Lesson Module: Women of Color in American Politics


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Perspective:
Women of color are significantly underrepresented at all levels of government, with implications for policy and political engagement of minority populations. However, as the diversity of the U.S. population grows, the representation of women of color is trending upward. Moreover, Black women have outpaced all other race and gender subgroups in voter turnout in the past two presidential elections, demonstrating their growing electoral power and influence. In analyzing trends in political participation and representation, it is important to understand the unique landscape, challenges, and opportunities at the intersection of race and gender. In this module, we offer resources and ideas for integrating women of color into lessons discussing political participation and political representation.

Goal: The goal of this module is to provide resources and ideas that will alter young people’s image of politics as masculine space and political actors as white men. Moreover, this module will challenge young people to move beyond assumptions about “men” and “women” in politics by offering resources that illuminate the diversity within women. Students should recognize the distinct political realities faced by women of color and the important perspectives and experiences that they bring to political life and policy debates. They should see the benefit of diversity in political participation and representation, as well as the problems with political underrepresentation of women and people of color.

Content: To meet these goals, we provide information on the women of color who have served – and currently serve – in elective offices from the congressional to mayoral levels, the challenges women of color face as candidates and officeholders, and the impact of gender and race diversity in political leadership on politics and policy. We also include resources on voting participation of women of color, including research that challenges traditional definitions of “political participation” to better account for the historic engagement of women of color in social movements and extra-governmental types of community work. We offer resources and activities that highlight the political voices, impact, and underrepresentation of women of color, and push young people to think about American political institutions with an intersectional lens of race and gender.

 

Materials

CAWP Fact Sheets

Books and Articles

Stories

Research

Biographies/Autobiographies

Video and Web Resources

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Discussion Questions

 

Recommended for elementary-aged (K-5) students K-5

  1. What does diversity mean? Why is diversity important?
    1. What are some of the differences between you and your: siblings, classmates, teachers?
    2. How do those differences influence how you talk, work, play with each other?
    3. How do you think this class/conversation would go if all of us were exactly the same (e.g. same age, gender, culture, interests, skills, likes/dislikes, experiences, etc.)
  2. When politicians are making important decisions about laws and public policies, why might it matter that they have diverse experiences, opinions, and perspectives?
  3. Are all women/girls the same? How are they different? (Conclusion: So all of the women in politics are not/should not be the same either.)

Recommended for middle school-aged (6-8) students 6-8

  1. What does diversity mean? Why is diversity important?
    1. What are some of the differences between you and your: siblings, classmates, teachers?
    2. How do those differences influence how you talk, work, play with each other?
    3. How do you think this class/conversation would go if all of us were exactly the same (e.g. same age, gender, culture, interests, skills, likes/dislikes, experiences, etc.)?
  2. When politicians are making important decisions about laws and public policies, why might it matter that they have diverse experiences, opinions, and perspectives?
  3. Are all women/girls the same? How are they different? Should those differences be reflected in the women that represent us in Congress, state legislatures, government? Why/why not?
  4. Women of color represent less than 5% of all members of the U.S. Congress, less than 4% of statewide elected executive officials, and just 5% of all state legislators nationwide, despite being more than 10% of the U.S. population. Does it matter that women of color are underrepresented in elected offices? Why/why not?
  5. What sorts of activities/participation do you view as “political”? (Emphasize the variance in defining what is “political” and why those definitions matter for understanding the political influence and potential for certain groups/populations. Specifically, the political participation of women of color has historically been focused in social movements and community advocacy, not traditionally included in standard definitions or measures of political participation.)

