Over the past several years, women have assumed new levels of political prominence and power. The 2016 presidential election was a disrupting force that turbocharged social movements; spurred new—and largely women-led—activism; and shifted some longstanding voting patterns. Record numbers of women ran for elected office in 2018, and won—more than at any point in American history. The 2018 electorate was historically diverse. Strong turnout from women of color, especially black women, and a nine-point swing in white women’s votes, helped fuel a progressive wave. Women candidates won in a diverse array of districts at rates equal or higher to their male counterparts. Six women, two of whom are women of color, launched 2020 presidential campaigns—another historic first.
And yet such progress, while historic, remains incremental. Women outnumber men in America but comprise a mere 23 percent of Congress, 18 percent of governors, 29 percent of all state legislators, and 22 percent of mayors. Women of color remain disproportionately underrepresented in elective office and undervalued as a voting base, even though their participation is essential to progressive victories. Black women, Latinas, Asian American women, and Native American women often continue to be treated as monolithic groups of “turnout” voters, with relatively few resources invested in understanding intra-group differences or motivating infrequent or non-voters of color. White women remain a highly fractured voting bloc, with majorities or near majorities aligning their political interests as they have since securing the right to vote: with white men. And amidst a dominant media narrative questioning their “electability,” women candidates frequently struggle to gain traction.
Much of the public discourse of women and politics remains stuck in an outdated paradigm. We continue to measure women’s “success” by the degree to which they achieve inclusion in a political system built by and for white men, and designed to keep them in power.
That must change.
The articles in this symposium articulate a new path forward. We intentionally center the voters, candidates, elected officials, and movement activists that are collectively forging a different path, questioning outdated assumptions about how elections are won and who is poised to lead. Although more reflective representation is essential for a better functioning democracy and improved policy outcomes, our goal is broader—and bolder. What’s proposed—what’s needed—is an overhaul of the systems that have produced and perpetuated widespread economic and democratic inequality, leaving the vast majority of Americans, especially women and people of color, at the margins. It is the inequality on full display amidst the COVID-19 crisis that is putting women of color in such great peril.
Politics is the mechanism through which we negotiate for power. It is the tool we have to evolve and transform systems and make them more equitable and just. As we work to rebuild from this crisis, we must work to advance not only a new politics but a new paradigm—one that is grounded in an appreciation of the economic and political value that women bring to our nation.
We are in a moment in which the status quo is crumbling, a new understanding of the relationship between concentrated economic and political power has emerged, and movement activism has shifted our view of what’s possible. And so the task at hand is to make a vision of intersectional gender justice—long articulated but never achieved—a reality. Let’s get to work.