This is what a legislator looks like. Catch up.

Just under a month ago, Ohio State Representative Emilia Sykes filed a complaint with the Ohio Department of Public Safety for over two years of disparate treatment by security officials at the Statehouse. More specifically, Representative Sykes – one of ten Black women in the Ohio state legislature – cited heightened scrutiny at security checkpoints and direct comments from security officials that she doesn’t “look like a legislator.” A citizen in Oregon seemed to struggle with the same issue this week when she called the police on Oregon State Representative Janelle Bynum– the only Black woman in the Oregon House – while she was canvassing a neighborhood in her district for re-election.

Yesterday I filed a complaint w/ the Ohio Dept of Public Safety about repeated scrutiny & questioning by Troopers & Statehouse security. No longer can my race, gender, age, or any other characteristic subject me to differential treatment as I'm serving my community. #WeBelongHere pic.twitter.com/WkQBPYFk5o

— Emilia Sykes (@EmiliaSykesOH) June 14, 2018

These recent cases reveal the stubborn and biased expectations of political leadership as old, White, and male. Those expectations are deeply rooted in the foundations of our political (and social) institutions, which were built for and by White men, but are reinforced by an indolence or even unwillingness to reimagine political leadership in ways that expand access to those historically excluded from officeholding.

In addition to age, citizenship, and residency requirements for holding federal office, state constitutions established requirements for candidacy and officeholding based on religious belief, educational attainment, and property ownership for much of the 18th and 19th centuries. These formal sites for exclusion from the political system were bolstered by informal modes of exclusion with disparate effects on women and people of color, some which persist to present day (think, for example, of the costs of campaigning and/or the role of “insider” networks in candidate recruitment, endorsement, and funding, to say nothing of the physical and emotional risks of running for office in racist and sexist environments). It’s little surprise, then, that of the 12,249 individuals that have served in Congress to date, just 322 (2.6%) have been women and 61 (0.5%) have been women of color.

Even for the women who have fought successfully for inclusion into our political institutions, efforts to exclude or marginalize them have continued. In the documentary Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, Representative Shirley Chisholm (NY) – the first Black woman in Congress – describes being repeatedly heckled by a White, male colleague who couldn’t believe that they earned the same salary. While she successfully confronted him to stop his behavior, Chisholm’s experience reflects the unwillingness of some to accept changes in the allocation of political power.

More than three decades letter, Representative Linda Sánchez (CA) entered Congress as one of just seven Latinas in the 108th Congress and the only Latina under 40 years old. In an interview for our forthcoming book on the impact of women in Congress, Representative Sánchez described a situation strikingly similar to Representative Sykes’ interactions with Ohio Statehouse security.

Representative Sánchez recounted being stopped repeatedly at security checkpoints in the Capitol to show her member identification, despite wearing her member pin and even after multiple instances of proving herself to be an elected representative. Describing how this felt, she told us, “When you are walking with male colleagues and the male colleagues are waved through and they’re stopping you, the subtle message that they are sending is that these people belong here and you don’t.”

Like Representative Sykes, Representative Sánchez took action. First, she called out one of the security guards for reinforcing norms of who should or does hold congressional office, telling them, “You know, White men are not the only members of Congress. There are women who are members. There are Hispanic and Black members too.” Then she complained directly to the Sergeant at Arms, who warned members of his team not to question her credentials again. When we interviewed Representative Sánchez, she was unconvinced that new women members were not subject to the same skepticism, but her efforts pushed some inside the institution to revise their own expectations of political leadership.

Representative Sykes has gone further in her response to heightened scrutiny, launching #WeBelongHere last month as a forum in which Black women in elected office, government, policy, public service can share their stories of bias and extra scrutiny on the job. As its name reflects, the initiative is itself an assertion of Black women’s belonging within institutions from which they have long been excluded.

