When women of color confront the ways in which they have been marginalized by our society, they have some options: They can tackle systems of oppression from outside the systems currently in place, they can work to create change politically, or they can do some combination of the two. Running for office can be a taxing experience for women of color because our political system was created for and by white men, so it is especially significant when progressive women of color run for office anyway and engage political entities like Congress as well as local governments in which they are underrepresented.
Bernie Sanders has for some time been receiving criticism from the Democratic Party establishment and voters for not fundraising for and supporting Democratic candidates running for other offices. But Sanders has set fundraising records, and he has now started reaching down the ballot to fundraise for three Democratic women running for Congress: Lucy Flores, Pramila Jayapal, and Zephyr Teachout.
Since 1964, only 60 or so women of color have served in Congress, according to the U.S. House of Representatives' History, Art & Archives site. While more are running now, including some of the women listed below, Congress is not the the only political entity in which women of color are underrepresented. It is just as important to take a look at local elections as November draws closer, because there are many progressive women of color working to challenge the political establishment as well as structures of oppression that have long been in place. Listed here are five such women, who are working across axes of race, gender, class, and ability status.
1. Pramila Jayapal
Pramila Jayapal is an Indian-American activist and Washington state senator. She is now running as a Democrat to represent Washington's 7th congressional district following Congressman Jim McDermott's decision to retire. A civil rights activist who has long advocated for immigrant communities, Jayapal is running on a platform that calls for a higher minimum wage, debt-free college, an expansion of social programs, and a halt to deportations that break up immigrant families.
In a recent email to his supporters, Sanders asked them to help him fundraise for Jayapal, along with two other Democrats — Flores and Teachout. Although Jayapal has endorsed the senator from Vermont, she hadn't yet made up her mind last summer, when Sanders held a rally in Seattle. This particular rally made waves after two black women went up on stage to challenge Sanders on racial justice. In the aftermath of this rally, Jayapal wrote an op-ed in which she described herself as "heartbroken" because what was meant to be an important moment to step up and combat systemic racism instead was disrupted by predominantly white Sanders supporters who started criticizing tactics and refusing to support the Black Lives Matter network.
Jayapal has a track record for advocating for marginalized folks, and has specifically denounced Donald Trump's bigotry. She founded a group called OneAmerica — formerly Hate Free Zone — in response to a surge in hate crimes targeting Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians after 9/11. Because a redistricting panel redrew political maps a few years ago, Jayapal no longer lives in Washington's 7th district — her house now falls 25 blocks south of the 7th district boundary — but she has pledged to move back there if elected. This is not a barrier for her; she is simply required to be a resident of the state she is representing, not the district.
2. Tammy Duckworth
Since 2013, Tammy Duckworth has been the U.S. representative for the 8th congressional district in Illinois, making her the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress in Illinois as well as the first woman with a disability to be elected to the House. An Iraq War veteran, Duckworth — who won the Democratic primary in Illinois — is now challenging incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk for his seat in the 2016 Senate election.
In the aftermath of her military service, during which she lost both her legs and damaged one of her arms, Duckworth received a Purple Heart and has since advocated for other veterans. During her time in Congress, she has served on the Armed Services Committee, and she has called for extended maternity leave for women serving in the military. Despite her work in this arena, Republicans have repeatedly criticized Duckworth for her work with veterans, and last month, the National Republican Senatorial Committee deleted a tweet from its official account that criticized her for "not standing up for our veterans."
3. Kim Foxx
Kim Foxx is running as a Democrat for Cook County State's Attorney in Illinois. Last month, she won the Democratic primary against incumbent Anita Alvarez, who — along with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel — was the target of numerous protests following the death of Laquan McDonald because her office waited 13 months before bringing any charges against the officer. Alvarez defended herself and her office, saying that police shooting investigations are complex matters that take time to consider.
Foxx is running on a platform that aims to move away from punitive policing and prosecution, and she wants to combat the school-to-prison pipeline. She ran an aggressive campaign against Alvarez, saying that if elected, she would deal more effectively with officer misconduct.
If Foxx wins the seat, she says she is looking to be a much more progressive State's Attorney, and she has already been criticized for having too radical a vision. She talks openly about her experiences as a black woman who was at times homeless, and who is a survivor of sexual assault. When asked about the nature of her ideas, Foxx told the Chicago Reader that she viewed them as "transformative."
4. Tanya Makany-Rivera
The daughter of two immigrants, Tanya Makany-Rivera is running in the Democratic primary for Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1, Place 1 in Houston, Texas. As she prepares for a run-off election against her fellow Democratic candidate, her platform prioritizes the needs of minority communities — like people of color, low-income residents, and undocumented immigrants — who might not be given a fair chance in court. Makany-Rivera points out that this position has never been occupied by a woman or person of color despite the fact that people of color make up the majority of the precinct, according to the Harris County website.
In the past, Makany-Rivera worked for the City of Houston Mayor's Anti-Gang Office, and she spent her early career working to keep young people in school and out of the criminal justice system. She is now running for the open seat being vacated by Dale Gorczynski.
5. Lucy Flores
Another woman of color for whom Sanders is soliciting support is Lucy Flores, an assemblywoman from Nevada. Flores is currently running for the House of Representatives seat in Nevada's 4th congressional district, a seat currently occupied by Republican incumbent Mark Hutchinson. She aligns with Sanders on issues like a higher minimum wage, access to education, and marijuana legalization, and she wants to be a part of a government that works for the people rather than the other way around.
How many times was I told that I couldn’t make it? I say look what I was able to overcome, let’s have the courage to move forward with a bold platform.
In the past, Flores has discussed the underrepresentation of women of color in political offices, and talked about how to get women of color more involved in politics during an EMILY's List panel discussion:
Working within a political system that marginalizes women of color isn't necessarily the best way to create political and social change — a combination of working both within the system to create better representation and working outside it to challenge the status quo would likely be more effective — but for now, running for office is still a viable option. It's important to focus not only on the presidential election, but also on congressional and local elections in which candidates actually have more potential to generate change.
These five women of color are not the only ones running for political office this election season, of course — they join many others who are eager to increase representation and offer alternatives to structures of oppression that are currently in place, and it is important to pay attention as they work to capture the attention of voters.