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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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Conclusion

Conclusion

Chapter:
(p.169) Chapter 7 Conclusion
Source:
Sisters in the Statehouse
Author(s):

Nadia E. Brown

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199352432.003.0007

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 7 reviews the theoretical arguments and summarizes the findings of the empirical chapters. It points to the benefit of using Black women’s voices as starting points for the analysis of their political behavior. Taken as a whole, Black women’s identities play an important role in debates within legislatures and within their own decision-making processes. The chapter highlights the potential of employing intersectionality as an analytical tool for achieving a better understanding of the complexities of political representation carried out by African American women who are elected to office. The chapter concludes by proffering the need for Black women’s studies within political science as a future direction for the discipline.

Keywords:   intersectionality, Black women’s studies, future direction, political behavior

Only the BLACK WOMAN can say “when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing or special patronage, then and there the whole Negro race enters with me.”

—Anna Julia Cooper, in A Voice from the South, 1892; emphasis in the original

The colored woman feels that woman’s cause is one and universal . . . not till race, color, sex and condition are seen as the accidents and not the substance of life . . . not till then is woman’s lesson taught and woman’s cause won—not the white woman’s, nor the red woman’s, but the cause of every man and every woman who has writhed silently under a mighty wrong.

—Anna Julia Cooper, in a speech at the World Colombian Exposition in Chicago, 1893

African American women have a long history of advocating for equality, not only on behalf of African Americans and women but also as African American women who occupy a precarious position at the intersection of race and gender. For example, Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, teacher and principal of the M Street High School and a leader within the Black women’s club movement, tirelessly spoke about the social and economic difficulties that African American women faced. Cooper pushed for Black men’s equality and that of women of all races. She tied Black women’s status in America to advocacy for the betterment of all Blacks and women. She urged society to make room for the contributions of Black women, to recognize the unique barriers and opportunities that African American faced, and to acknowledge the humanity of Black women. In many ways, the women of this study are carrying out Dr. Cooper’s legacy by continuing to work with and struggle against White women and Black men to assert and acquire African American women’s rights. Furthermore, both Anna Julia Cooper and the (p.170) African American women state legislators in this study illustrate how Black women draw from their personal experiences to make political claims.

I have sought to reveal how Black women legislators’ interests shape policy debates on issues that disproportionately affect African American women, in the process giving voice to an underrepresented group. Elected Black women best represent the interests of all Black women. Black men and White women typically do not advocate for issues that are pertinent to African American women as strongly or at all. Nevertheless, although Black women legislators adopt largely uniform policy priorities, they propose vastly different identity-based policy solutions and deploy a specialized range of legislative tactics to achieve desired outcomes. African American women challenge an essentialist Black political identity, and my theorization of Black women legislators’ political behavior uses representational identity theory to account for both the similarity and diversity within Black women’s legislative decision-making processes.

Listening closely to the voices of Black women strongly supports my findings. In four different policy areas—the Minority Business Enterprise legislation, the Religious Freedom and Protection of Civil Marriage Bill, and the Financial Exploitation of the Elderly Bill, I found that the multiple identities Black women occupy were important explanatory variables. Moving beyond simply concluding that race and gender matters for African American women state legislators, I show that race and gender identity influences their legislative decision making and find that Black women Maryland state legislators use an intersectional approach to identity when they are proposing, developing, negotiating, or advocating for legislation that affects marginalized groups. Adding complexity to difference allows me to move beyond race, class, and gender to illustrate how generation, sexual orientation, motherhood status, nationality, and religious beliefs influence African American women legislators’ political behavior. Rather than viewing political representation from an institutional vantage point, I have shown that accounting for identity as a factor in African American women state legislators’ legislative decision-making processes lends credence to the idea that the women occupy an intersectional perspective. This finding adds nuance to and deepens scholarly understandings of how identity constructs or informs legislative behavior.

