the old boy network could be surmounted. The future was ours for the making.

When you see women in positions of leadership, influence and power the glass ceiling seems smashable. As a young barrister many of the faces around me were old or white or male (or a combination of all three). Further up the food chain hierarchy very few looked like me. But I was not daunted, as I was proud not cowed by my otherness. Like many millions I was thrilled to see Kamala Harris, proud of her background and her South Asian mother’s encouragement, elected and standing in partnership not rivalry.

So many reasons to be cheerful, as the inauguration had a decidedly female input. Here I am not simply talking about the female performers: Messers or Mzes Lopez, Gaga and Perry, undeniably strong women role models for their legions of fans, but some perhaps lesser known yet nonetheless impressive characters.

I was taken by the introduction of Senator Amy Klobuchar co-chair of the inauguration committee, whose opening remarks as the snow fell, reminded everyone why we tuned in to witness what felt like a rededication to the cause. Reminding us to ‘never take democracy for granted’, that there was a ‘sacred trust between leaders and our people’ and that the torch of democracy should not be sabotaged and used as a ‘weapon of political arson, but an instrument for good’ as intended by the Founding Fathers. That we needed to ‘cross the river of divide to a higher plain’ and that the phrase – by the people for the people, enshrined in the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, requires us to protect something that can be seen as ‘common place and miraculous’. The stage was duly set.

It may have been the 59th inauguration ceremony but it was characterized by firsts. Justice Sonia Sotomayor of the Supreme Court the first of Latin descent, was to swear in the first female Vice President who was also the first VP of African-American descent, and the first VP of South Asian descent. President elect Joe Biden had been the first VP to serve under the first Black president and would be the first President to serve with the first female Vice President.

First ladies of recent times (those who attended) Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton are successful intelligent women in their own right. The new First lady Dr Jill Biden, already seeking to undo the immigration atrocity of the children separated from their parents, is clearly no slouch when it comes to professional accomplishments. As ever what the women wore was commented upon, but the angle was different: the support of young African American designers and the colours chosen. No sober blacks and greys, but kingfisher blue, deep raspberry and a personal favourite the colour purple, all as vibrant as the ideals on show.

No coincidence that Kamala Harris wore purple at the inauguration as an homage to Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to US Congress and, in 1972, the first Black woman to run for President. She wore purple during her presidential campaign. Her words then ring true today ‘At present our country needs women’s idealism and determination perhaps more in politics than anywhere else’. Sadly, her prescient insight remains pertinent to many, many nations around the globe.  The theme of the inauguration was unity bridging the divide between red and blue – purple both as bridge and mirror.

Purple is associated with the women’s suffrage movement and suffragettes wore purple. In the US the 19th amendment in August 1920 eventually given women the vote. In the UK the 1918 Representation of the People Act gave some women the right to vote but not until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 were women afforded equal voting rights to men. As the first female VP elected in November 2020 in the US, a statue as tribute to Mary Wollstonecraft born in 1759 and said to be the mother of feminism was finally erected in the UK.

And yet another first, this time the first youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman who happened to be African American and encapsulated so much. She, like Joe Biden, had overcome a stammer and her eloquent words were in harmony with Biden’s inauguration speech and Amy Klobacher. Demonstrating empathy Biden said that the US would ‘lead not by example of power but by the power of our example’. Amanda Gorman exemplified that.

Gorman’s incredible poem ‘The Hill We Climb’ touched on many things –

unity (the inauguration theme) ‘ to put our future first we must put our differences aside’; the work to be done in weathering and witnessing ‘a nation not broken but simply unfinished’ and of action and participation ‘the new dawn blooms …for there is always light…if only we are brave enough to be it’. Perhaps Biden’s new dawn that I alluded to in the pre-inauguration installment of this trilogy will deliver, the intent certainly informs the action. In her first remarks to the nation, the new Vice President spoke about who we are ‘even in these dark times’; a nod to history ‘see what has been and what we can be’. Standing on the shoulders of countless women before her Kamala Harris can look into the Mirror of Possibilities and rewrite some past history with a longed for Her Story.

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