The 115th Congress is 79 percent male, according to the Congressional Research Service. It’s also 79 percent white. The She The People summit aims to change that by putting women of color in the driver’s seat.
She The People, which takes place all day Thursday in San Francisco, will be attended largely by women of color from 36 states. The summit aims to kick off a revolutionary three-year initiative — to create a national conversation about “the centrality and importance of women of color’s leadership” leading up to the 2020 election, according to the summit’s founder, Aimee Allison.
“Women of color, for the first time in history, need to be acknowledged. People need to follow and trust women of color’s leadership in this moment to get us out of this mess,” Allison told Grit Post. “What would this country be if women were setting the agenda? If women of color were represented in every level of leadership? Let’s imagine that.”
As Allison noted, women of color — particularly black women — have been perhaps the most engaged voter demographic in every election since the passage of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 1965. The Center for American Progress found that, in 1964, prior to the VRA, just one in 20 voters was a woman of color. But by the 2012 election, women of color made up one out of every six votes.
Allison said that trend will only continue as the demographics of America continue to shift.
“Our country is becoming majority people of color. That’s a fact. We’re already 38 percent of the population, and the majority of people of color are women,” she said.
However, despite their influence, Allison argues the political power of women of color largely went unacknowledged up until the 2018 special U.S. Senate election in Alabama. Earlier this year, black women were seen as the main reason a Democrat got elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama for the first time in decades. While they made up 17 percent of total voter turnout that night, black women went for Doug Jones over Roy Moore by a 98-2 margin.
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“People in both parties have basically all but ignored our role. But this is a year unlike any other,” Allison said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “We’re in trouble in this country, and threats to our democracy and threats to women and communities of color have never been clearer.”
Gloria Steinem, who is considered to be the founder of the modern feminist movement, says that women should be seen as linked, not ranked. That still hasn’t stopped the mainstream feminist movement from being — whether intentionally or not — colonized by white women. As Grit Post publisher Shara Smith argued on the anniversary of the Women’s March, the failure of white feminism to allow space for racial justice conversations has caused a divide between white women and women of color.
Allison agrees, saying mainstream feminism’s failure to be more intersectional is a cause that will end up hurting the women’s rights movement if it’s not addressed.
“I think after the election results of 2016, the feminist movement needed to take a hard look at assumptions around race and gender… It was very clear that race was a bigger determinant of voting than gender,” Allison told Grit Post, pointing out that 53 percent of white women voted for Donald Trump. “White women have been conservative for decades. The fact that a majority voted for Donald Trump is not a surprise, it’s a trend.”
“The opportunity that She The People is offering, to say, ‘Here’s the opportunity to follow women of color’s lead. To trust women of color. To say women of color should be at the table, defining the agenda,” Allison continued. “There’s an opportunity for white women now to support that. And it’s a really big shift.”
Even though the She The People summit is geared toward Democratic activists and the keynote speakers are Democratic elected officials — like Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) and Barbara Lee (D-California) — Allison didn’t mince words about the Democratic Party’s national leadership and its continued reliance on centrist white males (like failed Georgia Congressional candidate Jon Ossoff) in order to court white moderates.
“The Democratic Party does not deeply invest in its base, its most progressive voters. And that’s black women. And we haven’t seen a full investment in leadership and engagement of black women,” Allison said.
“Jon Ossoff had $30 million and threw it down the drain because he was still trying to appeal to white swing voters and Trump voters in that district. He lost, spectacularly, with an incredible amount of money,” she continued. “So centering on white swing voters is a losing strategy. Centering on voters of color and women of color who are more progressive in their beliefs, whose vote share is increasing in traditionally red districts, that’s where the juice is.”
However, She The People’s work of lifting up women of color in the political realm may end up inspiring more than just Democrats, despite its speakers’ list and partnership with progressive groups like MoveOn, Color of Change, and the California-based Courage Campaign.
Allison acknowledged that whether it’s Democrats like Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams and New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or Republicans like Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah) and Governor Susana Martinez (R-New Mexico), it’s “absolutely true” that women of color of all political affiliations will be inspired to run for office the more they see women like them in government. She referenced data from the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, which found that there were 235 women who won U.S. Congressional primaries in 2018 (183 Democrats and 52 Republicans).
“One out of every three nominees for Congress this year — across both parties — are women of color,” Allison said.
More than anything else, Allison said the goal for this year’s summit is to jump-start the process for organizing regional town halls in four different swing states in 2019 — Arizona, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Texas — and lay the groundwork for the first presidential forum on women of color’s issues ahead of the 2020 election.
“I want women of color’s opinions, our leadership, our opinions to be one of the factors of our politics. We have been largely ignored until now. And I want that to change,” Allison said.
“This is the way out of the mess … This is the beginning of a new cultural and political era in America.”
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.