Review of Findings

By combining humanistic and social science techniques, such as feminist life histories, elite interviews, and participant observation in conjunction (p.171) with legislative case studies and bill sponsorship data, I have presented a fuller description of how identity informs Black women state legislators’ descriptive and substantive representation. Linking personal narratives to political behavior, I have illustrated how Black women’s lived experiences have influenced their legislative decision-making and policy preferences. Through a systematic exploration of the relationship between personal identity, community, society, and, by extension, political representation, Sisters in the Statehouse has demonstrated the inevitable influence of social forces on individuals and the influence of individuals upon the problems and solutions of the society they hope to make better. I connected who a legislator is with what she does, thereby demonstrating that a nuanced understanding of politically salient identities adds to a richer scholarly awareness of representation.

Data show that Black women pay the most attention to issues that disproportionately affect African American women. To examine how identity mediates the decision-making process I sought to identify legislation representing a range of issues that would provide several decision-making contexts within which to examine the role of identity. For example, I compared a controversial bill with a noncontroversial bill. I also focused on one cross-cutting issue and one consensus issue. As a cross-cutting bill, 2009 Religious Freedom and Protection of Civil Marriage Act, addressed a divisive issue among most constituencies, with African American legislators in particular and legislators in general divided on same-sex marriage. The 2009 Financial Exploitation of the Elderly Act was selected as the consensus issue; it was unanimously approved by both chambers and is currently law. I also investigated legislation to revamp and renew Maryland’s Minority Business Enterprise program, a set-aside policy under which a percentage of government contracts are reserved for women and minorities. This legislation would have renewed the state set-aside program for minority business owners and allowed Black women to choose whether to be counted as women or as Blacks in a contract. Next, I investigated legislation that was introduced under the title of Denial or Dismissal of Domestic Violence Petitions: Expungement of Records. This bill included a proposal that would have allowed a respondent in a domestic violence protection order proceeding to request expungement of all court records relating to the proceeding if the petition requesting the protection order was denied or dismissed in the interim, temporary, or final protective order stage of the proceeding. Although this legislation generated extensive debate, it was not successful. Studying these bills allowed me to unearth how the intersection of race, class, and gender affect the decision-making process on the part of Black women legislators.

(p.172) I found that identity plays an important role in shaping how legislators view both controversial and noncontroversial legislation. Black women legislators explained how their identities influenced their perceptions of these bills. I found that legislators are more comfortable in representing groups that are legitimately seen both socially and politically as needing special advocacy. Additionally, I discovered generational differences among Black women legislators that affect their policy preferences. Taken as a whole, these chapters present evidence that race-gender and other politically salient identities play an important role in debates within legislatures and in the decision-making process undertaken by Black women state legislators.

Implications

At the beginning of this book, I indicate that Black women’s politics have normative implications for both representative democracy and Black politics. I detail that Black women legislators prove the necessity of moving past a binary approach to identity politics. My findings highlight an area that social scientists have traditionally overlooked in studies of Black women’s political representation.

Theories of descriptive representation that keep identity constant over time and context fail to account for the substantive work undertaken by African American women legislators. While political science literature tends to treat identity as stable, feminist scholars have recognized that it is not fixed. Yet, feminist scholars such as Yuval-Davis (2012) push back against identity politics and the usefulness of intersectionality. As a remedy, I have sought to provide an example of how to theorize political representation when identities are not fixed in place but instead work together to advance group-based policy preferences. In dialogue with political theorists such as Mansbridge (1999), I show that diversity within deliberative institutions is healthy for democracy. This link hinges on how legislators perceive the effects of their identities on their legislative work. I connect Black women’s life histories to their understandings of the importance of race-gender identities in their political decision-making and provide a nuanced explanation of how descriptive representation enhances substantive representation, in the process examining how an intersectional approach to legislative populations can improve scholars’ understandings of political representation.

Lastly, this project adds to the scholarly understanding of the dynamics of race and gender within legislatures. Rather than utilizing primarily White women’s or Black men’s experiences as the sole basis for examining the benefits of descriptive representation, this project focuses on African (p.173) American women state legislators’ experiences to examine how combined race-gender identities influence representation. Ultimately, this project helps build a fuller scholarly understanding of the importance of diversity among elected representatives. My contribution to a growing body of scholarship on Black women and representation acknowledges and evinces the complexity of identity while revealing a range of personal, social, and political factors as contingencies.

