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Women of color won congressional seats in record numbers. How will they legislate?

Our research finds that Black and Latina female legislators focus especially on helping low-income communities of color.

- November 24, 2020

This month, Americans elected record numbers of women, and women of color in particular, to Congress. According the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, at least 141 women will serve in the next Congress — 117 in the House, and 24 in the Senate. That’s 10 percent higher than the previous record. Of these, at least 51 are women of color, up from 2019’s record of 48.

Political science research suggests that elected women prioritize different policy areas than their male peers, and people of color prioritize different policy areas than their White peers. Scholars know less about whether or how women of color focus on different policy areas than do White women or men of color. Our recent research reveals that female legislators of color are uniquely attuned to marginalized communities’ concerns.

Here’s how we did our research

For our book “Race, Gender, and Political Representation,” we compared bills sponsored by legislators in 15 different state legislatures in two separate years — 1997 and 2005 — to examine how the combination of race and gender shaped which issues legislators chose to champion. We selected state legislatures to maximize variation in race, gender and party composition. Unfortunately, there were too few Asian and Native American representatives to allow for comparison, so our analysis focused on comparing six groups: White men, White women, Black men, Black women, Latinos and Latinas.

We coded all the bills introduced in the 15 states in each year by general subject matter for statistical analysis. We also looked in depth at bills introduced by legislators in similar, majority-minority districts in three of the states to better understand how the content of bills serving similar constituencies might differ by the representative’s group.

Here’s what we found

In keeping with prior research, we found that out of all legislators, women are most likely to sponsor bills addressing “women’s interests,” Black legislators are most likely to sponsor bills addressing “Black interests,” and Latinx legislators are most likely to sponsor bills addressing “Latinx interests.” However, when we look at how race and gender intersect, we see important differences.

Women of color are the most likely to address the needs of multiple marginalized groups with their legislative portfolios, but Latinas and Black women approach such issues somewhat differently. Latinas are more likely to introduce separate pieces of legislation — some bills addressing women’s issues and some addressing racial/ethnic issues — while Black women are more likely to introduce bills targeted at the way different types of disadvantage intersect, especially for low-income communities of color. Regardless of approach, we find that women of color are distinctly attuned to the needs of marginalized communities.

Black women are most attuned to the needs of poor communities

Compared to everyone else in the legislatures, Black women did the lion’s share of the work in proposing legislation that addresses poverty or social welfare. Approximately 31 percent of all Democratic legislators in our sample sponsored at least one poverty or welfare bill. Black women were by far the most active, followed by Black men and Latinas. Only 20 percent of Republicans introduced poverty or welfare bills overall. Though few in number, Republican legislators of color were much more active on these issues, with Latinas the most active.

Black women were also more likely to tailor their legislation to the economic challenges facing particular groups. For example, Black women introduced bills focused on single mothers and caregiving grandparents, as well as bills that sought to extend benefits to people with criminal records or without citizenship status.

All this was true no matter what kinds of districts elected these representatives of color. Black women introduced the most poverty and welfare legislation whether they came from districts that were mostly rich or poor, majority minority or majority White.

Women of color take restorative approaches to criminal justice

Black and Latina women in our study were more active than White, Black or Latino male colleagues in sponsoring criminal justice legislation to undo practices and policies that disproportionately arrest and imprison poor people of color. For example, they were early sponsors of legislation aimed at ending racial profiling in traffic stops and recording police interactions with civilians.

Women of color also frequently sponsored legislation that would ensure that people who came in contact with the criminal justice system could return to full economic, familial and civic participation in their communities. They introduced legislation to seal or expunge criminal records and to expand education and vocational opportunities for incarcerated people. Women of color were particularly attentive to how incarceration affects family relationships, introducing bills to ensure incarcerated people are informed about how to remain legal and active parents and how to modify child support obligations. Both men and women of color introduced legislation to restore voting rights, but women of color also introduced proposals to inform people returning from prison that they had the right to register to vote and provide the help they needed to do so.

Implications for the next Congress

The incoming Congress will face calls to address the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic and racial inequities in policing highlighted in recent protests. Congress’s women of color are likely to respond to this call. The women of color we studied were prioritizing proposals to address economic inequality and criminal justice reform in 1997 and 2005, long before these issues were mainstream.

Beth Reingold is an associate professor of political science and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Emory University, and chair of the women’s, gender and sexuality studies department.

Kerry L. Haynie is an associate professor of political science and African and African American studies at Duke University.

Kirsten Widner is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Together, they are the authors of “Race, Gender, and Political Representation: Toward a More Intersectional Approach” (Oxford University Press, 2020).