When They Run: The Challenges Facing Women of Color in Politics

Atima Omara | Aug 3, 2020

As protests against racial injustice and institutional racism continue to flare around the country, all aspects of public and private life are subject to a new and deeper conversation about how racism shapes our experience. In politics and political campaigning, people of color are significantly underrepresented, and women of color specifically are even less represented.

Following the 2016 election and the resulting Women’s March, the last three and half years have seen women of color stepping into Congressional leadership and running on all levels of government. In 2018, voters elected the first two Native American women, the first two Latinas from the state of Texas, and the first two Muslim women ever to Congress. There were similar breakthroughs across the country on the state and local level. We might even see a woman of color become a major party’s nominee for Vice President this year, but there are still many challenges.

According to the Center for American Women in Politics: of the 535 members of the U.S. House and Senate, only 8.8% are women of color. In-state legislatures, only 7.4% of the 7,383 state legislators are women of color. Finally, only 4.5% of the statewide elected executives (including Governor, Attorney General, and other positions) are women of color. These numbers are stark, and even with recent gains, they show just how far we are from equitable representation.

The very real challenges all women face in running for office are magnified a hundredfold for women of color—because of their skin color. I’ve experienced this myself, as a black woman, running for numerous political party positions and elected office as well as working on the campaigns of other women of color. The perception of electability—routinely raised about all woman candidates—is further heightened for women of color. That perception impacts who is willing to give you money and thus how quickly you can hire staff and stay competitive.

Even when women of color have greater skills, experience, and knowledge than potential male opponents, their experience is questioned in a way that is rarely seen for men. Experienced women of color are encouraged to “Gain more experience, serve as committee chairs” — basically polite ways of saying “Wait your turn.”

Recently here in Virginia, three women of color state legislators, Delegates Jennifer Carroll Foy, Hala Ayala, and Elizabeth Guzman expressed interest in running for statewide executive office in 2021. Each of these women has served in the General Assembly, written bills, and been successfully re-elected to their seats, and yet an unsigned editorial questioning their experience was published in a regional Virginia paper. This is the same Commonwealth of Virginia where two of the last four Governors in the last twenty years were white men who had not held public office in any capacity prior to serving in the highest statewide executive office in the Commonwealth. Both left office with high approval ratings for their work.

What can we do now to support black and other women of color in public office? Elect them to party leadership positions. Recruit and ask them to run. And then actually support them.  Donate to their campaigns, fund-raise, and volunteer for them. We cannot change the face of power and build a truly reflective democracy if we are not collectively encouraging and supporting women of color to step up and own their power.

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