multi-colored hands around Capitol building

PUBLISHED Jan. 18, 2021, at 6:00 AM

Women of Color Were Shut Out of Congress For Decades. Now They're Transforming It.

The 2020 election might have been a battle between two white male septuagenarians, but it also contained two major political milestones for women of color. The first is that on Wednesday, Sen. Kamala Harris will be sworn in as the first Black and South Asian American vice president — the first woman and first woman of color to serve in that role.

Kamala Harris

The second is that a historic number of women of color — 49 in total, according to data collected by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University1This number does not include Harris and Reps. Deb Haaland and Marcia Fudge, as all three are expected to join President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet, nor does it include nonvoting delegates from the territories. — will serve in the 117th Congress, including the first three Korean American women elected to Congress and the first Black women to represent Washington state and Missouri.

As the chart below shows, the 117th Congress marks a big step forward:

More women of color are serving in Congress than ever before

Each segment represents a woman's tenure in the House or Senate since 2010

Asian & Pacific Islander
Black and Asian & Pacific Islander

Middle Eastern
Native American
tiny gray arrow

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and Reps. Deb Haaland and Marcia Fudge’s tenures end in 2021 to reflect the expectation they will join President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet.

This is undoubtedly a consequential moment, but it’s also worth examining why these “firsts” are still happening, more than a century after women won the right to vote. “Today, I became the first Black woman elected to represent Missouri in Congress. It’s 2020. I shouldn’t be the first, but I am honored to carry this responsibility,” Rep. Cori Bush wrote on Twitter shortly after she won her race.

Victories like Bush’s have been slow to happen because for decades, women of color were shut out of electoral politics, both formally and informally. What’s changed, experts told us, is that women of color who were already active in grassroots political efforts are now deciding, despite the obstacles they still face, to run for office — and that they’ve received key support from other women of color who have fundraised, organized, volunteered and voted for them.

In recent years, outside groups focused on bringing more women into elected office (and to a lesser extent, the political parties) have worked to help elect more women of color; there is also evidence that some voters want more women of color in politics, especially Democrats. But ultimately, research points to women of color themselves driving these changes.

It hasn’t been easy. Several of the new women of color in Congress, like Bush, who lost her first House race in 2018, have had to rebound after an initial defeat. Wendy Smooth, a political science professor at Ohio State University, pointed to Stacey Abrams as a key figure who has “planted the seeds” for more women of color to run for elected office after encountering defeat herself. After Abrams narrowly lost the 2018 Georgia governor’s race, she turned to political organizing and founded Fair Fight, which is focused on combating voter suppression. The organization emerged in Georgia in response to state Republicans’ efforts to purge voter rolls, which disproportionately affected Black voters. “A loss for her didn’t mean picking up your toys and going home,” said Smooth. “It was a way to think about how the system has served as a disservice to democracy.” That’s a familiar pattern for Black women in politics, Smooth told us, and for women of color overall, and it helps explain why there’s been so much energy behind their candidacies, even when things are challenging: “When women of color are mobilized and engaged in politics, win or lose, that engagement never goes away.”

Women of color have always been active in politics, but a number of barriers kept them out of Congress

Women of color have been politically active for well over a century, but they haven’t always held the most visible or traditional roles — and often, they weren’t recognized for their efforts. For instance, until recently, a lot of activism was concentrated outside of elected institutions like Congress, with more organizing happening at the grassroots level. This was especially true in the first half of the 20th century, as all women elected to Congress were white, and that didn’t really change until race-based disenfranchisement started to get dismantled via legislation, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, or legal victories like Trujillo v. Garley, a 1948 decision that struck down restrictions on Native Americans’ right to vote.

It wasn't until 1965 that a woman of color arrived in Congress

The number of women serving in Congress since 1917

But even after more women of color began to win some representation in Congress, progress was slow. “It’s not that women of color weren’t in politics at all — it’s that they had been informally or even formally discouraged from running for office, so they got involved in other ways,” said Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at Rutgers University and director of research at CAWP.

When they did run for office, women of color often faced higher barriers than other candidates, too. Some found themselves trapped in a vicious cycle where, because they had nontraditional political backgrounds, fewer political connections and less access to fundraising networks, they were then dismissed by party leaders as “nonviable” — a prediction that, of course, then often came true because of the lack of party support.

