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You can try to silence women of color in Congress, but it won’t work

Photos of Kamala Harris, Mazie Hirono, Catherine Cortez Masto, Tammy Duckworth. Jesse Grant, Alex Wong, Ethan Miller / Getty Images

Twice in the span of a week, male senators tried to silence Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), the only woman of color on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Harris, whose father is Jamaican American and mother Indian American, is one of just four women of color in the 100-member Senate. In both instances, her male colleagues sought to put an end to her tough, but entirely appropriate, questioning of Cabinet officials.

Perhaps these instances are examples of the silencing of congresswomen of color that political scientist Mary Hawkesworth identified in the 1990s.

But efforts to silence women of color have largely failed due to the persistence of women in counteracting them.

This is not new. In the documentary Unbought and Unbossed, Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman in Congress, recounts a white male colleague expressing his disbelief that she and he were making the same salary. After multiple encounters, she told him, “First of all, since you can’t stand the idea of me making 42.5 like you, when you see me coming into this chamber each day, vanish. Vanish until I take my seat so that you won’t have to confront me with this 42.5. Secondly, you must remember I’m paving the way for a lot of other people looking like me to make 42.5.”

Chisholm’s message was clear: (White) men’s supposed shock at her presence and power is their problem, not hers. Likewise, that Sen. Harris’s questioning makes the attorney general “nervous” speaks more to his discomfort than to any violation of decorum by Harris.

In our new report, Representation Matters: Women in the US Congress, we explain that women of color, who hold a record number of seats in Congress, see themselves as powerful and effective actors within Congress. In interviews with about three-quarters of the women of color in the 114th Congress, they shared with us the importance of diverse voices among women in Congress. “Diversity matters because you want people of the United States to look at this legislative body and say, ‘Oh, they represent me,’” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) told us.

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) explained, “I think with Latina women, we focus on those things from our own personal experience. Plus the whole issue of immigrant women and children is something ... that we focus on and help our colleagues to gain a better understanding of where they are coming from and why they are coming here.”

“Seeing people of different backgrounds and ethnicities and interacting with them, I think you find some commonalities, but you also maybe begin to appreciate the diversity in our country,” Sen. Mazie Hirono told us. “And when you appreciate that, it makes for much more expansive thinking, in my view.”

The women of color we interviewed offer distinct perspectives from both white women and men of color — a dynamic found in other recent studies. As Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-MI) reported, “The things that we encounter as an African-American woman [are] different from what an African-American male will encounter, and so ... when I talk about education of girls, I know what 
it feels like, the barriers that girls have, and also African Americans. So there are times, you know, the double minority ... allows you to address multiple issues.” Record numbers of women from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds are winning and holding office, giving voice in this way to the increasing diversity of the US population.

Sometimes that “double minority” status, particularly in an institution that has long been dominated by white men, also presents challenges to women of color. Some women of color expressed specific concerns about being heard and respected. Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) explained, “[You have to understand that] this has always been the good ol’ boys’ system, that men 
usually ruled in this area.” But her response — and the response of her peers — has not been to accommodate this entrenched system by staying quiet, but to disrupt it by speaking out.

“Sometimes you kind of have to speak out. ‘I’m here, I have a voice.’ [You have] to know when, where, and how to interject yourself to be able to be heard and understood and taken into consideration,” Napolitano told us. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), a former staffer to Chisholm and a 19-year veteran in the US House, elaborated, “I think women of color will call it like it is really fast if they are being messed over in the process. … You know it when you’re being jerked around on something … and you’re not going to tolerate it. That’s just our history.”

Lee observed efforts to challenge women of color within her own party, telling us, “Sometimes some of the guys try to take on women of color when they wouldn’t take on their own peers.” But the women are not deterred, she assured us: “It was wrong, and we beat it back.”

These narratives are essential to understanding women of color as complex, influential, powerful, and effective members of the US Congress. In spite of underrepresentation, women of color assert their power. In spite of backlash, women of color make their diverse and distinct voices heard. And in spite of attempts to deny them the complexity of their being, women of color celebrate the diverse identities and credentials they bring to legislating.

Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH) told us: “We’re not only the conscience of the Congress; we’re also the brilliance and the intelligence of the Congress, because we want people to know that we are more than black people standing there fighting for a cause. We are scholars. ... Probably out of our caucus, 75 percent of them are attorneys and nurses and [have] advanced degrees and have held some of the most prestigious jobs in the country. So we just don’t come with hard-luck stories; we come with
 a lot of skills and a lot of credentials to do our job.”

Perhaps those participating in the next congressional committee hearing should take heed.

Kelly Dittmar is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University Camden and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at the Eagleton Institute of Politics. She is the author of Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns (Temple University Press).

Kira Sanbonmatsu is a professor of political science at Rutgers University and senior scholar at CAWP.

Susan Carroll is a professor of political science at Rutgers University and senior scholar at CAWP.

Carroll and Sanbonmatsu are the authors of More Women Can Run: Gender and Pathways to the State Legislatures (Oxford University Press).