Like @EmiliaSykesOH I've been questioned when someone *thinks* I don't look like a lawmaker. But I was elected just like anyone else. Black women have the capacity and credentials to do anything. #WeBelongHere in Congress, and everywhere else. pic.twitter.com/1yyb3IMwqa

— Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (@RepBonnie) June 19, 2018

Like Chisholm, Sánchez, and Sykes, women nationwide are standing up for themselves against forces that would ignore or erase their presence in political institutions. But the work cannot fall only on those who are challenging the status quo to prove that they belong. It’s on all of us to not only accept, but also celebrate and promote the diversity of political leadership. It’s on all of us to question our own biases and rethink images and conceptions ingrained in our psyche about who is meant to lead. And, finally, it’s on all of us to recognize that the scrutiny and surveillance of women and people of color are rooted in racist and sexist norms that founded American political institutions without them in mind.

Today, while White men are still overrepresented at every level of political office, 1,876 women, 456 women of color, and 277 Black women serve in state legislatures nationwide; 107 women are voting members of Congress, including 38 women of color; 72 women hold statewide elected executive office, including 6 women governors and 8 women of color; and nearly 300 women are mayors in cities with populations over 30,000. There is much progress left to make in achieving a more representative democracy for women and communities of color, but these data make clear that women across racial and ethnic groups belong in positions of political power. It’s up to everyone else to get on board.

 

Who was Wynona Lipman, and why do I need to know about her?

 
Michel Martin
NPR Host Michel Martin

As CAWP gets ready to welcome NPR’s Michel Martin as this year’s Senator Wynona Lipman Lecturer in Women’s Political Leadership, you might sign up to attend without knowing anything about the woman for whom the lectureship is named. Your interest might be further piqued by discovering the roster of extraordinary African American women who have already been Lipman Lecturers; beginning with Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the list includes powerhouses such as former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, law professor Patricia Williams, Senator and Ambassador  Carol Moseley Braun, political strategist Donna Brazile,  Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, PBS host Gwen Ifill,  Obama advisors Valerie Jarrett and  Melody Barnes, and NPR host Michele Norris. Who was the woman whose life we celebrate with these exciting annual lectures? As we wind up Black History Month and head into Women’s History Month, it’s an appropriate moment to find out.

Senator Wynona Lipman was the first African American woman in New Jersey’s State Senate, serving from 1971 until her death in 1999. A Georgia native, Lipman earned her Ph.D. in French at Columbia and taught for many years, confronting racism that kept her from a full-time professorship in her area of expertise. She got involved with politics through the local PTA and NAACP, ultimately becoming the chairman of Montclair’s Democrats and then an Essex County Freeholder before moving up to the State Senate. Her biography  provides the details.

Senator Wynona Lipman

But the heart of the story is this: Throughout her more than quarter-century tenure in Trenton, Senator Lipman carried the water on almost every key piece of legislation for women, children, families, small businesses, and minorities. We asked Alma Saravia, Senator Lipman’s longtime aide, for reminiscences about the path-breaking senator. In her words: I worked with Senator Lipman for many years as the Executive Director of the Commission on Sex Discrimination in the Statutes.  The Commission was mandated to conduct a systematic study of the statutes to determine whether the laws were discriminatory or whether the absence thereof resulted in women being denied full equal protection under the law.  As Senator Lipman stated:  “[m]any of the state’s laws contain discriminatory provisions based upon sex and reflect policy judgments which are no longer accepted by our society.”  (Trenton Times, June 28, 1979) The legislation enacted as a result of her considerable efforts changed the lives of many of New Jersey’s citizens.  Senator Lipman’s distinguished legislative record included sponsoring bills related to her deep-seated commitment to children’s rights, the rights of women and the disenfranchised and to assuring that health care and essential services were provided to New Jersey’s residents.  Her record of getting more bills signed into law than most legislators stands today. In addition, Senator Lipman’s powers of persuasion were legendary.  When she wanted a bill to go forward she passionately advocated for her legislation and she often “wore down” her colleagues. Senator Lipman knew that there was strength in numbers.  Many of the bills recommended by the Commission were enacted with the strong support of other organizations or individuals.  From law professors to ordinary citizens, Senator Lipman understood that their voices counted in lobbying for a bill. With the formation of alliances came the knowledge that compromises must be made – a “half a loaf is better than none.”    There is also no doubt that Senator Lipman’s legislative success was attributable to her strong belief in the need for the legislation.  Whether it was the establishment of the State’s first domestic violence act, child support laws, the parentage act, economic equity legislation, recognizing Advanced Practice Nurses, or AIDS related legislation, her ground-breaking bills reflected her belief in those issues.  There was no mistaking her deep passion and commitment to social justice and equality. What would Senator Lipman be doing today if she were still in the Senate? No doubt addressing the same kinds of issues, speaking out loudly on behalf of the under-represented, and bringing both her intellect and her powers of persuasion to bear to identify and banish all vestiges of discrimination. In her absence, we draw on the wisdom of the Lipman lecturers to point us toward what others must do to move forward.  