It’s hard to attribute women of color’s gains in Congress to a sea change in how party leaders or voters think about them as candidates. One analysis of the 2018 midterms showed that while there was an uptick in the number of women of color who ran for and won state legislative seats, that was almost entirely due to a surge in the number of candidates. If anything, the study found, women and candidates of color were slightly less successful than in recent years. And multiple studies of women of color who have run for office, particularly Black women, have reported tepid support — if not outright hostility — from party leaders. “The research suggests that when women of color end up running, they still have to do a lot of the work themselves,” said Rachel Bernhard, a political science professor at the University of California, Davis. “The Democratic Party relies on Black women voters, but they’re more likely to tap white women and male candidates.”

There’s also research to suggest that voters tend to hold women of color to a different standard than white male candidates, something Harris experienced firsthand in her campaign for president. And other research suggests that some people are now more concerned about supporting women or people of color not because they don’t want to vote for them, but because they believe other people will object. Those concerns amount to another kind of viability trap.

It’s not hard to understand, then, why women of color only made up 26 percent of the total women in Congress — and 4 percent percent of total members — as recently as the beginning of the 112th Congress, in 2011. But now, the number of women of color isn’t just increasing. It encompasses women from a wider range of racial and ethnic backgrounds than ever before. If we take a closer look at the 117th Congress, alongside all the women of color who have served in the House and Senate since 1965, we can see just how many different experiences are now represented. There are now one Native American woman, one Middle Eastern woman, 10 Asian and Pacific Islander women, 14 Hispanic women and 24 Black women.2These figures do not include Harris, Fudge and Haaland, who are expected to resign their congressional seats to join Biden’s Cabinet. Multiracial members are counted in all appropriate categories. Congress is finally starting to become more representative of the population it serves.

A recent uptick in the number of women of color in Congress

Each segment represents a woman's tenure in the House or Senate since 1965

tiny gray arrow

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and Reps. Deb Haaland and Marcia Fudge’s tenures end in 2021 to reflect the expectation they will join President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet.

These shifts have a substantive impact, too. There’s plenty of research suggesting that having more women, and in particular women of color, in elected office changes the political priorities that are set and the laws that are introduced and passed. In a recent book, for example, political scientists Beth Reingold, Kerry Haynie and Kirsten Widner found that Black and Latina state legislators were more likely than other politicians to address the needs of multiple marginalized groups in their legislation and more likely to prioritize policy items that address poverty or social welfare.

And some of the women elected to the 117th Congress have made it clear that their goal is to represent the needs of communities that have historically been ignored. “I do hope that my voice can be heard,” said Rep. Young Kim, a California Republican and one of the three Korean-American women elected to Congress in 2020, in an interview last year, “and that I can represent not only my district but also represent the underserved and underheard communities like the Asian American voice.”

The fact that we’re just now in a place where more Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander, and women of other races and ethnicities are getting elected is worth emphasizing, because as the chart below shows, women of different racial and ethnic backgrounds haven’t made progress at the same rate. For a while, almost all the women in Congress who weren’t white were Black — although that still isn’t saying all that much, as they were so severely underrepresented.

It’s only recently that more Asian and Hispanic women have been elected

The number of women serving in Congress since 2010, by race

Asian & Pacific Islander
Black and Asian & Pacific Islander

Middle Eastern
Native American

One reason why Black women had earlier success in being elected to Congress is rooted in the history of the civil rights movement. Black women’s participation in the movement gave them relevant organizing experience that they then were able to channel into running for office. Voting Rights Act reforms, like the designation of majority-minority districts, provided them with opportunities for electoral successes. Today, other social justice movements like Black Lives Matter play a similar role.

Many Latinas running for office cut their teeth organizing in their communities too, but their progress has been slower. Part of that is due to demographics; the Latino population in the U.S. has grown substantially over the past 40 years. The other part of that, though, is a pipeline problem. There are “two pieces to the puzzle,” as Christina Bejarano, a political scientist at Texas Woman’s University, put it: “Mobilizing those voters, and finding the candidates out of that group.” Latinos in the U.S., researchers found, also tend to have fewer resources and opportunities for civil engagement than Black and white Americans. Demographics and pipeline issues also explain why Asian and Pacific Islander women have made slower progress, but there are signs that, too, is changing.

