THE GROWING POWER OF CONGRESSWOMEN OF COLOR

Kathryn Fleisher | Business Manager

The 2018 Midterm Elections yielded a long list of “firsts” for women of color in terms of electoral representation. During this past election cycle, the first Native American women were elected to Congress, the first Muslim women were elected to Congress (including the first Somali refugee), and many districts across the country elected black and Hispanic women to represent them in Congress for the first time in American history. In a politically divisive and emotionally charged sociopolitical climate, the election of significant numbers of women of color to the United States Congress is monumental. Besides simply being exciting to progressives, this landmark election cycle seems to signal that American voters are hungry to see meaningful change delivered by their representatives in Washington.  

Most American feminists viewed the election of a racially and ethnically diverse pool of women to Congress in November of 2018 as a notable win for feminism itself. Considering that intersectionality serves as an established pillar of contemporary feminism, the roles of diverse female political leaders are likely to become increasingly important. With this rise in the recognized importance of women of color to the future successes of American democracy, an increased voter demand for more women of color to serve in Congress will hopefully occur. When considering these anticipated increases, the likely dedication of women of color to their roles in terms of descriptive representation, and the lack of legitimate concerns over a strong showing of women of color in Congress, it seems likely that the political power and influence of women of color will continue to stay on the rise.

It is important to note though, that while most feminists spent election night celebrating this important milestone in US history, still others began publicly declaring their fears about the impact of diverse Congresswomen on the policy making of Congress, as well as on the overall direction of the country. Concerns held by critics of these newly elected women of color ranged from benign to outlandish, but are too numerous to fully recount here. The three main arguments raised by critics are as follows. First, that white women are threatened by women of color and thus the swearing in of Congresswomen of color will cause infighting between female legislators. Second, that the “angry black woman” trope will be used to discredit Congresswomen of color, rendering them ineffective lawmakers. And third, that women of color will be unreliable representatives for their constituents, as new pieces of legislation could force them to choose between siding with women or with people of color.

The concerns that some people have expressed over the division of women in power along racial lines seems groundless at best and overtly racist at worst. If one were to assume good will (or at least unintentional ignorance) about those that are concerned about women in Congress getting caught up with infighting, the best response would simply be to direct them to the voting records of women of color currently serving in public office. Female members of Congress have a strong record of bipartisan, innovative lawmaking occurring across lines of racial difference that easily proves the unfounded nature of this concern. Additionally, in a piece written by Andrea Dew Steele about Senator Harris, directly, and women of color in public office, broadly, Steele argues that women of color are consistently underestimated and over-feared. This paradoxical perception of women of color tends to “punish” them for having political aspirations, regardless of their past experience or public approval ratings. Steele’s piece should qualm the fears of those concerned about women of color tearing the political Left apart, and encourage those with this concern to instead view emerging female leaders of color as a new generation of politicians able to bring the Democratic Party to feminists interested in furthering the goals of intersectional feminism, but who have been disenchanted by the recent half-hearted progressivism of the party that underappreciated the women of color on their own team.

The second fear publicly raised in the wake of record numbers of women of color being elected to Congress concerns the “angry black woman” stereotype. This concern is particularly problematic, as it deflects the source of the racism inherent in the stereotype away from the speaker and onto communities of color as being the ones that discredit women of color by writing them off as being hysteric and unreasonable. In an effort to address this concern, the stereotype of the “angry black woman” must be directly confronted. An article entitled “The Angry Black Woman Makes ‘Real Women’ Angry” explores the “angry black woman” trope and explains that the stereotype has its roots in black feminist activism in the post-Jim Crow era. Despite having a lot to be angry about, black men and white women, alike, neglected to take black women seriously, instead imposing a sweeping generalization onto all black women described as, “An upset, irate, aggressive, loud and rude woman, whose damaged self-concept makes her lash out at others (verbally, nonverbally, physically and psychologically) to cover her own pain”. The authors of the article suggest that women of color on screen must be depicted differently, as black women are usually portrayed as aggressive and rude on television and in movies, thus the American public expects that black women off screen will act in this same way. The authors also argue that black women do not often see themselves represented in political leadership, corporate leadership, or other positions of prestige and influence, thus leaving black women (and, more influentially, black girls) devoid of public figures to serve as role models. The lack of black female role models and overabundance of the stereotypical “angry black woman”, the authors conclude, is one of the reasons for the counterproductive perpetuation of this stereotype. It seems logical then, to actively encourage women of color to assume positions of political leadership in an effort to eradicate the “angry black woman” stereotype that some claim inhibits women of color from being effective public servants in the first place.

The third concern that some people hold about the newly elected class of Congresswomen of color claims that women of color will be unreliable and unpredictable, as they may side with women under some circumstances and with people of color under other circumstances. Those that raise this concern assume that Congresswomen of color must choose to side with either only the needs of women or only the needs of people of color. In placing these two claims in conversation with one another, the unnecessarily binary nature of the choices provided becomes glaringly obvious. One can observe that expecting someone to choose from either one of the options provided is nonsensical. These overly simplistic, binary options can be rejected in favor of the gray space between the two choices, wherein women of color can and should simultaneously consider the needs of both women and people of color.

It is, of course, impossible to predict the exact effects of the 2018 Midterm Elections in terms of the overall change-making power of women of color, but with powerhouses like Haaland, Hayes, McBath, Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley, Small, Tlaib, and Underwood all taking their seats in the House of Representatives, there is ample reason to be optimistic that these women of color will continue to be successful in fighting for women, people of color, and the overall wellbeing of the nation.

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