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Why the first Black lesbian senator matters

The appointment of Laphonza Butler isn’t just “identity politics.”

- October 4, 2023
Sen. Laphonza Butler being sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris. Photo via @VP.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has appointed Laphonza Butler, sworn in yesterday, to fill the remainder of Dianne Feinstein’s (D-Calif.) U.S. Senate term. Newsom pledged to appoint a Black woman to Feinstein’s seat, due to pressure from Black advocacy groups who had argued that when Kamala Harris ascended to the vice presidency, her Senate seat should go to another Black woman. However, Newsom appointed Alejandro “Alex” Padilla to replace Harris. Padilla added minority representation in the Senate; today, with Padilla, there are only six Latinos in the Senate.

However, after that, Black women’s political organizations such as Higher Heights, WinWithBlackWomen, Black Women Organized for Political Action, Black Women’s Roundtable, the National Council for Negro Women, and others called for Newsom to appoint a Black woman to the Senate. Without Harris, the Senate had no other Black woman in that body, and as such advocates argued that Black women’s interests would not be adequately addressed with what political scientists call “descriptive representation.” 

Clearly, Newsom recognized that descriptive representation matters. Descriptive representation is the ability of a historically marginalized group to elect an individual who characteristically mirrors an aspect of the group. This may be reflected in the representatives’ race, gender, sexual orientation, or class status. The idea here is that a descriptive representative from a historically marginalized group has similar lived experiences with fellow group members and will use these experiences, values, and sociopolitical understandings to shape their behavior in government as well as their policy preferences. While Hanna Pitkin finds descriptive representation to be the least effectual form of political representation, other notable scholars have found that it has an impact on the political representation of historically marginalized groups. 

Is it playing “identity politics” or does descriptive representation matter?

Political scientists have grappled with this question since the first substantial waves of historically marginalized groups were elected to political office. In the case of African Americans, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 enabled Black communities to vote for candidates of their choice. By removing the discriminatory practices that precluded Black (men) from taking advantage of the 15th Amendment, the VRA protected the right to vote for Black communities. Upon securing the right to vote, Black voters sought to support Black candidates for political office. For example, the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) was founded in1971, just six years after the VRA was passed, because the number of Black members of Congress (MoCs) rose from nine to 13 in just one year – the largest number that had ever been elected in the nation’s history. The CBC was founded to collectively represent the interests of Black Americans – including outside the districts of the 13 MoCs – and to form a collective that would have more influence in Congress than just one individual member might have.

Likewise, women are identified as another historical group that has been excluded from formal politics. White women were successfully extended the vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, yet women of color were unable to vote, in spite of their efforts, due to racism.

To be sure, the ability of some historically marginalized groups to gain full access to electoral politics is a feature of 20th century politics. Thus the conversation about descriptive representation is a relatively new one. As Christopher Stout, Katherine Tate, and Meghan Wilson have noted, political scientists are divided on the utility of descriptive representation. The most common critique is that descriptive representation may not have substantive political benefits for historically marginalized groups. For instance, just because a queer person wins an election, they may not advance the policy interests of that group or may actively work against group interests. Furthermore, the mechanisms for ensuring descriptive representation may work to further reduce minority representation in the long run. Scholars have questioned if proportional representation or other ways of structurally mandating minority representation is the answer, rather than ensuring minority-minority districts.

For his part, Newsom has entered this scholarly debate in real time to indicate that descriptive representation has a practical benefit for Californians. With the appointment of Laphonza Butler, Newsom’s actions are in line with scholarship on Black women’s politics and queer politics which note that descriptive representation matters. As the first Black lesbian in the Senate, Butler is expected to embody an increasingly new form of intersectional descriptive representation: queer women of color.  

Right time for Senator Butler

Not only is Laphonza Butler the third Black woman to serve in the Senate, the third openly lesbian senator to serve in the 118th Congress, and the second senator to graduate from a historically Black college or university in the modern era, but she is also a descriptive representative for mothers who work outside the home with young children. These identities represent wide swaths of the American electorate. Take, for example, the fact that women were 50.9% of the U.S. population in 2022 or that 9% of adults identify as LGBTQ in 2023. By comparison, female senators make up a quarter of that governing body, and while the 118th Congress has a record number of queer representatives, only two are in the Senate. Butler adds to the descriptive representation in the Senate as a growing constituency calls for Congress to be more representative of the nation as a whole. To be sure, having a more diverse Congress that is filled with descriptive representatives may not lead to more inclusive policies that substantively impact historically marginalized groups.  

Furthermore, Black women are a powerful voting bloc for Democrats. Black women Democrats continue to be elected to Congress at growing rates, which has implications for U.S. democracy. Yet, Black women Democrats express dissatisfaction with their political party and have demanded more attention as well as support. Newsom selected Butler, a seasoned politico with decades of experience and ties to organized labor, women’s organizations, and historically Black organizations. And at 44, she represents the growing number of younger people who have been labeled as a new political wave. As senator, Butler has ties to communities that are key voting blocs for the Democrats and has the experience as well as lived experiences to represent them both descriptively and substantively. 

As California’s junior senator, Butler has sidestepped the electoral process and stayed above the fray of the contest between Democratic rivals for Feinstein’s seat, who include Barbara Lee, another Black woman who has called on Newsom to recognize Black women’s political prowess. For her part, Lee was endorsed by the CBC to be Feinstein’s elected replacement. While Butler’s appointment may be a disappointment for some of Lee’s colleagues in the CBC, it is a descriptive win for Black women’s politics. Not all Black women have the same policy preferences, cultural ties, or lived experiences. Butler is not Lee. But as descriptive representatives, their records reveal that Butler and Lee share similar commitments to women’s issues, advocacy for marginalized groups, and illustrious records in public life. 

To our benefit, the nation (and political scientists) have the fortunate opportunity to assess the usefulness of Butler’s multi-forms of descriptive representation. Perhaps she is setting a new model for examining the intersectional link between descriptive and substantive representation.