Limitations to this Study

It is unlikely that I have convinced all readers of the legitimacy of focusing this study entirely on African American women who are Maryland state legislators. As in other studies of state legislative politics, it is difficult to generalize across states, since each state legislature has a different political culture (Haynie 2001; Weissert 2000). Yet I believe that much is to be learned from the African American women in the Maryland state legislature, given this legislature’s unique and consistent history of large delegations of Black women legislators (Bratton, Haynie, and Reingold 2006; King-Meadows and Schaller 2006; Smooth 2001). Because I analyze only one state’s legislature, I am able to make central my analysis of Black women legislators’ voices, therewith providing detailed and in-depth analyses of the role of race-gender identities for Black women state legislators.

This book is not intended to be the final word on how race-gender identities influence Black women state legislators’ decision-making processes. Instead, I hope to draw attention to the shortcomings of using an additive approach by showing that the variations in Black women’s identities are missed when race, class, and gender are the only categories of analysis. My theory points scholars in a direction that helps accounts for the dynamism and nuance within groups to illustrate how difference affects legislative decision making. I find, in the process, that Black women’s race-gender identities do indeed inform their political behavior—Black women bring their personal experiences into the statehouse. Yet I also find that race and gender are experienced differently by individuals and that scholars cannot therefore assume that Black women will behave as homogenous political bloc. Legislators’ race-gender identities in fact become influential when a particular aspect of identity is primed in respect to specific bills. More research will be needed to see whether and when race-gender identity is deployed in other settings. We cannot assume that Black women will view all legislation through a race-gender lens, but it would be useful to fully examine the context around the theory that identity is neither constantly in flux (p.174) nor static. My case studies demonstrate the plausibility of my theory, but my findings cannot be construed as proof that the theory will work in every legislative setting.

It is also possible that critics may take issue with the policy issues that I have chosen to form the core of this book. Like all researchers, I had to take advantage of the policies discussed in the state legislature during the period in which I conducted my fieldwork. The policies under discussion happened to be relevant to African American women and the Black political agenda. The selected issues were a mixture of “easy,” meaning that they could be understood by voters regardless of their level of political sophistication, and “hard,” requiring a sophisticated decision-making calculus leading to a reasoned attempt to use policy preferences to guide electoral decisions (Carmines and Stimson 1980). The legislation surrounding the Minority Business Enterprise program and the preventative domestic violence legislation was composed of hard issues. Same-sex marriage legislation and the financial exploitation of the elderly legislation were easy issues. Only marriage equality legislation was considered a “moral issue” in which “at least one advocacy coalition involved has portrayed the issues as one of morality or sin and used moral arguments in its policy advocacy” (Haider-Markel and Meier 1996, 333). Lastly, the legislation discussed in this book represents what might be referred to as “crystallized issues”—issues that have been on the political agenda for a long time (Mansbridge 1999). None of these issues could be called “uncrystallized,” because “candidates have not taken public positions on them and political parties are not organized around them” (Mansbridge 1999, 643). The issues covered here show Black women legislators taking an active role in shaping debate.

Future Directions in Intersectionality Research

Scholars have begun to locate the intersection of race and gender—analyzing the importance of intersectionality—in descriptive and substantive representation (Garcia Bedolla, Tate and Wong 2005; Hardy-Fanta, Sierra, Lien, Pinderhughes and Davis 2005; Paxton, Kunovich, and Hughes 2007). This scholarship breaks from the additive and multiplicative approaches to studying Black women political elites, approaches that combine theories of race and gender but do not explore the ways in which race and gender interact to produce a new category for understanding identity, instead focusing on intergroup representation. While an intersectional approach to understanding the effects of both race and gender in (p.175) representation is necessary, more research is needed to forge a stronger understanding of intragroup representation (Orey and Smooth et al. 2006).

