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.