Minority Women in Public Service

Late into election night, women across America realized that they would have to wait another four years—at least—before a woman would sit behind a heavy desk in the Oval Office. Party affiliation aside, it is difficult for most women to look at the portraits of centuries of presidents without a glimmer of disappointment that no woman’s face has yet disrupted that line. Indeed, one website devoted itself to the awe of watching women who were born before suffrage vote for a woman for president. (Of course, this is not the first time a woman has run for office – Victoria Woodhull comes to mind – and in the past women have had the opportunity to vote for a female candidate, but the poignancy of this website arose from the fact that this time, a vote for a woman might be a winning vote for the President.)

In the midst of disappointment, women formed plans to carry forward the momentum gained by women involved in the 2016 election; a political incubator was established; a march on Washington was planned. Other organizations have focused on supporting women interested in political office. Most of these organizations focus not on party or type of office, but instead on supporting and training women to enter public service, regardless of ideological orientation. Often this starts with convincing them to run in the first place. (As it turns out, women are elected and re-elected at the same rates as men, but women are less likely to enter the race.)

However, few organizations are specifically devoted to minority women and their multi-layered identities. Incubators for female politicians often do not distinguish between women on the basis of other factors, such as immigration history, race, ethnicity, religion or sexuality; instead, some attempt to incubate female politicians based on a single facet of identity, gender or sexuality or race or religion. The need to pick an organization that focuses on just one aspect of a woman’s identity can subtly encourage minority women to choose a single identity from which to launch a bid for public office.

What most of these women’s organizations have in common is an exclusive focus on gender. Certain organizations like the National Federation of Republican Women or Emily’s List target a political ideology (Republican and Democratic, respectively). And there are organizations, like the Victory Institute, that support and train members of the LGBT+ community for government service in elected and appointed roles, and organizations, like the Women Organizing Women Network (WOW) and NOBEL, that serve a specific group of minority women.

The largest and most established of the organizations for minority women serve the African-American community. Some, like NOBEL, concentrate on increasing the number of black women elected to legislative office. Other organizations for minority women (e.g., the Black Women’s Round TableBlack Women’s Blueprint, and National Congress of Black Women) support and encourage women’s entry into politics as part of a more general advocacy for causes important to minority women, like healthcare, criminal justice, education and gender-based violence. Participation in any of these organizations could give women experiences and political connections that could one day translate into a successful bid for office.

Minority and LGBT women face a much harder time getting elected to office than either minority men or straight white women. The literature on the challenges minority women face in elections is substantially less developed than the literature regarding minorities or women in politics. An organization like NOBEL or WOW has an incentive to research and understand why there are fewer minority women in politics, and how to fix the problem. In addition, such organizations can take advantage of existing research to leverage the unique opportunities and combat the challenges of running as a minority woman.

One key insight such an organization can bring is that minority women have multi-layered identities, and many women straddle groups that already struggle to be represented in politics. This means that minority women face more challenges than minority men and straight white women, but minority women can also appeal to more than one community. For example, when Ilhan Omar was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives and became the first Somali-American legislator in the United States, she had to contend with intersectional stereotypes about gender, race, religion, refugee status and nationality. At the same time, she had a cross-sectional appeal for women, African-Americans, refugees, Muslims, immigrants and East Africans.

Understanding both the challenges of intersectional identity and the opportunities of cross-sectional appeal, some organizations have adopted different methods for recruiting minority women into public service. NOBEL, for example, seeks to bring women into legislative careers, while WOW focuses on organizing women into local- and community-based public service. This community-based focus has been mirrored in the United Kingdom, where Baroness Uddin, the first Muslim to sit in the House of Lords, chaired a government taskforce on recruiting black and Asian women as local councilors. The focus on local government is by no means specific to minority communities (both the Fawcett Society in the UK and Emily’s List in the U.S. advocate for local service), but local government is perhaps a particular opportunity for women of racial or ethnic minorities, who may gain ardent initial support from their own communities.

Of course, minority women can utilize resources for women, resources for their minority identity and organizations specifically tailored to their intersectional identity. And even within an organization tailored to one aspect of identity, minority women can and do choose to make all aspects of their identity relevant. Advocating for a woman’s cause can go hand-in-hand with advocating within a woman’s cause. Until there are more intersectional resources for minority women seeking public office, many minority women will have to advocate within organizations tailored to a single-identity in order to create resources that specifically address the opportunities and challenges of running for office as a minority woman. Or – and this should be read as a call to action – they can establish those resources for themselves.