Elected Women of Color in the U.S.: Opportunities and Challenges

By Qianrong Ding

While Kamala Harris’s ascension to power will likely inspire more women of color to participate in politics, significant challenges remain. We interviewed SAIS students and Dr. Chiedo Nwankwor, the Director of SAIS Women Lead and lecturer with the African Studies Program, for more insights.

U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks in Wilmington, Delaware on December 1, 2020 (Reuters Pictures by Leah Millis)

Kamala Harris’s election as vice president of the United States is historic progress toward gender and racial equality, at least symbolically, in 2020, the year of Women’s Suffrage Centennial. During a culturally divisive period in American history, The SAIS Observer reflects on the potential impact Vice President-Elect Harris may have on diversity in politics, as well as the challenges women of color still face.

Kamala Harris, along with the more than 51 women of color heading to this year’s Congress, shatters a record for female, minority representation in the highest offices of the U.S. government. According to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), women of color made up 37.3% of the 126 female members of 116th U.S. Congress and constituted 8.8% of the total Congressional members in 2019. There have only been about 75 women of color total who have served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1965 to 2018, and only five women of color elected to the U.S. Senate after 1993.

A report from the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Civic Engagement Fund points out that this phenomenon is positively correlated with the rise in the voting rate of women of color, accompanied by an increase in political mobilization. Although some of the political mobilizations could also be reactionary to Trump’s administration, Dr. Nwankwor, the Director of SAIS Women Lead, said the movement has roots in American history, “President Trump’s racist rhetoric seems to have played a huge role in intensifying women of color’s sense of urgency now. Yet, one needs to know that women of color have been historically overlooked [in regards to political mobilization] and not given the credit they deserve.”

To be sure, more women of color at the helm of U.S. politics is the result of the accumulated efforts of more than a century. Women of color fought for women’s suffrage alongside white women, resulting in women obtaining the right to vote through the 19th amendment, notes Dr. Nwankor. “Even then, black women’s voting marginalization persisted, and they sustained their franchise activism until the 1964 civil rights act. They are politically savvy and experienced in contributing to policies that expand gender and race equality, like criminal justice reform.”

Today, the fight for gender equality and racial equality continues. Advancements in information and communications technology and the popularization of social media make women of color’s political mobilization more visible and influential. According to Dr. Nwankwor, women of color are especially adept at using social media and other technological means to showcase their involvement and advanced political skills. 

Yet, there remain inequities in women of color’s representation in the highest executive and legislative offices in the United States. Women of color comprise 18% of the US population, but only 8.8% of Congress. Statistically, women of color continue to be severely underrepresented. Even with a history of skilled political mobilization, there still are challenges to women reaching positions of power.

Firstly, notes Dr. Nwankor, both explicit and implicit biases, create obstacles for women of color running for office. One example is the higher standards to which women of color are held, says Areesha Irfan, a second-year Strategic Studies concentrator. “They are torn down by the media and political opponents. They are attacked for their backgrounds; they are given constant death threats and face adversity on every step of their careers.” Irfan cites the examples of Representative Ilhan Omar and political staffer Huma Abedin being falsely accused of having links to terrorists. “Women of color are constantly abused by their peers publicly in politics and often used for political benefit.” 

And though implicit biases are often more challenging to uncover as they “operate more in the subconscious,” says Dr. Nwankwor, they “are nevertheless just as dangerous, if not more.”

Secondly, institutional support for female trailblazers often falls short of mainstream candidates. Historically, women lack networks to build political capital, which undermines their ability to obtain institutional support in political leadership. “Women need networks like men’s to build a sense of power,” says Dr. Nwankwor. “That is what the sororities across campuses are trying to establish – to push back on the old boys’ associations and build their own networks so that they can also establish a pipeline for women to ascend to higher places.”

Finally, issues of race and gender intersectionality are overshadowed by contemporary feminist issues in politics, making the experiences of women of color invisible historically. “If we limit women to one identity block, we limit our understanding of feminism,” says Areesha Irfan. “In order to thoroughly understand identity, we must look at race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, etc. While suffragettes fought for the right to vote, many of these women didn’t want those rights extended to women of color.” 

Dr. Nwankwor also indicates that treating women as a monolith has historically been an issue, though the discourse is changing. “That phenomenon has become highlighted in both policy and process,” says Dr. Nwankwor, “through the insistence of advocates and practices of advocating for non-essentialist engagement of women’s issues since socioeconomic status, education, and race intersect and overlap to exacerbate the problems facing women of color. There is currently a normalization of the understanding that women are not a monolithic entity.”

However, while the legacy of structural sexism and racism still impacts women of color who run for office, Dr. Nwankwor emphasized that normalizing women of color as political leaders in the public sphere through education and the media has been extremely crucial. Due to explicit and implicit biases, voters are used to the received narrative of white men as efficient leaders. The media, including the SAIS Observer, has a role in presenting women of color as influential political leaders and reducing other negative stereotypes. 

Women’s representation matters, and women of color’s representation matters. As Uri-Biia Si-Asar, an African Studies student, notes, “it’s important to see women in positions of power [and] in different industries to teach future generations that women are just as – if not more – capable than men, and to normalize women being able to do what they want, not just what society deems important.”

Kamala Harris’s rise ignites the hope that she, as Vice President, could bring a fresh perspective and promote policies to improve the overall welfare of people of color and other U.S. citizens, to ensure a sustainable, inclusive, and diverse society. 

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