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Sisters in the StatehouseBlack Women and Legislative Decision Making$

Nadia E. Brown

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780199352432

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199352432.001.0001

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(p.185) Appendix A

(p.185) Appendix A

Sisters in the Statehouse
Oxford University Press

Data Collection

The data for this study come from fifty-one in-depth, semi-structured open-ended interviews that I conducted with Democratic Maryland state legislators in the spring of 2009 and from eighteen feminist life history interviews with Black women state legislators during the summer of 2011. During the 2009 legislative session I spent ten days in the Maryland state house. Later I spent two months in Maryland during the summer of 2011, collecting detailed life histories with the Black women state legislators. Because all the African American women legislators were Democrats, I interviewed only members of this party. Controlling for party identification also allowed me to highlight intragroup differences.

In 2009, I faxed and emailed all the Democratic legislators with a letter—written on university letterhead—requesting an interview. The letter broadly outlined my project and asked legislators to talk with me about their legislative decision-making process during a fifteen-minute interview. I conducted forty-nine of the interviews between March 11, 2009 and March 20, 2009. Over this time period I engaged in focused ethnography, which is characterized by short-term field visits steeped in data. There was, however, sufficient time to explore the questions posed in this project, and data saturation—the point at which I no longer heard or saw new information1–occurred at the end of my second week in the field. I conducted the majority of the interviews in person in the Maryland state legislature and two additional phone interviews on June 30 and July 2, 2009. All interviews were on the record and lasted from eleven minutes to one hour. The majority of the interviews lasted twenty minutes. I made detailed notes during every interview, which took place in various settings according to the legislator’s schedule and accessibility. Most interviews took place (p.186) in the legislator’s office; however, I conducted several in committee meeting rooms and a few with legislators as they walked to or from meetings.

While I informed the legislators that their interviews were “on the record,” I have replaced legislators’ names with pseudonyms due to the candid nature with which some legislators engaged me in conversation. While it was impossible to remove all identifying information, I believe that the pseudonyms provide a healthy amount of anonymity for the women in this study. The pseudonyms allow readers to remember the subject from chapter to chapter as she appears in the different issue areas and via elements of common personal histories throughout the text. This method allows me to connect the threads between chapters and the larger theoretical implications and to present a cogent picture of the Black women in this study while maintaining analytical rigor.

I conducted interviews with all twenty of the African American women serving in the Maryland legislature. In addition, I interviewed a number of their Democratic colleagues. I chose these legislators based on gender and race, a selection that included five White women, thirteen Black men, nine White men, one Latina, one Latino, and two Asian American women. Qualitative methods are well suited for studying American state legislators. Unlike members of Congress, state legislators are available and willing to engage in in-depth interviews.

All fifty-one interviews were transcribed from audio to text by a professional transcriber, providing for greater accuracy of the interview data. I coded all the interviews based on themes that emerged from the transcripts and then looked for patterns from which to draw comparisons. I organized the interviews thematically by context and legislator identity once I had discerned distinct patterns. Because I was using the transcripts to thematically organize the interviews and to look for connections and disconnections, part of the process of coding simultaneously involved data analysis. This book is therefore based on my interpretation of the data and is shaped by my considerations about what stories to tell. I selected quotes from the recorded interviews, participant observation, biographies, and case studies that illustrate how Black women’s identities aid them in the legislative decision-making process. The process of selecting quotes is a subjective element of the analytical process.

Narrative as Methodology

Identity narratives are instrumental for studying the key scenes, turning points, and pivotal episodes in an individual’s life. The disciplines of (p.187) sociology and psychology use relational models of identity processes to examine the social, cultural, and historical factors that influence a person’s identity (Fivush and Haden 2003). The complex process in which an individual combines cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal factors that join together to facilitate change are often at the center of how she expresses, displays, and make claims about who she is. As a result, the self is never a unified or coherent; rather it is “multifaceted, composed of parts sometimes highly interdependent and sometimes not, some conflicting and some reinforcing” (Stryker 2000, 79). One’s multiple aspects of identity may compete for representation in ways that may foreground certain elements of identity or push others into the background. An aspect of an individual’s identity may reflect another, making both visible as mutually reinforcing identities (Stryker 2000). Every narrative identity illustrates how an individual makes sense of his or her life and the multiple factors that often lead to change. As such, people are likely to include events in their life narratives that led to an important change in their life (White 2009). My study was therefore designed to solicit representational narratives that made meaning from people’s lives. Representational narratives are socially oriented and allow the individual to reflect on themselves and how their identity is defined or (re)created. Ochs and Capps state that “most narratives of personal experience function as a sense-making process rather than as a finished product in which loose ends are knit together into a single storyline” (2001, 15). It follows that personal narratives provide important information about the social construction of self.

