Women in Politics: Fighting for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

This post was originally published on Word In Black.

By: Ariama C. Long

Although recent presidential elections have seen more diverse women on both sides of the political aisle jockeying for party nominations, the fact remains that in more than 240 years, the U.S. has never elected a female president. The prevailing sexist joke is that if you were married to the president as First Lady, like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, then you’ve already “been in control of the White House.”

Vice President Kamala Harris is the first, and only, woman, Black American, or South Asian American to be elected to her position, as was the case when she served as district attorney of San Francisco and U.S. Senator for California. When she was elected alongside President Joe Biden in 2020, women of all backgrounds got one step closer to running the White House rather than just residing in it.

America’s history of overt political sexism and racism is still holding women back from the presidency, so the question is simple: If a candidate like Harris were a white male and not a Black woman, would they be president? The polls say: Most likely. “Women have always faced systemic barriers of sexism and misogyny that hinder our opportunities, and women of color face the additional obstacle of racism,” said New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, the first Black person to hold her position. She currently leads a historic women-majority City Council from 2022. She’s seen firsthand the disparate treatment women leaders receive, the challenges women face, and how their decisions and leadership are portrayed, she said.

“Time and time again, our city and country have witnessed the way women seeking higher office have been portrayed, questioned, and dismissed compared to their male counterparts,” said Adams. “We continue to see and experience these obstacles today, and it is not coincidental that there has never been a woman elected to serve as mayor of New York City or president of the United States.”

Trying to Break the Hardest Glass Ceiling

Contrary to popular belief, women have a long history of running for president in the U.S. The first woman to run for president was a stockbroker and publisher named Victoria Woodhull, who ran on the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872. Belva Lockwood, the first woman admitted to practice law, also ran for president on the same ticket in 1888. Journalist Charlotta Spears Bass was the first Black woman nominee for vice president, in 1952 on the Progressive Party ticket.

“It was so out of the box. There were so few role models of women who even considered it,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP). “It’s important to remember that this was the period where if a woman went in and tried to vote, she would get arrested.”

In Miami in 1972, Brooklyn native and Congressmember Shirley Chisholm changed the game when she ran for president in the Democratic primaries and garnered 151.25 delegate votes before Senator George McGovern clinched the nomination.

Longtime Harlemite and former national president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Dr. Hazel N. Dukes, who is the current president of the organization’s New York State chapter, recalled the night Chisholm announced her nomination.

At the time, Dukes was a member of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and a delegate. She went to dinner that night with the Helen M. Marshall, the first Black borough president of Queens (now deceased); former Council member Mary Pinkett, the first Black New York City Council member; and former Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton. On the way back, they passed by a distraught Chisholm in the green room behind the stage at the convention. When they inquired about what had happened, Chisholm told them that U.S. Rep Ron Dellums of California, the first Black person elected to Congress in north California, was supposed to nominate her for a presidential bid. He was directly told by higher-ups that if he did, he risked career suicide, said Dukes, so he backed down.

“Mr. Sutton said, ‘What?! Well, would you like for me to do that?’” said Dukes, chuckling at the memory. “So he looked at me and Mary and Helen, and he said, ‘I’m going to nominate her, would you all second?’And you know me, I’ve always been brave. So we said yes.”

Chisholm was on the ballot in 12 primaries, and although she didn’t win, she used her platform as a candidate to talk about women’s rights, civil rights, education issues, and the Vietnam War. Her activism, outspoken voice, legacy, and ambitions continue to inspire countless others.

“My mentor, Shirley Chisholm, broke glass ceilings so Black women like myself, Vice President Harris, and countless others can be leaders in our democracy. The impact of Shirley Chisholm’s legacy is still felt today,” said U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee of California in a statement. “With GOP extremists out to take away our freedoms and turn back the clock, we are pressing forward, and fighting for our voices to be heard and respected on all fronts. From grassroots activists to Supreme Court justices, women are forging the path for the next generation to strengthen our democracy and protect our freedoms.”

