2016 Election Reflection Series: Women of Color are Bright Spots in Contested Transformation

Prior to the 2016 election, APSA’s Diversity and Inclusion Programs Office issued a call for scholarly reflections, original research notes, and classroom exercises that shed light upon diversity, political behavior, public opinion and the 2016 Campaign and Election. What resulted is an eight part series, 2016 Election Reflections, covering a range of election related topics and research methods.    


Women of Color are Bright Spots in Contested Transformation: Reflections on the 2016 Elections

by Pei-te Lien and Carol Hardy-Fanta, with Dianne Pinderhughes and Christine Sierra, coauthors of Contested Transformation: Race, Gender, and Political Leadership in 21st Century America

In the “Mad Men” era of the late 1950s, a breakthrough ad was the “does she or doesn’t she?” commercial for hair color. As a sign of profound social change and progress over the years, when the election night of Nov. 8, 2016, approached, the question about candidate Hillary Clinton was: “will she or won’t she” win and become the first female President of the United States?

In our book we argue that gains in political leadership and influence by people of color are transforming the American political landscape, but they have occurred within a contested political context, one where struggles for racial and gender equality continue. As the long campaign approached its end, the country seemed poised to follow the election of the first Black president with the first woman president, and anticipated a Democratic takeover of the U.S. Senate as well as more women than ever elected to serve in positions of power.

By the end of election night, women’s hope for representation in the highest executive office was dashed by the defeat of Secretary Clinton by a White male candidate, who won despite having been accused of sexually assaulting wom

en, verbally insulting all non-Whites  — in the case of Mexican and Muslim Americans – and threatening people by their ethnic origin and religion as well. Furthermore, women in general saw few gains in the Senate and significant losses in the statewide office. And, instead of a Democratic Party majority in the Senate, Republicans now control all three branches of government.

Yet, the historic wins of three women of color –of Black, Latina, and Asian descent—to the US Senate suggest that it might be premature to give up on the prospect for progressive change in the nation’s capital. When the 115th Congress opens in January 2017, for example, the US Senate will see a transformation among its ranks: Instead of just one woman of color, Mazie Hirono (D-HI), who was the first Asian American woman in the US Senate, she will be joined by California Attorney General Kamala Harris. Harris ran against Loretta Sanchez to replace Barbara Boxer and because she self identifies as both Asian Indian and African American, became the first Asian Indian and only the second Black woman to serve in the US Senate; Catherine Cortez Masto, the Nevada Attorney General, who beat out Joe Heck to become the first Latina US Senator; and Illinois Representative Tammy Duckworth, the first disabled woman and purple-heart winner in US Congress, who ran as challenger to unseat Republican incumbent Mark Kirk (who insulted her Thai origins during the campaign). They are expected to provide a Democratic counterpoint to their male counterparts in the Senate. Other than Cory Booker (D-NJ), the other men of color in the Senate are Republicans: Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) are Latino, and Tim Scott (R-SC) is Black.

Another silver lining for Democrats in the otherwise dark election night was the election of six new Democratic women of color to the US House of Representatives. They include the first India-born woman in Congress, Pramila Jayapal (D-WA-7) and a Latina councilwoman from a heavily Latino part of Los Angeles, Nanette D. Barragán (D-CA-44). Both won in open-seat contests. They also include the first Vietnam-born woman in Congress, Stephanie Murphy (FL-7), who unseated a 12-term Republican incumbent, and the first Black and woman from Delaware Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE-AL). Down the ballot, Democrats in Minnesota elected the first Somali American state legislator Ilhan Omar, while Democrats in Kentucky elected Attica Scott, the state’s first Black woman legislator in 20 years. We are currently awaiting the gender breakdown of the 40 newly elected Native American state legislators to see if 2016 continues the trend we identify in our book, where we report that in 2012 Native American women made up 36 % of all Native American state legislators.

The taste of defeat was unfortunately too common for other women candidates of color. For example, in Orange County, California, Taiwan-born Assemblywoman Ling-ling Chang (R-AD-55) narrowly lost her bid to the state senate in an election that decided if Democrats would secure a supermajority status in both chambers of the state’s legislature. Although her campaign was backed by the entire Republican Party machine, her opponent, Josh Newman, received a rare endorsement from President Obama for a political newcomer in a subnational contest. Nevertheless, changing demographics by the growth and maturity of Latino voters in what used to be a conservative bastion eventually explains the cliff-hanging outcome.

All told, an election that featured the first female major-party presidential candidate was not an election that brought an increase in the number of women overall in Congress or statewide offices; a preliminary analysis of state legislative election results also suggests that women gained little, if anything, in 2016 at this level of office.

The mixed evidence of success for US racial minorities and women to secure the highest popularly elected offices in the second decade of the 21st century echoes the theme of contested transformation in our new book, Contested Transformations: Race, Gender, and Political Leadership in 21st Century America. The US political landscape has been transformed by the rapid growth of immigrants from Asia and Latin America in the post-1965 era (Fig. 1). The large and persistent pattern of new immigration from the Third World since the 1960s has been followed by gradual and continuing diversification in the electorate.

There has been likewise a transformation in political leadership across all levels of government, with women of color being the trailblazers and harbingers of change. As shown in Fig. 2, women of color consistently have had higher growth rates than their White female colleagues in US Congress since the early 1990.

The same pattern is visible for state legislators (Fig. 3). For both levels, racial gaps among women have progressively grown in recent years.

And yet, we also observe a pattern of dual narratives with progress followed by backlash and resultant in the continuing marginalization and underrepresentation of white women and people of color in our governing bodies. After the 2016 elections, women make up half the US population but still no more than one in five in Congress and barely a quarter of state legislators.

Whereas the election results dashed any remaining illusion that the election of Barack Obama has transformed the American polity either in terms of a political realignment or racial and gendered relations — and as we discuss in the book, his policies and the legitimacy of his tenure were contested throughout his two terms in office.  Electing political newcomer and businessman Donald Trump as the next president could be seen not only as a repudiation of Senator and Secretary Clinton herself, but also of President Obama and his administration. However, long-term trends examined in our book show that women of color have been and will continue to lead the next wave of possible transformation (Fig. 4), both descriptively and substantially speaking. At least that’s what Senator-elect Kamala Harris promised to do on election night of 2016, as the prospect of her having to face a Republican presidency and congress when she arrives on the Capital Hill became evident: “We know the stakes are high. When we have been attacked and when our ideals and fundamental ideals are being attacked, do we retreat or do we fight? I say we fight!”


In the US Senate, Harris, Duckworth, Hirono, and Cortez Masto will find a combat ally in Representative-elect and Seattle-based civil right activists Pramila Jayapal who reacted to the election results and proclaimed: “If our worst fears are realized, we will be on the defense as of tomorrow,” she said. “We will have to fight for social justice as never before.” They will soon have a chance during the Supreme Court nomination hearings. These newly elected women of color – who are almost all Democrats — are expected to launch a fierce fight in the appointment of the next Supreme Court Justice nominated by Republican President Donald J. Trump.

Pei-te Lien is Professor of Political Science affiliated with Asian American Studies and Feminist Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. http://polsci.ucsb.edu/people/pei-te-lien.

Carol Hardy-Fanta is Senior Fellow, John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston.  https://www.umb.edu/academics/mgs/faculty/carol_hardy_fanta