Why We Need More Women Of Color Leaders Representing Us in Politics
Though we saluted Women’s Equality Day last month, for all women of color their Equal Pay Day—the time it takes to catch up with the earnings of male counterparts—has still not arrived yet this year.
While women overall catch up, on average, with male earnings in April, African American women waited until Aug. 23 of each year, and Latinas will wait until Nov. 1, to catch up with the average earnings of a white American male.
What that means: glass ceilings may be shattering for some women, but not nearly fast enough for women of color, overall.
Hillary Clinton’s historic presidential bid notwithstanding, we still need to keep the question of political representation in our headlights and question who is out there watching out for our interests.
Pramila Jayapal, a nationally renowned immigrant rights leader, made history when she clenched the lead in a crowded race for the liberal 7th congressional district of Washington State recently. She is one step closer to becoming the first Indian-American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.
As a feminist women of color arrested for standing in protest with undocumented workers, Jayapal has a chance to join forces with a powerful but small number of women of color in Congress this November.
At the recent Democratic National Convention, we witnessed the leadership of people of color and black women’s leadership in particular. Consider the powerful speech by Michelle Obama and also by the “Mothers of the Movement,” when Sybrina Fulton, the mother of the late Trayvon Martin, said, “This is not about being politically correct, it is about saving our children.”
Additionally, issues from reproductive justice to economic justice took center stage in the party platform and in the speech of the Democratic presidential nominee. All this contributes to many black women feeling hopeful about the expanding role of women in leadership in this country.
But along with this hopefulness come the setbacks, such as the attack on the Gold Star mother Ghazala Khan by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. This prompted a social media movement for and by Muslim women, #CanYouHearUsNow.
Yet and still, with the growing awareness and the mounting milestones achieved, not all women are equal in these United States of America.
Women of color—Hispanic, African American, Asian American–represent more than 33 percent of the women in this country, according to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau statistics, and about 62 percent of women in this country are white.
U.S. Congress, in general, is a sink hole for female representation, with women making up just 20 percent in either house.
Within those marginal ranks, the overall population statistics roughly hold up. Thirty-three of the 104 women serving in Congress in 2016 are women of color, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. These include 18 African Americans, nine Latinas and six Asian American/Pacific Islanders. There are no Native American women serving in Congress. To date, only 54 women of color have served in Congress.
Meanwhile the most diverse Congress in history isn’t actually that diverse; it’s still 80 percent white and 80 percent male. Given that, women of color deserve special merit badges for holding their own, proportionately speaking, with white women in the U.S. Congress.
In statewide elective executive offices, meanwhile, women of color lag further behind, which means our representation shrinks that much more.
Women, overall, hold only 24 percent of 312 statewide elective executive office. Within that minority, women of color are even harder to find. Of the 76 women serving in statewide elective executive offices, nine, or about 12 percent, are women of color.
In state legislatures women, overall, are 25 percent of the 7,383 seats. And among them women of color are once again in even shorter supply. Of the 1,815 female state legislators serving nationwide 399, or about 22 percent, are women of color. They include 102 state senators and 297 representatives; 366 are Democrats, 30 are Republicans, one is non-partisan, one is Progressive and one is with the Working Families Party. Women of color constitute about 5 percent of the total 7,383 state legislators.
This means moving forward, candidates who are women of color need to win seats, confronting not only patriarchy, but racism. Five-term U.S House Rep. Yvette Clarke reports she still gets asked for an ID when she is in the halls of Congress to serve. As Black Lives Platform so eloquently stated, if we don’t seize this moment, breathing will become harder for all of us.
As citizens, we need to champion women of color and queer people of color. We need them to champion progressive platforms that can actually improve the lives of women of color and our communities.
Regardless of the date on the calendar, there is no better time than now to assess not only how far some women have come in the fight for fairness; but how far all women need to go.
This column originally ran in Womensenews.
About the Author
Rebecca Saldaña is executive director of Puget Sound Sage and a Ms. Foundation Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.