BLOG—It’s time to start listening to WOC, y’all
- Published: December 14, 2017
In 1933, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered Frances Perkins the position of Labor Secretary, making her the first woman to ever hold a Cabinet-level position, she understood the significance of the moment. She said to suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt:
“The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time, and I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the right of others long hence and far distant in geography to sit in the high seats.”1
There is no denying that women have made major strides in government. The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) out of Rutger University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics maintains a website that yearly reports the numbers of women serving in Congress, cabinet positions, the Supreme Court, state executive offices, state legislatures, and mayoral posts. Here are some interesting facts:
- In Ohio, a dozen women serve as mayor for cities with populations of 30,000 or more, including Nan Whaley of Dayton. Only 22% of the state legislature is comprised of women, ranking Ohio thirty-first of fifty states.
- Arizona ranks number one, with women representing 40% of the legislature (a 19–17, Democrat–Republican split).
- There are 105 women in the 115th U.S. Congress, accounting to 19.6%; twenty-one women serve in the Senate, and eighty-four (19.3%) seats in the House of Representatives.
- Of the 105, seventy-eight are Democrats and twenty-seven are Republicans.
- In statewide executive positions, there are seventy-four women serving in some capacity, or 23.7% of the available seats.
- Of these positions, thirty-one are Democrats and forty-two are Republicans.
- Overall, there is a fairly even split between the two major political parties, and within each of them there are presumably varying philosophical spectrums. On paper, this would appear to be a positive sign for diversity. However, the numbers do not parallel the female population in the country, which according to the last census was 157 million, or 50.8% of the overall population. Even more troubling in terms of representation in government are the numbers concerning women of color (WOC).
Once again relying upon the CAWP numbers, there are thirty-eight WOC serving in Congress, representing 36.2% of the women serving, but only 7.1% of the entire Congressional body. Thirty-five are Democrats, with only five Republicans. In terms of statewide executives, seven WOC currently are serving: four Democrat and three Republican. This, however, is where the parity ends. Of the 1,824 female state legislators, 437 are WOC: 409 Democrats and twenty-six Republicans. The Republican brand does not resonate with many WOC who run for office and are elected.
One wonders if Secretary Perkins would be shocked by these numbers. And if she were, what would shock her? That so many or so few women are in elected government? That so many or so few women of color are serving. What might she think about male politicians being held to account for their behavior, either through pressure to resign or via an election victory denied?
Of course, President Roosevelt himself was a notorious womanizer. And while the current president’s name should never appear in the same sentence as that of FDR, there’s no doubt that plenty of presidents have engaged in sexual harassment. Lyndon Baines Johnson made freqnet, crude remarks about women’s bodies. We should be careful before saying about Trump, to use one of his own tired expressions, that this is a harassment the likes of which no one had ever seen. Historically, women were told they had to to endure it. Often, they were told this by their own mothers. If a woman refused to endure it, she often was told that she brought it upon herself. She was a strumpet, a temptresses, a Jezebel, a whore. A brief look at our own history shows that almost always those who spoke up saw their lives and careers ruined. I, for one, think the nation owes a huge apology to Anita Hill. And, yes, Monica Lewinsky.
So I don’t mean, would Perkins be shocked by the sexual harassment and assault? I’m asking, would she be surprised that it has taken the nation so long to shine a light on this pervasive violence? Further, would she be shocked that women of color are still afforded so little cultural worth and meaning that it is only when beautiful white women speak up that something is done? In fact, some of the most iconic movements in recent history have been begun by Black women.
For example, did you know that the #metoo movement was started by an African-American woman named Tarana Banks over a decade ago? When famed actor Alyssa Milano tweeted it, the avalanche began. While it is absolutely brave and vital work that white women have been doing to bring attention to this issue, why isn’t Tarana Banks a household name?
Or, another one. Did you know that Black Lives Matter was started by three African-American women: Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors? They have often felt pushed aside in their own work by the attention paid to Black men. Again, to be sure, we need to increase the attention paid to the brutalization of Black men in this country. But why are Black women rarely provided the spotlight, even when they put in the bulb and plugged in the lamp?
This is one close to my heart. Did you know that Browder v. Gayle, the case that legally ended Alabama’s bus segregation laws, had as its plaintiffs four African-American women? Aurelia Browder, Claudette Colvin, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith faced incessant harassment and death threats—a fifth plaintiff, Jeanetta Reese, was forced to drop out when the pressure from the white community was too much—but they stood up and say, “No.” They kept saying it until the SCOTUS said, “You’re right.”
Finally, Doug Jones (D-AL) owes his shocking victory in no small part to 98% of African-American women who cast a ballot for him. Despite continued efforts to keep African-Americans from voting, demographics are changing in this country, and with them are new opportunities to affect lasting change.
We are at a curious juncture in our nation’s history. Things are not well in many respects. We are closer to nuclear war than any point in my lifetime, and I was in elementary school when President Regan had us guessing if we’d see nuclear winter. Economic inequality is so vast today, experts believe it may be the worst ever. Most of us live in a very different country than do the super wealthy, who have convinced the poor that their problem is illegal immigrants, or other poor people, or college students. Party politics have left most of us with a bad taste in our mouths and we’re not eager to go in for another sip. The natural world is roaring from the incessant abuse that the Industrial Revolution unleashed. It is nonstop and we’re looking for signs of hope.
The defeat of Roy Moore, an undeniable racist, homophobe, Islamophobe, and misogynist, is a sign of hope. It is shocking that in Alabama and Utah, girls can still be married with parental consent at the age of fourteen. This is not as bad as New Hampshire, which legalizes marriages to brides of just thirteen years old. Perhaps this is a sign that we’ll tolerate a man in his thirties cruising the mall for junior high students just because he has a good job, as was actually argued by a voter in Alabama. Just because our grandmothers were married off young—let’s be honest, there was not always consent in these young marriages; in my own family line there were girls forced to marry their rapists—doesn’t mean that there is any reason for a child to be married before a reasonable age.
Finally addressing sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace is a long time coming, and it is a reason for hope. But we are not going to be able to adequately fix what’s broken until we begin to heed the words of WOC. Take, for example, the recent interview National Public Radio (NPR) journalist Lulu Garcia-Navarro conducted with The Washington Post‘s global opinion’s editor Karen Attiah. In it, they discussed the need to open the conversation about harassment to include women in blue collar jobs. Attiah remarked:
“Because again, what ties all of this together, regardless of income, regardless of status, regardless of color, really, is about the abuse of power. So, women of color who already have harder barriers in those professional circles, I think we absolutely do need to pay more attention to their stories, and part of that will be for us to start listening and to start taking women of color seriously.”
As a nation, we have never truly faced the atrocities we visited upon First Nations. We have never engaged in repentance or supplied reparations for centuries of enslavement, legal brutalization, and continual violence inflicted upon an entire community of people. Until we do so—utilizing the restorative justice model of the Maori peoples, as discussed in this documentary film—we will continue to live a national lie, that of equal opportunities and protection under the law.
Right now, though, we have hope for really dealing with sexual abuse and harassment. But cannot be just about high-profile, wealthy, or influential white women only. We need to make sure that female sailors, domestic workers, and, yes, even sex workers, are both protected and provided real recourse to redress their situation.
In other words, it’s time to start listening to WOC, y’all. And not just as an afterthought, or for tokenism or faux diversity. We need to not only listen to tales of struggle, but also—and most importantly—to their ideas about how to fix the problems.
This post has been updated to read Anita Hill, not Anita Bryant. The author apologizes profusely for the error.
1. Emily Yellin, Our Mother’s War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II, p.285