Women of Color and Public Policy: Raising the Voice

Women of color represent 36.3 percent of the U.S. population of women—about 18 percent of the total population—and the demographic is growing. Over several decades, they have made considerable strides in education, the workplace, and business ownership. But as the debates on reproductive rights, the economy, health care, and other social issues blaze on, women of color continue to languish behind white women in salaries, political leadership, and insurance coverage. They have had no say in laws that affect them most substantially: simply put, their voices have been ignored. This problem brought a diverse gathering of women—and a few men—together on July 17, 2012, for an important discussion “Our Value, Our Voice,” part of the Women of Color Policy Series at the Center for American Progress (CAP).

Winnie Stachelberg, CAP’s vice president of external affairs, outlined the major issues affecting women of color before introducing keynote speaker Tina Tchen, chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama and executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls. The former Chicago lawyer explained how far the United States has come in its policies toward women of color; namely, how President Obama’s administration has helped the demographic. More women are in the presidential administration than ever before. Seven states have their first black federal female judge; three states have their first Latina judge; and three states each have a Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese female judge. Earned income tax credits, entrepreneurship loans, the Affordable Care Act—these initiatives and more have helped and will help ease the burden on women of color. Certainly things are better than the past, Tchen noted.

With all that women have color have gained, however, there is even more to accomplish, and a panel of professional women analyzed those lingering issues. Jenee Desmond-Harris of The Root moderated the discussion among Maria Cardona, principal of the Dewey Square Group; Angela Rye, executive director and general counsel for the Congressional Black Caucus; and Eesha Pandit, executive director of Men Stopping Violence. One major problem for women of color, they explained, is the fact that sociocultural norms have affected the way these women perceive themselves in society. Additionally, the demographic is not a monolith, a point elucidated when Rye and Cardona began a debate about how to deal with attacks on women of color. When Cardona insisted that there is a time and a place to get angry, Rye said, “Now!” The audience cheered.

The panel didn’t agree on many points, but nearly everyone in the room agreed that the biggest obstacle toward progress for women of color is a lack of organization. Heads nodded as Tchen insisted that women of color need a collective voice with an agenda that marshals resources the way others groups do, a voice that carries through generations. The panel echoed Tchen’s remarks that women of color must take responsibility for making their voices heard now that a more diverse administration is in place. “Don’t squander this moment,” Tchen said. “[Let’s take it] for ourselves, our daughters, and our granddaughters.”

The fight for equality for women of color isn’t just about the demographic itself. It’s a human rights issue, a responsibility that everyone, including humanists, must assume. Discussions such as “Our Value, Our Voice” are enlightening and entertaining, but nothing will change until we act. As Cardona said, we can’t wait for permission to sit at the decision-making table: we must pull up a chair instead.