Recommended for high school-aged (9-12) students 9-12

  1. What does diversity mean? Why is diversity important?
    1. What are some of the differences between you and your: siblings, classmates, teachers?
    2. How do those differences influence how you interact with each other?
    3. How do you think this class/conversation would go if all of us were exactly the same (e.g. same age, gender, culture, interests, skills, likes/dislikes, experiences, etc.)?
  2. When politicians are making important decisions about laws and public policies, why might it matter that they have diverse experiences, opinions, and perspectives?
  3. Are all women the same? How are they different? Should those differences be reflected in the women that represent us in Congress, state legislatures, government? Why/why not?
  4. Women of color represent less than 5% of all members of the U.S. Congress, less than 4% of statewide elected executive officials, and just 5% of all state legislators nationwide, despite being more than 10% of the U.S. population. Does it matter that women of color are underrepresented in elected offices? Why/why not?
  5. Scholars often use the term “intersectionality” to discuss the distinct experiences that women of color have at the intersection of race and gender, noting that neither single identity alone fully accounts for their experiences or perspectives. Instead, all of our experiences and perspectives are shaped by the multiple and often overlapping identities that we bring (e.g. race, gender, age, religion). What identities influence your experiences and opinions, and how might they differ from your peers?
    1. How does recognizing this intersection of identities influence your perceptions of why and how diversity matters in politics and policymaking?
    2. How might women of different races and ethnicities evaluate a policy issue differently? (Give specific issues, e.g. child care or immigration.)
  6. What distinct challenges and opportunities do women of color face in running for and winning elected office? (Cue gender/race stereotypes, networking and recruitment, financial support, party support, personal ambition/sense of efficacy.)
  7. What sorts of activities/participation do you view as “political”? How might narrow definitions of political participation (e.g. voting) limit our understanding of political engagement and/or efficacy of marginalized populations like women and people of color?
  8. Like white women, Black women and Latinas have voted at higher rates than their male counterparts in the past eight presidential elections. Moreover, Black women have voted at the highest rates among any race/gender subgroup in the past two presidential elections (2008 and 2012). Why do you think women vote more than men across these racial subgroups? (NOTE: Asian/Pacific Islander women have voted at equal or higher rates than their male counterparts since 2004.)
    1. If women vote more than men, why are there fewer women than men in elected positions?
    2. How can women use their power and influence as voters to get more women (and women of color) elected to office?

Recommended for college students College

  1. Why is diversity important in politics? What types of diversity are important in politics? In what ways does diversity influence political behavior, debates, and outcomes?
  2. What sorts of activities/participation do you view as “political”? How might narrow definitions of political participation (e.g. voting) limit our understanding of political engagement and/or efficacy of marginalized populations like women and people of color?
  3. Women of color have played essential roles in political movements and advocacy. Why is it important for them to also be represented in elected offices?
  4. Scholars often use the term “intersectionality” to discuss the distinct experiences that women of color have at the intersection of race and gender, noting that neither single identity alone fully accounts for their experiences or perspectives. Instead, all of our experiences and perspectives are shaped by the multiple and often overlapping identities that we bring (e.g. race, gender, age, religion). What identities influence your experiences and opinions, and how might they differ from your peers?
    1. How does recognizing this intersection of identities influence your perceptions of why and how diversity matters in politics and policymaking?
    2. How might women of different races and ethnicities evaluate a policy issue (Give specific issues, e.g. child care or immigration) differently?
  5. What distinct challenges and opportunities do women of color face in running for and winning elected office? (Cue gender/race stereotypes, networking and recruitment, financial support, party support, personal ambition/sense of efficacy)
  6. Like white women, Black women and Latinas have voted at higher rates than their male counterparts in the past eight presidential elections. Moreover, Black women have voted at the highest rates among any race/gender subgroup in the past two presidential elections (2008 and 2012). Why do you think women vote more than men across these racial subgroups? (NOTE: Asian/Pacific Islander women have voted at equal or higher rates than their male counterparts since 2004.)
    1. If women vote more than men, why are there fewer women than men in elected positions?
    2. How can women use their power and influence as voters to get more women (and women of color) elected to office?
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Activities

 

Profile a Woman Leader of Color K-5
Read students a short biography of a prominent woman of color in American politics, whether an elected woman, advocate, or a leader in a social movement (see book list above). Engage in a discussion about her experience and whether or not being a woman of color made a difference in her path to political participation, the type of political participation in which she engaged, her experience as an officeholder or advocate, or the impact she made on American politics and policy.

Profile a Woman Leader of Color – First Person Narrative 6-8 9-12
Ask students to read or watch segments from interviews, autobiographies, or documentaries about a prominent woman of color in American politics (see links above). Pose questions about the woman’s personal and professional story, including questions about whether or not being a woman of color made a difference in her path to political participation, the type of political participation in which she engaged, her experience as an officeholder or advocate, or the impact she made on American politics and policy.