I view the life history narratives as partial and subjective evaluations of events in the women legislators’ lives. Their stories reflect the processes by which they have constructed events and their personal histories to fit into their own self-concepts (Mishler 1999). As a result, these narratives indicate what each woman believes to be an important point in her life, and I use these points to illustrate how these events, beliefs, and perceptions affect her legislative behavior. While feminist life histories cannot depict accurate facts and are in fact a portrayal of reconstructions and potential biases, they are instructive for viewing how a person makes sense of her life (White 2009). In analyzing the women’s narratives, I pay special attention to the peak experiences, interpersonal dynamics, social, historical and economic factors that shape each women’s identity.

I conducted the feminist life histories with eighteen out of the twenty African American women Maryland state legislators over the summer and fall of 2011. I call them feminist life histories because feminist theorists across several academic disciplines have argued for the importance of (p.188) locating and historicizing the lives of women (Bell and Nkomo 2003; Collins 1990). The life histories provided me with valuable insight about how identity has influenced legislators’ decisions and challenged me, as a researcher, to understand my subjects’ current attitudes and behaviors and account for how they might have been influenced by previous decisions made in other times and places. In the course of these feminist life histories, the Black women state legislators whom I interviewed crafted their narratives by drawing on native imagery and representing cultural mores that are indigenous or organic to their own biographical, generational, cultural, historical/material, and geographical situations. I use these life histories to explore how identity matters in the legislative context and how legislators use identity to support, oppose, or champion legislation. In order to more fully explain the richness and complexity of the legislators’ behavior, I used life histories and participant observation techniques to further investigate their narratives. Studying the legislators from more than one standpoint has increased the creditability and validity of my findings.

Feminist life history interviews rely on what the woman elects to disclose (Bell and Nkomo 2003; Berger 2004). Any narrative is a set of choices leading to a particular self-presentation, and subjects may decide to revise history by changing the ways in which they frame stories and seeking to alter how they may be perceived. To soften any potential bias, I place the women’s narratives within a broader historical and cultural framework. The reliability of generalizations is thus unusually tentative.

Identity narratives are instrumental is studying the key scenes, turning points, and pivotal episodes in an individual’s life. The disciplines of sociology and psychology use relational models of identity processes to examine the social, cultural, and historical factors that influence one’s identity (Fivush and Haden 2003). The complex process of which an individual combines cognitive, emotional, and interpersonal factors that join together to facilitate change are often at the center of how an individual expresses, displays, and make claims about who they are. As a result, the self is never a unified or coherent, rather it is “multifaceted, composed of parts sometimes highly interdependent and sometimes not, some conflicting and some reinforcing” (Stryker 2000, 72). One’s multiple identities may compete for representation in ways that push other identities into a significant or reserved position. Furthermore, an aspect of an individual’s identity may reflect another aspect of her identity and make itself visible as mutually reinforcing identity (Stryker 2000). Every narrative identity illustrates how an individual makes sense of their lives and the multiple factors that (p.189) often lead to changes in one’s life. As such, people are likely to include events in their life narratives that led to an important change in their life (White 2009).

My study was designed to solicit representational narratives that made meaning from people’s lives. Representational narratives are socially oriented and allow the individual to reflect on themselves and how their identity is defined or (re)created. Ochs and Capps state that “most narratives of personal experience function as a sense-making process rather than as a finished product in which loose ends are knit together into a single storyline” (2001, 15). It follows that personal narratives provide important information about the social construction of self.

