Women are refusing to take the backseat in politics, especially Latinas
In 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, the Suffragette Parade organized between 5,000 and 10,000 women and allies, marching down Pennsylvania Avenue, in search and support of the right to vote for women. It was the first major demonstration in Washington in support of women’s suffrage. But the parade was also marred by rampant racism; women of color had to march in the back of the procession. Unfortunately, the issues that were at play in the fight for women’s political rights in 1913 still plague many of the campaigns for equal rights today. Too often women of color – and other marginalized women – have been excluded from the political process, especially when their own rights are at stake.
The United States did not have a black woman in Congress until 1969, when Shirley Chisholm was elected to represent New York’s 12th District. The United States did not have a Latina in Congress until 1989, when Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was elected to represent Florida’s 27th District. The fight for women’s representation in the halls of power has been slow, frustrating and demoralizing, but it has also resulted in some of this country’s most effective and impactful policies. The inclusion of women opened new avenues of thinking and policy-making that once might have seemed unattainable.
In the Latinx community in particular, young women are disproportionately relied upon to serve in administrative roles: translating for family members, filling out and submitting necessary paperwork, keeping track of appointments, etc. It falls on them because often they are the only family members who speak English, have higher education and a better understanding of American bureaucracy. For many of them, this is the first encounter with the government and it provides some cursory engagement with our political system. That nascent political experience can easily be translated into full-blown activism, and – as we’ve seen since the election of President Donald Trump – women have been increasingly taking leadership roles in political advocacy and organizing.
The ascendancy of Donald Trump and women in politics is not coincidental. Hearing then-candidate Trump speak openly about assaulting women, insult the looks of a fellow candidate or the wife of another candidate, and vilify the first woman at the head of a major-party ticket fueled women across the country.
More than just plain rhetoric, this president has unleashed the full force of his administration toward the persecution of the Latinx community. From his border wall and policies emboldening ICE, to his attempt to use the census against immigrants and communities of color, Donald Trump has provided an ideal foil to the kind of empathetic, progressive society we are seeking to build. Whether he realizes it or not, he’s paved a path for record numbers of women to enter politics through voting, mobilizing and running for office. As a result, we saw the most diverse Congress in the history of the United States elected in 2018, and one which also featured more women representatives than ever before.
While many might assume the Voting Rights Act was the final expansion of the franchise to minorities and marginalized folks, Latinx people, Native Americans, South Asians and others did not receive full suffrage until the VRA was amended in 1975 to – among other things – include a requirement for bilingual ballots to be made available to anyone who requested them. For the first time, women who’d been excluded from the VRA ten years before could now engage in our electoral system, and in turn, make it stronger.
Still, this country has not figured out how to consider marginalized people and communities when crafting civil rights policy. Protections for the most vulnerable among us are often lacking from majoritarian proposals, when, in reality, the reverse should be the case. All Americans would benefit if policy proposals were centered around trans women, low-income and migrant women at the border and any other severely marginalized groups. This paradigm shift has only become more possible with more women serving in leadership positions. I look forward to it only growing as we progress.
María Teresa Kumar is the Founding President and CEO of Voto Latino and an Emmy-nominated contributor with MSNBC.
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