Political Women of Color Questions 6-8 9-12 College
Either via paper or as a group, pose a set of questions to your students about women of color’s political achievements, participation, influence, and representation. In addition to providing correct answers (where available), use these questions to spur discussion about the political status and history of women of color in the U.S.

The Danger of a Single Story (adapted from NEW Leadership Idaho) 9-12 College
Watch Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk entitled “The Danger of a Single Story,” which raises important points about the tendency to make assumptions and dangers of stereotypes and generalizations based on individuals’ single identities (race, ethnicity, country of origin). Then, debrief with students about the lessons Adichie is trying to communicate to the audience. Focus the discussion on how the danger of a single story may be particularly problematic in politics and policymaking. Questions for students to address in large or small group settings include:

  • What resonated most with you in viewing this talk?
  • Can you think of a single story (or multiple “single stories”) that is communicated about women? About women of color?
  • Do you think women of color confront the danger of a single story in seeking political power and representation? How so? How can that/those single story(ies) be disrupted?
  • What are some ways that you and your generation might challenge single stories (especially in regard to race, ethnicity, and gender) in social and political life?
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Document-Based Questions 6-8 9-12 College

 

Ain’t I a Woman?
Former slave, abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate Sojourner Truth made the following speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention held in Akron, Ohio. It is recognized as one of the most famous and one of the few speeches by a Black woman in the first wave of the fight for women’s suffrage. Read Truth’s remarks and answer the questions below.

Source: Sojourner Truth, “Ain’t I a Woman?” (1851) as documented in the Modern History Sourcebook, Fordham University
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.

Questions:

  1. What is Truth’s message in these remarks? What is she trying to communicate to the convention attendees?
  2. Why is it important that her voice and perspective was heard in the convention debates and discussion over women’s rights?
  3. In what ways does Truth both identify herself with other women, while also distinguishing her experience as a Black woman in the 1850s?

A Latina Judge’s Voice
In 2001, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (then a Federal Appeals Court judge) gave a lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law entitled “Raising the Bar: Latino and Latina Presence in the Judiciary and the Struggle for Representation.” The speech was later published in the Spring 2002 issue of Berkeley La Raza Law Journal, and reproduced with permission by the New York Times in May 2009. In this speech, Sotomayor discusses the role that ethnic identity may play in judicial decision-making, despite the strong value placed on complete objectivity of the judiciary. Read Sotomayor’s lecture and answer the questions below.

Source: Sonia Sotomayor, “Raising the Bar: Latino and Latina Presence in the Judiciary and the Struggle for Representation” (2001), as reproduced in the New York Times (May 15, 2009).

Questions:

  1. Sotomayor quotes a colleague who says that “there is no objective stance but only a series of perspectives.” What do you think? Can anyone in positions of power (whether in politics or elsewhere) make decisions without being influenced by their own identities or experiences? Do you think they should be objective? Why/why not?
  2. Do Sotomayor’s thoughts about the influence of her race and gender apply to women of color in elected positions like legislators or executive office officials (e.g. governor, mayor)? How so/why not?
  3. How do your own identities and experiences shape your perspectives and decision-making?

Race and Gender in Editorial Cartoons
In 2010, Republican state senator Nikki Haley successfully ran for governor of South Carolina. She faced a competitive primary contest to become the first woman governor of her state, as well as one of two first women of color governors to be elected in 2010. Haley is Indian American and of Sikh heritage, though she identifies today as Christian. Haley’s race and gender played a role in some reactions to her campaign, and in some cases biases were more overt than others. View the editorial cartoon below from July 19, 2010 and answer the questions below.

Source: Robert Ariail, “Nikki Haley,” published July 19, 2010
*See also Ariail’s response to criticism of this cartoon.

Haley cartoon

Questions:

    1. What different messages does this cartoon communicate to those who view it?
    2. The artist argues that this provides a visual metaphor for Haley’s position on open government and transparency. In choosing to visualize transparency and her supposed lack of it in this way, does he raise any other questions in voters’ minds about Haley’s potential role as governor of South Carolina?
    3. How might this message of transparency be communicated in an editorial cartoon if the candidate were not a woman of color?
    4. What effect(s) might images like this have on a candidate like Nikki Haley and/or voters’ perceptions of her?
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