Over the next several decades, women in both the Democratic and Republican parties tried for the presidency and vice presidency.

In 2003, former U.S. Senator and Ambassador to New Zealand Carol Moseley Braun announced her intentions to bid for the 2004 election, but she withdrew her name the following year. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin became the first woman on a national Republican line for vice president, alongside Senator John McCain, in 2008. Former First Lady and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton came pretty close to holding the oval office. She was the first woman to win a major party’s Democratic presidential primary, at the same time as Palin, in 2008. By 2016, she was a formidable political figure. Clinton then threw her hat in the presidential ring again, becoming the Democratic nominee for president and earning the popular vote in the general election by almost 3 million votes. Clinton had only 227 votes in the electoral college, though. She ended up conceding to Donald J. Trump, who had clinched the electoral college with 304 votes. In 2019, in preparation for the 2020 presidential election, six women formally announced their candidacy for president: U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand from New York, Sen. Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota, Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts, author Marianne Williamson, and Harris. This was the first time in history that more than two women competed in the same major party’s presidential primary process. Walsh considers the fact that other countries have elected women to be heads of state more than once is an indication that the U.S. as a nation is “behind.”

Challenges for Women Remain

One of the biggest challenges women candidates face in general is raising enough money. A report by CAWP highlighted how underrepresented women’s voices are in American politics because they are underrepresented as donors, even though they are often “formidable fundraisers.”

“In American politics, money, unfortunately, is an important factor; one that has been a challenge for women candidates—one they do overcome, but it’s harder for them to raise money,” said Walsh. “They come from less-money networks, they make less money than men, and so running for office [is hard]. They are able to raise the money—we know that they do it, but it’s a lot more work to get it done.” According to the report, “Men give a disproportionate amount of all money contributed, with women giving one-third or less of all money contributed to gubernatorial, statewide executive, and state legislative races from 2019 to 2022.” In places that were considered abortion battlegrounds, men’s campaign contributions far exceeded women’s contributions to state races.

There are also partisan differences among women donors. Women are more likely to give to Democrats and are “poorly represented” as donors to Republican state candidates. The total amount contributed by men to Democratic state candidates also exceeds the total amount contributed by women, according to the CAWP report.

Despite these financial challenges, a record number of Black women have been running for and winning political offices—although no Black woman has ever served as governor.

“Over the past decade, Black women have seen representational gains across all levels of office, including in the federal executive, and achieved milestones as candidates and officeholders within states and nationwide,” said Glynda C. Carr, president & CEO of Higher Heights for America. “However, while we have made gains, the underrepresentation of Black women in American politics persists. The 2022 election illuminated these realities. Record numbers of Black women ran for congressional and statewide elective executive offices and, as a result of the election, a record number of Black women now serve in Congress, in the statewide elective executive office, and [in] state legislatures.”

Statistically, the Black woman voting bloc is also a loyal and consistent voting base that has been a deciding factor in elections for years.

More than two-thirds of Black women turned out to vote in the 2020 presidential election, which was the third-highest rate of any race-gender group, said CAWP. They overwhelmingly voted for Biden, and about 90% or more of Black women voters cast their ballots for the Democratic ticket.

Walsh considers Black women the backbone of the Democratic party.

“We know that Black women can serve in these roles. When Black women are at decision-making tables, better decisions are made,” said Carr. “More work needs to be done to understand and address the hurdles these Black women candidates confront en route to political office.”

Carr added that biases, racism, and sexism in American politics create systemic barriers that make it harder for women candidates to succeed, and can lead to a lack of support and resources for Black women candidates, making it more difficult for them to run competitive campaigns. In 2022’s mixed-gender non-incumbent gubernatorial primaries, white women fared better in terms of how much money their campaigns were able to raise compared to women from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. Women from historically underrepresented groups were less likely to enter competitive races than white women, the CAWP report found.

