Pramila Jayapal Goes Against the Grain

The first Indian American woman in the U.S. House is not afraid to fight for progressive policies.

Kiran Misra

June 25, 2020

Pramila Jayapal Goes Against the Grain
Lawmakers, community organizations, and unions — including Pramila Jayapal — gathered in 2017 on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol to voice concerns about the Trump administration’s budget. (AFGE)

In 1982, when Congressperson Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) arrived in Washington, D.C., for college at Georgetown University, she realized that many of her peers had never met someone like her. Jayapal, then 16, headed downtown to purchase a Taj Mahal poster to quell her growing feeling of homesickness and as she tacked the poster on her dorm wall, a neighbor asked her if the mausoleum was her family’s home in India. Jayapal jokingly responded that it was the servants’ quarters and her classmates spent much of the beginning of the year believing that she was a member of an Indian royal family — “Princess Pramila,” they nicknamed her.

Now 54, Jayapal is one of only 14 naturalized citizens and one of five South Asians in Congress, the most diverse in the nation’s history.

She also holds the title of many “firsts:” the first Indian American woman elected to the House of Representatives and the first woman to represent Washington’s 7th district. “You represent far more than just your constituents when you’re a first,” Jayapal told me. “You get calls and issues raised to you from people across the country who feel like they don’t have anybody else who will listen to them, whether or not you officially represent them. You’re carrying the hopes and dreams and the injustices that have been perpetrated against so many communities that haven’t been at the table. So, the responsibility is enormous, and I feel it every day.”

“It’s an honor, of course, to be the first female Indian American United States Representative,” she said. “But I think the real benefit for me is that I will never be the last. That’s the goal.”

Over her two terms in Congress, Jayapal has made headlines for her policies. As the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — which represents the Democratic Party’s most left-leaning faction — Jayapal has criticized Amazon, one of the largest employers in her home district in Washington state, for its exploitative labor practices. In response to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, she spearheaded the Paycheck Guarantee Act, which would have required the government to cover salaries up to $90,000 a year amid record unemployment. Jayapal’s remarks on the House floor often go viral — last year, she shared how her child (from her first marriage) came out as gender nonbinary; she’s also candidly shared her decision to get an abortion during her second marriage.

As Jayapal prepares for her second reelection campaign after four years in office, she is releasing her second book, Use the Power You Have, on June 30, which lays out her progressive theories of change. Jayapal tells me about her path to the House, which has taken her from studying rural development in Southeast Asia to the Longworth House Office Building, a prime congressional office space won through what Jayapal likens to “the sorting hat ritual in Harry Potter” — desks are assigned through a lottery