Numbers Matter: Black Women in American Politics

This week, the Center for American Women and Politics and Higher Heights released The Status of Black Women in American Politics, a report that takes a snapshot of Black women’s current political representation and participation and reflects back on the historical advancement of Black women as voters, candidates, and elected and appointed officials. This report identifies and outlines the problem of Black women’s underrepresentation and serves as a call to action for citizens, advocates, potential candidates, and those in political power. I wrote this report over multiple HHAReportCover(1)months, poring through CAWP’s databases of women candidates and elected officials and gathering new data on Black women and men in politics to provide the most comprehensive possible analysis. . Throughout these months, I – a scholar of women and politics accustomed to the significant gender disparities in political power – was continually surprised by the dearth of Black women in elected office at all levels and throughout our states and cities. I was shocked when I realized that Black women have represented fewer than 30 different congressional districts in only 13 states in all of U.S. history and disturbed that I could count the number of Black women who have ever served in statewide elected executive offices on two hands. I was even more taken aback upon noting that 77% of the Black women who have served in Congress and 9 of the 10 Black women who have been elected to statewide executive offices have entered office since 1993. While these data make evident the delay in Black women’s political advancement, this recent history of representational growth demonstrates enormous opportunities for continued progress and power. To ensure that progress, organizations like Higher Heights are working to build a stronger infrastructure of support for Black women candidates and urging Black women to harness their power at the ballot box --  not only to amplify their own political voices, but also to support (and become) the much-needed Black women officeholders. The research proves that advancing Black women’s representation is not only a matter of democratic fairness, but influences policy agendas and debates, as well as the political engagement of underrepresented constituencies. There is much more work to do to in harnessing Black women’s political power, but this report provides an important foundation upon which to foster dialogue and identify opportunities for growth. Why? Because numbers matter. Numbers validate perceptions of inequality. Numbers illuminate the sites for and extent of those disparities. Numbers demonstrate how much work we have left to do. Finally, numbers are power in making the case for change. Take a few minutes to arm yourself with the numbers that resonate most for you from our report. Then please share them with your networks to help us continue the conversation that we began Thursday on harnessing the political power of Black women. On social media, use the hashtag #BlackWomenLead.  

On the Importance of Programs like Run Sister Run

Crystal DesVignes is a graduate student in political science at Rutgers University – Newark. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree and recently worked as a graduate intern at the Center for American Women and Politics. The views presented in this entry are her own.

            On March 22, 2013, the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) hosted approximately fifty African American women for its annual Run Sister Run program in conjunction with its Ready to Run™ program. As part of the diversity initiative along with Elección Latina, and Rising Stars, Run Sister Run offers campaign and political leadership training for those of the African Diaspora. The program is an opportunity to receive encouragement and valuable insight, and to interact first-hand with other African American women who have either run for elected office, are currently running for a position, plan to run in the future, or are contemplating running for an elected office.

 R2R_12The program is geared toward making sure that African American women who are politically-minded have a space to network and be directed to resources and people who will help them to meet their political aspirations. As a third time attendee of the program, I was already a believer in its importance. But, as the saying goes, the third time was the charm for me in solidifying my understanding of why we need to continue programs like this and expand them around the country.

