Pramila Jayapal became the first Indian-American woman to win a seat in the House Tuesday, and talks about her bittersweet day and goals

By Julie Mazziotta
Updated November 11, 2016 01:15 PM
Pramila Jayapal - Bodies
Credit: Andrew Tat

Election Day 2016 was a historic one for women — while we didn’t see Hillary Clinton become the first female president, several other women were elected to Congress, many of them people of color.

Pramila Jayapal is one of them, and on Tuesday she became the first Indian-American woman to win a seat in the House of Representatives to serve Washington’s 7th Congressional District. And not only is she Indian-American — Jayapal is an immigrant who moved to the United States at 16.

Jayapal, 51, said the day was “bittersweet, for sure,” with Donald Trump’s win, and the Republicans maintaining control of the House and the Senate, but she’s thrilled for the many firsts of the day.

“I think that has been a huge bright spot emerging. I think [Wednesday] the country was in too much shock to look at some of the bright spots. We did elect some incredible firsts, some incredible women of color to the United States Congress,” Jayapal tells PEOPLE. “We’re increasing our numbers significantly — there weren’t that many to start with, so there is that, but I think if you look at the connection between women of color being elected to office, and then the overwhelming number of women who voted for Hillary Clinton, that is significant.”

Jayapal, who currently serves in the Washington State Senate, says that people from all over the U.S. — not just those in her district — have contacted her with their support.

“What has really been so incredible and heartwarming is the thousands of messages I’ve received from women all over the country saying, ‘We need your voice more than ever in Congress. We know that you’re a fighter for women, for people of color, for immigrants, for Muslims, working families, and that is what we’re going to need of the greatest order — to remember what American values are,” she says.

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The new Congresswoman says she will go into Inaguration Day on Jan. 20 with an open mind, but is prepared for a battle.

“We hold out the greatest hope for Donald Trump as the president, but we also prepare for what could well be a tax on some of the things that are so important and so dear to us,” Jayapal says. “And I do think there are some interesting things that we can work on together that he has said that he’s interested in. One of those things is an infrastructure package — he said that he’s open to that — investing in real jobs and real and true economic gains for people working across the country of every color and race is going to be a place of unity.”

“But I think we also have to be clear that if any part of his presidency involves some of the things he talked about on his campaign, whether it’s punishing women for exercising their right to make their own decisions or subjecting Muslims to additional scrutiny and barriers and discrimination because they’re Muslim, or deporting 11 million immigrants, we are going to have to stand up and defend these rights and values that are so important to this country. We cannot step back, and I intend to fight for what I’ve been fighting for my whole life.”