I highlight themes in the legislators’ narratives to illustrate the commonalities and differences in the women’s experiences. Using closed codes, I searched the transcripts of the interviews for narratives of personal experiences, and then I examined the types of narratives and content. I found that the Black women state legislators in this study experience race, gender, and class differently but still use these social constructions as organizing principles for how they view both the world and legislation. To examine the role of context, I identified the settings in which certain aspects of a legislator’s identities were primed. Legislators’ narratives revealed that neighborhood, college, and family relationships were locations where their identities were constructed and where they often experienced situations that reinforced aspects of their identities. By allowing individual experience to illustrate how identity mediates legislative preferences, the Black women state legislators demonstrate that race, class, and gender are predominant—but not always equal—factors in their experiences.

As a result, the life histories have enabled me to situate legislators’ verbal articulations of the legislative decision-making process in the broader context of identity politics and legislation. As a result, I am able to reveal how the legislators view and interpret their own life courses, which allows me to investigate the socially defined roles and events that a woman enacts over time. By capturing the subjective meaning of experience over the course of a person’s life, I am better able to examine development within specific contexts and explain how outside factors have influenced the women’s legislative decision making. Therefore, legislators’ narratives, built on personal memory, are the starting points for my study. By focusing on Black women’s narratives, this study yields valuable insights into the tropes of gender, race, and class that have defined the world in which these women became legislators.

(p.190) Benefits of Qualitative Methods

The benefit of case study analysis, as opposed to survey methodology, is the personal connection that is forged between the researcher and research subject. I was able to connect with the Maryland state legislators and their staff members on a one-on-one basis. These relationships led to legislators and staffers sharing their candid opinions and views on controversial legislation, politics, and interpersonal relationships among colleagues. Interpretivist methodology allows me to discern gaps between what legislators said and did, which opens up what I think of as hidden transcripts—critiques of power that play out offstage—that the power holders themselves neither see nor hear (Scott 1990), which skirt political correctness or social desirability. I also attended and, in a limited capacity, participated in committee meetings and hearings, caucus meetings, and delegation nights.

For example, I assisted the Baltimore City delegation with preparation for their delegation night. I worked along staff and interns to plan and organize the program. I also spoke with constituents and other Maryland government officials about the efforts of the Baltimore City delegation to improve community outreach among teens and young adults in the city. Additionally, when staff or interns were unable to assist legislators during community meetings, hearings, and caucus meetings I would often step in to help the legislators. Infrequently, I would relay information to their legislator’s staff or colleagues about a particular bill. But more often, I would make sure that legislator was prepared and comfortable during these meetings. This meant that I would ensure that the legislator had a bottle of water or coffee and that she had her notes and other relevant information regarding a particular bill present during a meeting. While I participated more fully within Senator Raquel Simmons’s office, I also spent a good deal of time with Delegate Justine Anderson and her staff. I assisted her staff in a limited capacity during a meeting with the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland when Delegate Anderson was the chair of the caucus in 2009. Furthermore, I spent the last week of my fieldwork in the Judiciary Committee of the House of Delegates. I became friendly with the committee staffers and assisted them in their administrative day-to-day activities between conducting interviews with the members of the committee.2 Such ethnographic data help to substantiate information provided through the interviews, roll call data, bill sponsorship and confirm or challenge the legislators’ words and actions.

Indeed, interpretivist methods place meaning making at the center of analysis. Significant emphasis is placed on the humanity of the researcher (p.191) and the research subject (Yanow and Schwartz-Shea 2006). The centrality of local knowledge is prioritized in interpretive research, similar to Donna Haraway’s assertion that feminist scholars must undo the god trick by offering better accounts of the world that account for transcendence and the splitting of the subject and the object (1988, 190). I do not claim that this is an objective study; rather it is based on my partial view. As an African American woman interviewing African American women state legislators, I was able to avoid the position of research-as-stranger (Clifford 1986) because I am familiar with the cultural norms and meanings that are common to Black women. Black feminists assert that African American women have a shared historical reality based on the dual subordination of both race and gender. This subordination enables a clearer understanding of the relationships among systems of oppression (Collins 1990). Therefore, the marginalization of Black women, as members of a specific group characterized by their gender and race, creates a shared experience. Black feminists argue that there is a complex dual relationship in both Black culture and the dominant culture that Black women have to negotiate in their daily interactions (hooks 1984). Thus, as a Black woman researching Black women, I was considered a racial and gendered insider.3