            As I write this piece, I am painfully aware of the issues that women face in our country, even in 2013. We are underpaid for our work in the market place (hence the need for equal pay legislation like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act) and undervalued for our work in the home. We were reminded last year of the fragility of our right to reproductive healthcare, and there was even discussion around whether our bodies could “shut down” a pregnancy that resulted from a “legitimate rape.” We were reduced to being included in “binders full of women” in the last presidential election as one candidate sought to prove that he supported gender equality in his gubernatorial cabinet. Despite all of this, and in some cases because of this, we press on and continue to fight for our place in the decision-making process in our country and government.

            The road to political inclusion is hard for women, to say the least. But for women of color, and African American women it particular, it can mean being doubly excluded from the political arena due to racialization and gendering. Of 98 women serving in Congress (18.3 % of the 535 seats in the 113th Congress), 30 or 30.6% are women of color. Only 14 are African American women. African American women hold only 241 seats in state legislatures across 44 states, and although New Jersey has an African American woman currently serving as speaker of the State Assembly (the Honorable Shelia Y. Oliver), she is only the second African American woman to hold this office in a state legislature nationwide.

            The numbers don’t lie. The people who come to the table to make decisions in our cities, states, and capitals should not all look alike. They should represent the country as we know it. To have a more inclusive racial/ethnic and gendered make-up among our elected officials isn’t just good politics, it makes for better government. We need more representation from African American women. The Center for American Women and Politics provides just a forum for this endeavor in Run Sister Run.

 

On Importance, Power, and Politics

On April  16, the Center for American Women and Politics welcomed Melody Barnes - former assistant to President Obama and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council – as this year’s Senator Wynona Lipman Chair in Women’s Political Leadership. Barnes spoke on Policies that Empower: The Journey from Vulnerability to Engagement, detailing the policy agenda that she deems essential to moving our country forward – particularly among the most vulnerable and most growing populations of Americans. barnes2In addition, Barnes paid tribute to the Chair’s namesake – Senator Wynona Lipman – by detailing both her accomplishments and her legacy. While Senator Wynona Lipman became the first African American woman elected to the New Jersey State Senate in 1971, her legacy is not simply as a “first;” she is best remembered as an advocate, activist, and champion for those whose voices could easily be left unheard in the halls of power. In her remarks, Barnes referred to a quote from Senator Lipman that shaped the remainder of her speech. Senator Lipman frequently told young people, “If you want to create change, don’t just get to know important people, become important people.” This message resonates amidst recent discussions about “leaning in” not only to make a difference in your own life, but also to affect the lives of others. Women in politics have begun to heed this message. Women play an essential role in electing our political leaders; they vote at higher rates and in higher numbers than their male counterparts, and women’s votes have decided the outcomes of recent elections. While this could be viewed as women supporting other important people, women voters have proven that they, in fact, are some of the most important people in electoral politics today. But women’s political participation should not stop at casting ballots. To take Senator Lipman’s words truly to heart, women should fight for their rightful places at decision-making tables throughout our nation, whether on councils, boards, or in our state and federal legislatures. Senator Lipman knew that advocacy and activism are essential to make change, but being in positions of power to heed the calls of advocates in creating policies or statutes is essential. And, as Barnes noted, Senator Lipman emphasized follow-up to ensure that once on the books, laws were enforced effectively. Melody Barnes shared her journey to becoming an important person who was able to sit at some of the highest decision-making tables in the land – advising President Obama and shaping his domestic policy agenda. She has followed Senator Lipman’s advice and has made tangible change – from helping to craft and pass the Affordable Care Act to enacting education reforms from early childhood to higher education. But what Barnes reiterated in her remarks were the ways in which we all are, or can become, important people by harnessing the power we already hold (and of which we are often unaware) to make change in the areas we choose. Politics is an opportune site for harnessing that power, and it’s one where women must engage to create the lasting change they seek.