“Black women in American politics have come far, but not further enough to build the type of presidential profile, war chest, and more to be competitive in a national election,” said political strategist and veteran campaign manager Donna Brazile. “For now, the goal is to get more Black women elected to Congress [House and Senate] and statewide. The bigger the pipeline, the larger the crop of viable candidates who one day may build the type of profile and candidacy to compete for the Presidency of the United States. Barack Obama did it.”

Another major challenge women in politics face is perception.

Pew Research Center analysis indicates that women candidates in the U.S. are punished more than men for showing emotions and having young children at home, as well as their perceived levels of physical attractiveness, assertiveness, and experience.

“The words that I am most allergic to and that I hate that we use as metrics are words like ‘likable’ or ‘authentic’ or ‘electable’ because what you’re talking about if you say someone is not one of those things is fundamentally that they are not what I am used to,” said EMILYs List Senior Vice President of Communications and Content Christina Reynolds.

Reynolds noted that for years, women who ran for office tried to “fit in a male shaped box” by wearing pantsuits, cutting their hair short, and being more inflexible on political issues. They often strove to appear more subjectively “likable” and “experienced” in order to be thought of as credible to voters. “The reality is in this country we have never elected a woman president. We’ve had one—and only one—woman win her party’s nomination. We’ve had one—and only one—woman serve as vice president,” said Reynolds. “And so when we think of those positions, we think of a guy in a suit because that’s what we’re used to. So the truth is, what I like to remind people of is that most men who have run for president have lost, and yet we don’t consider them unelectable.”

Reynolds loved that the 2020 elections had so many different kinds of women with different ideologies running. She hopes that the more women are seen running for president, the more voters will confront their own internal biases from the media and polling.

Women candidates are also seen as too “risky” to vote for, meaning that in really competitive races people assume that women will lose and therefore voters would rather save their vote for a candidate they think might win—which is usually a man, said Walsh.

“2020 was a particularly strong example where Democrats felt desperate, like we cannot elect Donald Trump again, and so they wanted the safest possible candidate. And there was this fear that if you went outside of the most, in many ways the traditional, old school Democrat, that it would be too risky,” said Walsh. “And I think women and candidates of color were risky. And she [VP Harris] was both.”

What Does the VP Say?

In an televised interview with “60 Minutes” last November, Harris did address the unique and added pressure her position as the first Black woman vice president has. She also acknowledged the rumblings that donors would not “naturally” fall in line to support her should she inadvertently become president if Biden dies, per the Constitution’s rules of succession by default.

“I hear from a lot of different people a lot of different things, but I am focused on the job. I truly am. Our democracy is on the line. I, frankly, in my head, do not have time for parlor games,” she continued, sidestepping the question. The AmNews reached out to Harris’ office for further comment. Her press office declined.

“Women, particularly Black women, confront bias at nearly every turn our lives take,” said U.S. Rep Yvette D. Clarke in a statement. “And so, when a strong Black woman makes the bold, brave choice to seek higher office, these sorts of accusations come as no surprise to her—nor should be of any concern to her. We do not burden ourselves with the opinions of the intolerant, for even the flawless record of an undeniably competent woman would not deter the most prejudiced individuals. Out of thin air, they conjure detractions and complaints and aim to smear our stories for no reasons beyond that we are born with.”

In terms of the future beyond the 2024 presidential elections, there’s a sense that a woman head of state is closer than ever in the U.S. Dukes hypothesized that a woman as president of the U.S. is not inconceivable. “There will be a breakthrough,” said Dukes. “A woman will win the presidency, sooner or later.”

“To any woman facing the same discriminatory slanders that have persisted since long before Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s historic run for the presidency, I urge her to follow the lead of our distinguished Vice President Kamala Harris—and that is to ignore them,” continued Clarke. “Day by day, success by success, these outdated ideas are fading into the past. All we can do is stay resilient and brilliant and expedite their end.”

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