For the Love of Democracy, Pay Attention to Women of Color
Photo Source: USA Today
The State of Representation
Women as a whole are underrepresented in politics.
Women make up more than half of the population in the U.S., yet account for only about a quarter of Congress and just 31% of state legislators. To put it into perspective, if women were to be represented equitably, they would make up half of Congress and all state legislatures. This would be frustrating enough, but looking at women as a broad group does not tell the whole story. As with all things, women of color are at even more of a political disadvantage than white women. Black women and Latinx women have lower levels of representation, as well as different roadblocks to representation and community dynamics.
Data: Center for American Women in Politics
Black women make up 6.8% of the population, yet they account for just 5.7% of all members of the U.S. House, holding only 25 of the 435 seats. And, because Kamala Harris is now vice president, there are no longer any Black women in the U.S. Senate. Black women are no better represented in state legislatures: Black women hold just 338 of the 7,383 seats nationwide (4.6%). Currently, there are only six Black women serving in a statewide elected office, and there have only ever been 15 in total. And finally, in the 243-year history of the U.S, no state has ever had a Black woman governor.
The disparity for Latinx women is even greater. First, it is important to note the dearth of current and historic data and analysis about Latinx women’s political representation – that in and of itself speaks to the neglect and devaluation of Latinx women in politics and beyond. The Latinx population in America has been steadily growing for some time, with the current number of Latinx women in the U.S. at around 26 million, or 8% of the population. Unfortunately, representation has not increased along with the population. Latinx women make up just over 2% of the 525 members of Congress, holding 14 seats. The first Latinx woman was not elected to Congress until 1989, and only 20 Latinx women have ever served. There are approximately 132 Latinx women in state legislatures out of 7,383 seats (1.8%).
This lack of representation matters. Groups that are underrepresented in politics have less power, which allows already vulnerable communities to become even more so. It also has countless other effects, from enabling discrimination to general lack of awareness of a given community and its needs. Further, when a group does not see itself in political power, it sends a message that political leadership isn’t meant for them, which discourages people from running for office to improve their representation.
Empowerment Theory and the Benefits of Representation
Increasing the representation of women of color in elected office is important not only for democracy, but also for the communities served. When historically underserved groups feel represented in politics, the group feels empowered and actively included which in turn promotes higher civic engagement. In this case, increased representation of Black and Latinx women could ignite a cycle of women becoming more engaged in politics, entering positions of leadership, and inspiring new waves of women to become engaged and eventually lead.
Research has found that shared identity with a candidate such as shared race and/or gender does indeed impact feelings of representation for voters. However, this impact looks different based on race and gender. Specifically, shared gender identity between a voter and a candidate only has significant impact on voters in certain race-gender contexts. For example, Black voters overall are more likely to support Black candidates than Latinx voters are to support Latinx candidates. This is likely due to the fact that Black Americans have more of a shared history than Latinx Americans – shared history often leads to higher levels of group consciousness, wherein people feel a sense of affinity to a given identity-based group. However, more research is needed to examine how shared gender identity between candidates and voters intersects with shared racial identity. In the 2016 Presidential election, white women slightly favored Trump to Clinton, despite shared racial and gender identity. Women of color shared only their gender identity with Hillary Clinton, yet favored her over Trump far more. In this case, partisanship was likely more salient than the absence of shared racial or ethnic identity.
Not only does proportional representation matter for the sake of fairness and democracy, but it has significant impacts on public policy. All political representatives bring their personal experiences to their jobs – it’s why voters care about the person they vote for in addition to the party or platform. Thus, representatives work on policies and programs that are informed by those experiences. This, in turn, creates better policies and outcomes for the community being represented.
All political representatives bring their personal experiences to their jobs – it’s why voters care about the person they vote for in addition to the party or platform.
A good example of this phenomenon occurred recently when Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and other Black women politicians introduced legislation to address Black maternal health. While we can't know with certainty, it is quite likely that we would not see such legislation if Black women were represented even less; it is important to note that the number of Black women in Congress has increased steadily since 2005, after some previous bumps in the road.
The Role of Our Partners
At The Ascend Fund we currently have two partners that work specifically with Black and Latinx women: Higher Heights Leadership Fund and LatinasRepresent. They have been using different strategies not only to increase the representation of Black and Latinx women, but also to strengthen empowerment among communities through civic engagement.
Programming from these organizations is important for boosting confidence, knowledge, group consciousness, and hard skills among women of color looking to run or in the process of running for office. Tailoring programming to the specific needs of the community is crucial to doing meaningful and effective work. Programming is not one-size-fits-all, and the more variety there is, the more women it can serve.
Take, for example, Higher Heights’ Sunday Brunch talks for The Sip, along with other organizations centering Black women. These virtual events have provided a space for community and learning in a way that is highly accessible. While this looks different from the candidate training work Higher Heights PAC does, it serves a separate and important function.
LatinasRepresent does work to raise awareness and amplify the voices of Latinx women leaders through work such as their Political Latina series, in which the stories of Latinas in the political field are shared to inspire others. Having this variety of simultaneous efforts to foster community, provide civic education, uplift voices, and train candidates to run for office are all crucial in reaching our goal of better representation in politics.
Looking to the Future
Progress is never a straight line and making gains in political representation for Black and Latinx women will take sustained effort. That is why organizations such as Higher Heights and LatinasRepresent need funding and institutional support. We know that candidates who work with Ascend grantees have almost double the chance of winning compared to candidates overall, so expanding our reach in communities of Black and Latinx women would give a significant boost in the path to proportional representation.
 Center for American Women in Politics, Women Elected Officials.  Center for American Women in Politics, Women Elected Officials.  Center for American Women in Politics, History of Women of Color in U.S. Politics.  Higher Heights, By The Numbers.  Center for American Women in Politics, Women Elected Officials.  LatinasRepresent, Get Informed.  Center for American Women in Politics, Women Elected Officials.  Montoya et al., “The Intersectional Dynamics of Descriptive Representation”  Montoya et al., “The Intersectional Dynamics of Descriptive Representation”  Montoya et al., “The Intersectional Dynamics of Descriptive Representation”  Time Magazine, Donald Trump Didn't Really Win 52% of White Women in 2016  Intelligencer, “How Strong Is Support for Clinton Among Women of Color?”