My research advances the idea that scholars should explore the intragroup differences among Black women legislators. It points to the need to create models for empirically studying the ways in which difference is recognized within groups and not just between groups. While scholars have long advanced the notion that African American women as a group have aspects of identity that are informed by the intersection of both race and gender in their lived experiences that provide them with a unique worldview, it is necessary to go further and explore differences among Black women. For example, this research points to generational intragroup differences between Black women legislators. Other social markers such as experiences with discrimination, sexual orientation, and parental status are social identities that produce cleavages between Black women legislators in this study. These differences point to the need to create a variety of specific models. To fully utilize an intersectional approach to studying difference, scholars should investigate differences within groups while paying special attention to subgroup membership.

Finally, there are enormous benefits to incorporating an intersectional analysis into the study of political representation. Such an approach should delineate complexities in identity to further showcase how White males are the unmarked norm in American society in general and among political actors in particular. An intersectional approach would allow scholars of representation, not just scholars of women and Black politics, to investigate how Whiteness and maleness are privileged and examine the ways in which constituents’ identities, and the identities of political elites, inform representation. Utilizing an intersectional approach to identity would ultimately problematize the idea of a static and monolithic American citizen. I agree with Ange-Marie Hancock, who asserts that “the goals of American democracy require us to integrate groups that are marginalized” (2004, 154). Similarly to other theorists (Williams, 1998) espousing that diverse voices are beneficial for deliberative democracy,1 I find that the perspectives of marginalized groups contribute to the legitimization of political decisions reached through democratic deliberation. It is clear that many different forms of social diversity enhance the deliberative process and “that marginalized group perspectives constitute a dimension of pluralism which will contribute at least as much to the comprehensiveness of political decisions as any other” (Williams, 1998, 131). Marginalized groups may see things and understand social forces differently than the majority. This marginalized perspective on social forces may be extremely valuable for the formulation of good public policy (Cohen and Rogers, 1995, 42–43; Young (p.176) 1997). An intersectional analysis can illuminate how the perspectives of marginalized group members demonstrate how social policy might be improved and how the social structures of inequality could be dismantled.

Advancing a New Methodological Framework in the Field of Legislative Studies

Black feminist scholars have challenged both objectivity and truth claims while highlighting that projects that do not recognize differences such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation—all of which exist on the margins—perpetuate a White middle-class bias (Hallam and Marshall 1993). As a feminist and an Afrocentric political scientist, I encountered challenges in using Richard Fenno’s (1978, 2003) qualitative method to research state legislators when I first arrived in the field. Once I had begun my fieldwork in the Maryland state legislature, the project proved to be filled with racial and gender biases that would impact the outcome of my project. I found that my insider status as an African American woman and my outsider status as a social scientist led to a critical examination of both my research goals and methods. As result, I become highly self-reflexive in both processing and recording my observations and in understanding the narratives that legislators shared and how they shared their stories with me. As I have argued elsewhere (Brown 2012), Black feminist epistemology is a useful tool for making new knowledge claims within the existing body of knowledge within the race and representation literature.

My experience as an African American woman researcher situated within Black feminist epistemology, whose work centers on Black women Maryland state legislators, shaped my access to subjects and data interpretation. The points of information that legislators shared with me, my access to the legislators, the assumptions that they made about me, the gaps in conversation, and the contexts in which they shared about their policy positions were all mediated by my own identity. The prevailing paradigms and epistemologies in legislative studies are insufficient for fully assessing the multiplicities of identity-based politics. Because few legislative studies scholars employ feminist ethnography or other interpretivist methodologies for exploring legislative behavior, these studies lack both epistemological and methodological frameworks necessary for analyzing the existing power/knowledge relationships between the researcher, legislator, legislative staff, and constituents.