But even though women and people of color still face plenty of barriers when running for office, some experts told us that they have certain advantages. Bejarano said that because of women of color’s multiple identities, they often can connect more easily with voters from different backgrounds. Another potential advantage, according to Bejarano, is that the “women of color that do run are very qualified and potentially have more going for them in their campaign.”

You might have noticed, though, that all of the women of color who were sworn into Congress this month were elected to the House of Representatives, not the Senate. But that’s not really a surprise. The first women of color were elected to the House and they have continued to make more strides there than in the Senate, where the first woman of color, Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, wasn’t elected until 1992. In fact, only four sitting senators are women of color — and when Harris becomes vice president on Wednesday, there will be no Black women senators.

There’s still a big gap in the number of women of color in the House and Senate

The number of women serving in the House and Senate since 1917

House of Representatives

Why have so few women of color made inroads in the Senate? The answer, according to Paru Shah, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is that historically, it’s been easier for women of color to get elected from geographically smaller areas where there are more racial minority voters, like in those majority-minority districts.

Statewide races are just far more challenging for candidates who aren’t white men. “A statewide office is seen as more powerful, more prestigious, more desirable, so it just amplifies all of the bias and challenges that women of color face in general,” Shah told us. Running a statewide race also requires a lot more money and infrastructure, she pointed out, and so parties might be less willing to back and fund a candidate who they don’t think has a strong chance of winning — in other words, that “viability” trap we mentioned earlier. These patterns aren’t just keeping women of color out of the Senate, either. It’s true across executive statewide roles: Even today, no state has had a Black woman as a governor.

Historically, more women of color have won congressional seats as Democrats, too. But this year, 50 percent of the women of color who joined Congress were Republicans, which is actually pretty unusual, as the chart below shows.

Many women of color in Congress are Democrats, but not all

The number of women serving in Congress by party, since 1917


Part of this is simply because women of color are more likely to identify as Democrats in general. But the Republican Party also has not been as committed to electing women, regardless of their race or ethnicity, as the Democratic Party. There are some signs this might be changing as evidenced by the 117th Congress, but Smooth told us that the lack of role models and institutional support for women of color within the Republican Party is an even bigger issue than it is among Democrats. Dittmar added that it’s unclear how many of the Republican women of color who won this year were actually recruited by party leaders.

Going forward, though, most of the experts we spoke with did agree that they expect to see more women of color running — and winning — congressional races in the future. Smooth pointed out the importance of races like the recent Georgia Senate contests. Neither of the winning Democratic candidates was a woman of color, she acknowledged, but Abrams has received much of the credit for the organizing that led to their victories — along with other Black women strategists, volunteers and voters.

“Black women are getting recognized now as incredible vote mobilizers and their work really paid off in Georgia and in other battleground states,” Smooth said. “The question now is — will some of those women turn to formal electoral politics and run their own campaigns? This pivotal election cycle could be planting seeds for the next decade.”

But Smooth and other experts were quick to note that the parties need to do more to support women of color when they run — and to make sure they’re represented in nonelectoral roles that nevertheless have significant influence over which candidates receive funding and other forms of political support. Part of that, Smooth told us, means rethinking old assumptions about which candidates are electable. “In recent months, there’s been more recognition of the contributions of Black women as voters and as candidates, and that’s significant,” Smooth said. “But that’s come after great agitation and work on the part of Black women operatives. Both parties have a long way to go and a lot to do.”

Data presented here comes from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University and reflects the number of women seated at the beginning of each calendar year. The total number of women serving in 2021 does not include the three women expected to resign to join Biden's Cabinet; Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who lost a special election on Jan. 5; or Claudia Tenney, who is leading in a New York congressional race that remains undecided. It does include Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who was provisionally seated in the House while her race is under review by the House Committee on Administration. Nonvoting delegates from Washington, D.C., and the territories were excluded throughout. Additionally, white women who identified as Latina were classified as Hispanic in the visualizations. White women encompassed any non-Hispanic woman who identified as white.