This is what a legislator looks like. Catch up.

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.

 

Numbers Matter: Black Women in American Politics

This week, the Center for American Women and Politics and Higher Heights released The Status of Black Women in American Politics, a report that takes a snapshot of Black women’s current political representation and participation and reflects back on the historical advancement of Black women as voters, candidates, and elected and appointed officials. This report identifies and outlines the problem of Black women’s underrepresentation and serves as a call to action for citizens, advocates, potential candidates, and those in political power. I wrote this report over multiple HHAReportCover(1)months, poring through CAWP’s databases of women candidates and elected officials and gathering new data on Black women and men in politics to provide the most comprehensive possible analysis. . Throughout these months, I – a scholar of women and politics accustomed to the significant gender disparities in political power – was continually surprised by the dearth of Black women in elected office at all levels and throughout our states and cities. I was shocked when I realized that Black women have represented fewer than 30 different congressional districts in only 13 states in all of U.S. history and disturbed that I could count the number of Black women who have ever served in statewide elected executive offices on two hands. I was even more taken aback upon noting that 77% of the Black women who have served in Congress and 9 of the 10 Black women who have been elected to statewide executive offices have entered office since 1993. While these data make evident the delay in Black women’s political advancement, this recent history of representational growth demonstrates enormous opportunities for continued progress and power. To ensure that progress, organizations like Higher Heights are working to build a stronger infrastructure of support for Black women candidates and urging Black women to harness their power at the ballot box --  not only to amplify their own political voices, but also to support (and become) the much-needed Black women officeholders. The research proves that advancing Black women’s representation is not only a matter of democratic fairness, but influences policy agendas and debates, as well as the political engagement of underrepresented constituencies. There is much more work to do to in harnessing Black women’s political power, but this report provides an important foundation upon which to foster dialogue and identify opportunities for growth. Why? Because numbers matter. Numbers validate perceptions of inequality. Numbers illuminate the sites for and extent of those disparities. Numbers demonstrate how much work we have left to do. Finally, numbers are power in making the case for change. Take a few minutes to arm yourself with the numbers that resonate most for you from our report. Then please share them with your networks to help us continue the conversation that we began Thursday on harnessing the political power of Black women. On social media, use the hashtag #BlackWomenLead.