During interviews, Black women were comfortable making culturally based statements. As a result, we engaged in what Few, Stephens, and Rouse-Arnett refer to as “sister-to-sister talk,” defined as “Afrocentric slang to describe congenial conversation or positive relating in which life lessons might be shared between Black women” (2003, 205). Engaging in sister-to-sister talk requires a form of cultural competence that mandated that I adopt an approach that “both reflect[s] and respect[s] the values, expectation[s], and preferences” of the Black women Maryland state legislators (Pinderhughes 1989, 163). The legislators’ candid conversations about identity and political representation were peppered with cultural references and sister-to-sister talk, and I attribute the legislators’ openness to our shared racial and gender background.

Even with the use of sister-to-sister talk, my experiences within the Maryland state legislature indicate the complexity of insider/outsider status. As a “native researcher” I was cautious not to exaggerate this familiarity, as one cannot assume a homogenous culture (Moffat 1992). In the United States, where race-based group membership is a salient part of one’s sociopolitical identity, insider status is still constituted by other factors that may make race a secondary consequence. “Thus, the meaning and impact of racial difference are complicated by age, class, accent, education, national origins, region, as well as sexuality” (Winddance Twine and Warren 2000, 9). As intersectionality scholars argue, Black women’s (p.192) identities are more complicated than the realization that race, gender, and other categories coincide (Hancock 2003; Jordan-Zachery 2007; Simien 2006; Smooth 2001). Identity is fluid and, at times, also fixed because it is primed by context and situation. As a result, simply sharing the same race and gender as the Black women state legislators did not guarantee that I would be able to gather more data from them than another researcher (Few et al. 2003). Indeed, I had access to different data because of my shared/overlapping identities with the legislators (Brown 2012).

I was aware of the differences—or nuances of identity—based on generational, parochial, economical, and motherhood status between the Black women legislators and myself, and, as a nonpolitical elite, I was cognizant of my outsider status as an ordinary citizen. Lastly, as a New Jersey resident, I was not seen as an insider in the way a Maryland denizen—and therefore familiar with the intricacies of Maryland politics—would be. These differences illustrate that one can be an outsider even when conducting fieldwork in one’s own racial/gender in-group. As a result, Moffatt’s claim that identifying with “them” does not necessarily mean “you are like them, or that they are like one another, or that they all trust or identify with you, or that they want to be studied by you” (1992, 207). My insider status as an African American woman could only take me so far.

The women whom I interviewed are, after all, politicians and therefore given to crafting carefully measured responses that shift subtly from one audience to another. There can be a gap between what a legislator will say on the record and what she believes. Indeed, as Smooth (2001) asserts, self-reports may never tell the entire story of legislative influence. There is also often a gap between how legislators see themselves and how their colleagues view them, regardless of the measured outcomes of their legislative success. The tactics of self-representation that these Black women legislators employ do not necessarily represent prevalent norms for all the Black women legislators who fall within the purview of this study. Self-reports also do not illustrate clearly how self-representation affects various Black women’s legislative initiatives. Despite these limitations, however, exploring Black women legislators’ views of how their identity mediates their legislative decision making is a useful model for scholars who are working to understand how the race-gender identities of legislators intersect to influence representation.

Little has been written on local political women, although the study of local political leadership is vital to political science. Trounstine (2009), for example, finds that examining politics at the local level should be integral to political science since many of the decisions made at the local level influence national politics. Thus, I argue that it is prudent to study local politics (p.193) as a starting point; this allows scholars to understand both the political and sociodemographic contexts that influence and structure political behavior. By examining the Maryland state legislature, I am able to empirically examine the relationship between Black women’s identities and their legislative behavior.

