From Ayanna Pressley to Ilhan Omar, 2018 Was the Year of Women of Color
One of the most exciting stories of Election Day was the historic firsts racked up by this diverse group of women.
In what’s been called the “Year of the Woman,” her story is so familiar it’s almost rote: Discouraged and angry after the 2016 election, Veronica Escobar decided the best way to fight an administration she saw as dangerous was to run for office. Like a record-breaking 256 other women, she mounted a bid for Congress.
But Escobar wasn’t motivated solely by feminine rage. The 48-year-old former county commissioner is Latina, and lives in the border city of El Paso, Texas. She told The Daily Beast she decided to leave the local office she’d held for more than a decade after growing tired of the Trump administration's constant attacks on immigrants.
“I've told people that it almost feels like enlisting, like there's a battle happening in Washington D.C.,” she said. “And I felt this urgent need to participate in this battle that's going on and to fight on behalf of the community.”
On Tuesday, Escobar won the seat vacated by former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, joining Sylvia Garcia as the first two Latina congresswomen from Texas. Reflecting on her victory, Escobar said she was especially proud that, in the face of the administration's attacks on immigrants,“it is our community that is fighting back by making history.”
Her community was not the only one making history on Tuesday. In fact, while all eyes were on record number of women running for office, the most exciting story of Election Day may have been the historic firsts racked up by women of color.
Former Boston City Council member Ayanna Pressley won her race for Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District, becoming the first black congresswoman from the state. Michelle Lujan Grisham won the New Mexico gubernatorial race, making her the first Democratic woman of color to win a governorship.
Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan shared the distinction of being the first Muslim women in Congress, while Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas became the first two Native American congresswomen. Davids will also be the first openly gay member of the Kansas congressional delegation and the first Democratic woman to represent her district.
The wave of historic wins won’t bring Congress anywhere near equal representation—women of color are approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population and less than 8 percent of the House and Senate. But experts say the latest increase will help to make Congress more responsive to the communities it serves.
“Historically, we've had policy-making and laws being written by one really very small slice of the population, and their life experiences just aren't the same,” said Brenda Choresi Carter, director of the Reflective Democracy Campaign. “We can't expect one group to fully understand the range of perspectives and experiences of the whole population.”
Tuesday’s successes were due in part to growing pressure on the Democratic Party to support women of color. Just last year, prominent black female activists and leaders publicly accused the Democratic National Committee of failing to support black women running for office. Others accused prominent Democratic political action committees like Emily’s List of favoring white candidates in their endorsements.
As a result, Carter said, the Democratic Party “feels more accountable to women of color as a constituency probably than they ever have.”
That doesn’t mean things are perfect. A’shanti Gholar, political director for Emerge America, said it’s still difficult for women of color to gain traction with traditional political gatekeepers like donors or party leaders. When these elites picture a viable candidate, she added, “they’re thinking ‘straight white man.’”
Gholar pointed to Lauren Underwood, a candidate for Illinois' 14th Congressional District, whom most party members “automatically wrote off” because she wanted to run in a majority-white district. Underwood was projected to win her general election on Tuesday.
Other experts singled out Jahana Hayes, a black woman who won the Democratic nomination for Connecticut's 5th Congressional District even though she didn’t have the party’s backing in the primary.
“This is just another antiquated notion that exists, that women of color cannot win in districts where people of color are not the majority,” Gholar said. “That is just false. Women of color can run and win anywhere.”
Increasingly, women of color have also found success by going outside the party system. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who challenged a Democratic incumbent in the primary, won the nomination without party support. She went on to win in Tuesday’s general election, becoming the youngest woman elected to Congress.
She and other renegades like Pressley were helped by new digital tools that allow candidates to solicit donors and mobilize voters without using the party as a middleman, Carter said. Other candidates have benefited from the assistance of new political groups like Higher Heights—a political action committee founded by and for black women.
Gholar felt the victories for women of color on Tuesday also reflected a change in voter preferences. She said voters responded positively to the fact that so many women of color chose to embrace their identities on the campaign trail and run as “their whole, true 100 percent authentic selves.”
"You have Stacey Abrams, a single black woman who rocks her natural hair and writes romance novels, in a dead-heat race with a white man for governor,” Gholar said, referring to the female Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia.
“That shows you how voters are connecting to their representatives who are women of color and it's because they're being authentic,” she added.
Hours after the polls closed, it looked unlikely that Abrams would win her race. But experts agreed that even those candidates who lost scored a victory for their peers in future elections.
“The presence of a much wider range of people on the ballot does a lot to kind of destabilize the myth of white male normalcy or the white male default in politics,” Carter said.
“I think having them on the ballot is a really powerful step in changing what's possible, what's perceived as possible, and the kind of idea of what we think a ‘politician’ is.”