Is This the Year of Women of Color in Politics?

Is This the Year of Women of Color in Politics?

By Sanjena Sathian

Mia Love, mayor of Saratoga Springs and Republican candidate in Utah's 4th Congressional District, talks about her political platform in Salt Lake City, Utah, May 14, 2012.
SourceJim Urquhart/Reuters


Because the year of W.O.C. is long overdue.

By Sanjena Sathian

Four women. That’s all it took to christen 1992 the “Year of the Woman” in politics. Patty Murray, Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer and Carol Moseley Braun. Three of the four? White women. The one woman of color — Moseley Braun — has since retired.

Considering that a tiny boost in representation counts so much when dealing with a highly underrepresented group, it might be fair to call 2015 the Year of Women of Color in Politics. Doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. But while we wait for someone to come up with a better name, let’s review the facts. Perhaps for the first time, this year more than a few female politicos of color are being touted as candidates for major political office and are close-to-household names. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley — a VP candidate for the GOP if ever we saw one. California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who might well replace Barbara Boxer. Utah Congresswoman Mia Love, the first black GOP House member. Loretta Lynch, whose confirmation as attorney general went on as long as a Ted Cruz filibuster.

The numbers show the increase is real. In the 13 years after 1992, some two-thirds of all women of color who have served in Congress were elected — it seems as though the Year of the Woman may really have jump-started something. Numbers from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University show that just over 30 percent of the women serving in Congress today are of color. Women of color have, in fact, done an even better job of upping their numbers than white women, says Christine Sierra, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. And it’s hard to deny that 2014 was a boom year for conversations about race and gender, even if it came about for unfortunate reasons, between killings of black men and discussion of sexual assault everywhere you looked.

Women are really the people who have been at the table forever … doing real grass-roots work.

Kelly Dittmar, professor at Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics

“My presence before you symbolizes a new era in American politics.” That’s what the late Shirley Chisholm said in 1972 when she announced her candidacy for the presidency, making her the first black woman in a major party to take a shot. Chisholm, the first African-American woman in Congress — elected in 1968 — might well have been Hillary Clinton, for all the work she did to explain herself as a proud black female who was simultaneously not running as The Black Woman Candidate.

1st black female member of Congress, Shirley Chisholm, holding up two fingers in victory sign while standing behind large American flag following her successful run for office.

Shirley Chisholm, first black female member of Congress, after her successful run for office.

Source Fred De Van/Getty

Without diving into a giant pile of intersectional academic theory about what that would even mean, it is clear that women-of-color policymakers approach their work distinctly in a few concrete ways, says Kelly Dittmar, a professor of political science at Rutgers who works with the Center for American Women and Politics. Women of color are more likely to prioritize issues related to women, children and families, she says. That relates to more than you’d realize: For instance, think of the unaccompanied minors embroiled in the immigration debate. Or criminal justice issues related to parent-child visitations.

Statistically, she adds, women are more likely to “work together, even across aisles.” And crucially, though women do focus on those familial issues, “that doesn’t mean they all agree with one another.” A rise in women of color in politics doesn’t necessarily mean a bunch of pro-choice, pink-sneakered ladies. “Women are really the people who have been at the table forever, community organizing, doing real grass-roots work,” Dittmar says. And that’s what we’re seeing: the “grass roots bubbling up,” says Tonya Lovelace-Davis, CEO of the Women of Color Network.

Why else? Don’t forget the importance of policy, activism and lobbying, not just politics; in those realms, minorities have taken to Twitter and protested in droves, making news in a way the world hasn’t seen before. One more reason: Asian-Americans, over half of whom, just two decades ago, voted for the first President Bush. Today, prominent leaders like Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, or Vanita Gupta, who worked on Ferguson issues for the ACLU and then joined the Department of Justice, are among a number of Asian-Americans who associate themselves with issues “left of the color line.”


Of course, plenty still gives. Women of color still make up a mere fraction of overall American representation — just under 5 percent of Congress and 10 percent of governors. And to call something the Year Of Anything risks overestimating progress and pretending to be race-and-gender blind, Sierra warns. Lovelace-Davis worries of backlash if we call it THE year too early.

Look ahead, though, says Sierra. America’s population of people of color is growing; whites will soon be a minority — experts guess as soon as 2044. And then there’s something more interesting at play too: globalization. Change is afoot all across Europe, between South Asia and Dubai, between Peru and Brazil. France, never previously known for political gender equity, whose female and minority representation jumped in 2012. Or Marina Silva, who’s of African descent and who made a legitimate run for the Brazilian presidency. Karen Bird, professor of political science at McMaster University in Canada, points out that, in immigrant-wary Europe, “women children of immigrants are less scary than men children of immigrants.” Even there, though, she notes that many of the “foreign” types are safe, pretty, secular.  

Happening or not, we amend: Call the Year of the W.O.C. the Long Overdue Year of the W.O.C.