Structure of the Maryland State Legislature

The Maryland legislature is highly professionalized (high salary, large staff, longer session) and comprises part-time representatives who dedicate an annual ninety-day period to law making. Maryland’s political culture is regarded as akin to that of a business because individual legislators broker deals and orchestrate political favors (Elazar 1972). While the party structure is highly organized, legislators have the ability to act as individuals, especially in policy areas in which they have specialized knowledge (Smooth 2001). Maryland’s short legislative session requires a structure that facilitates lawmaking at a relatively quick pace. Delegates have only ninety days to act on over 2,300 pieces of legislation, including the state budget. As a result, Maryland has a highly organized committee structure, and leaders in both chambers are responsible for assigning other members to serve on committees. The members must elect the president of the Senate and the speaker pro tempore in the House of Delegates. The speaker pro tempore is an African American woman, Delegate Olivia Jenkins. The deputy speaker pro tempore is Delegate Abigail Watson, also a Black woman. Maryland is currently the only state in the nation to have Black women serving in this capacity.

The Democratic Party controls both legislative chambers and the executive office. The party head easily confers influence within the Democratic majority in the state legislature. The party whips, deputy whips, floor leaders, and deputy floor leaders reward and punish legislators according to their willingness (or lack thereof) to follow the party line. Alongside and in addition to party leadership, the Maryland legislative structure is comprised of county delegations made up of caucuses representing the state’s twenty-four counties. The county delegations also have an elaborate leadership structure. They work to secure powerful committee assignments and leadership roles within the legislature for their members. These delegations wield legislative power because they essentially serve as brokers for individual counties, bringing back goods and services to the legislators’ individual districts. There are seven standing committees within the House of Delegates. Delegate Bella Campbell, a Black woman, was the chair of the (p.194) Rules and Executive Nomination Committee until her death in 2013. There are six standing committees in the Maryland State Senate. An African American woman, Senator Brenda Perry, is chair of the Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee. In this position since 2007, Senator Perry is responsible for many “firsts.” She is the first African American, the first woman, and the first Black woman to chair a standing committee in the Maryland state legislature.

Maryland enjoys a highly organized caucus system. The Women Legislators of Maryland was founded in 1969 and holds the distinction of being the first women’s legislative caucus in the United States. Currently, women comprise 28 percent of the lower chamber and 23 percent of the Senate. African American women consistently serve in leadership positions within the women’s caucus—indeed, all of the 2012 committee chairs are Black women and the president is an Asian American woman. The caucus has an executive director, several committees, and is bipartisan. Next, with forty-three current members, the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland is one of the largest groups of Black legislators in the United States. Founded in 1970, the caucus was established to act as a legislative body for the Black community. The current president of the Legislative Black Caucus is Delegate Julissa Moore, an African American woman. Like the women’s caucus, African American women also enjoy several leadership positions within the Black caucus. The key positions held by African American women within the Maryland state legislature indicate that they are incorporated into the leadership structures of the institution (King-Meadows and Schaller 2006).

Maryland state legislators serve a term of four years in the lower chamber. Members of the Maryland Senate are elected every four years, in off-year elections in the middle of four-year terms for presidents of the United States. All 188 lawmakers faced election in the fall of 2010, including Governor O’Malley, a Democrat. The elections are not staggered but rather, all 47 Senate and 141 House of Delegates seats are up for election on a cycle of every four years.

Demographics of the Maryland State Legislators

Among Maryland state legislators serving in the 2011 session, none of the Black legislators were without a high school degree, and White males were the only group that did not have any members with a doctorate. Overall, both Black men and Black women have higher educational levels than White legislators in the Maryland State Legislature. Lastly, only one-half of (p.195) the Black women attended a historically Black university or college (HBCU) for some aspect of their schooling, compared to Black men, who received their degrees from HBCUs in larger percentages; Maryland is home to four HBCUs: Bowie State University, Coppin State College, Morgan State University, and University of Maryland, Eastern Shore. Both Morgan and Coppin are in Baltimore. The majority of legislators who attended a HBCU attended Morgan State University or Howard University, which is located in Washington, DC. (p.196)


(1) . See Knoblauch (2005) for information on details of a focused ethnographic method.

(2) . I spent a lot of time interviewing members of the Judiciary Committee because the Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection bill was before the committee. The Judiciary Committee held several hearings on the bill during the last week of my fieldwork.

(3) . This essay does not assume that social groups are homogenous. Indeed, each category of difference comprises internal diversity.