Feminist ethnographers have employed Donna Haraway’s (1988) concept of “situated knowledges” to highlight the partiality and shifting nature (p.177) of standpoint theory, which argues that knowledge is socially situated. They assert that marginalized groups are positioned to ask questions, are aware of and have a clearer view of what is going around them than nonmarginalized groups, and that research on power relations should originate with the lives of the marginalized (Collins 1990; Haraway 1991; Harding 1991; Hartsock 2004; Smith 1974). Informed by standpoint theories, feminist ethnographers construct self-reflexive strategies for field research to make the often implicit processes of research explicit. The process of reflexivity, characterized by introspection and the willingness to learn about oneself, one’s research purpose, and one’s relationships with the social world, exposes the varied strategies confronted at the beginning of the research process (Naples and Sachs 2000). A Black feminist epistemology, which is grounded in Black women’s experiences and cognitive styles, contends that those who are multi-marginalized draw from personal experience as insiders who are oppressed within their social order. Black women’s distance from power enables them to critique the system. Turning to my own experiences in the Maryland statehouse and the benefits of using a Black feminist epistemology that prioritizes self-reflexivity, I can offer a different vantage point to power relations that illustrates how the field of legislative studies can profit from interpretivist methodologies.

During my fieldwork, I remained culturally conscious of the social structures that mediate knowledge production and of the fact that social identities are ever present in the research process. In sum, I was cognizant of the myriad ways in which identity can become salient in the research process. Research is an intersectional process, and I acknowledged that social structures created crossing lines and traversed inner workings of identity that allowed me to engage as an insider/outsider with legislators and within the Maryland state legislature to better understand how the “researcher’s multiple and varied positions, roles, and identities are intricately and inextricably embedded in the process and outcomes of research” (Milner 2007, 389).

In the course of conducting the interviews, I found that the African American legislators were candid about the role that race plays in the legislative process. Indeed, all of the women of color with whom I spoke went into detail about the intersection of race and gender and its effects on representation.2 Undoubtedly, my identity as an African American woman greatly contributed to their willingness to speak with me. Next, my identity also factored into the comfort and candor with which the legislators spoke about issues regarding race and gender. In sum, my identity added to what legislators told me and how they phrased certain culturally relevant ideas.

(p.178) Interprevist methodologies were vital for this study because they allowed me to contextualize the experiences of the legislators and to better understand how my own identity became part of the data collection process. I paid special attention to the claim that one’s racial and gendered identity influences what research subjects share with the researcher. My insider status granted me access to African American legislators to whom I am sure that I would not have gained if I were not a Black woman with connections to their culturally imbedded identities. My research experience was furthermore entangled with multiple systems of power based on gender, race, and age (Dowling 2000; Vanderbeck 2005). While my identity was privileged with legislators of color and women, it also had negative effects with White male legislators. In two instances, White male legislators on the Judiciary Committee actually turned their backs to me as they saw me approaching to ask for an interview.

My youthful appearance helped me garner more interviews. As a member of Generation Y or the Millennials (those born between 1981 and 2004), my age became a focal point for some staffers and legislators. For example, the 2009 chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland, a Black woman, instructed caucus members to “help the baby and give her an interview” because I was one of their own looking to further research on “us.” The Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland chair served as my liaison to Black legislators. As a result of her urging, a few members of the Black Caucus personally introduced themselves and said that they would be more than happy to interview with me. Next, the narrative of being a “poor college student” and my appearance as a petite woman opened up additional spaces where legislators and their staff could connect with me. Numerous comments were made about my small stature: “What are you, a size 1?”; or, “I know you don’t eat—your pants are falling off you”; and my favorite, “Baby, you look like you need a meal—you’re an itty bitty thing.” By providing lunch and other meals during my fieldwork, my “other-mothers” in the state legislature went beyond simply providing nourishment; they helped to provide access to their fellow legislators and explained specific details of the Maryland state legislature to which I otherwise would not have access. Because of my status as a PhD student—and later as an assistant professor—my size, and my age, both staffers and legislators granted me rare personal access in which we engaged in informal conversations about themselves, their families, and their experience in the legislature. During these conversations I naturally also shared personal information about myself. We began to build a rapport that led to my increased access to the legislators. My identity and self-presentation influenced how legislators interacted with me in addition to what they told me.

(p.179) A reflexive understanding of identity is necessary for producing new insights into political phenomena. The effect of the race and gender of the researcher produces different outcomes in the process of data collection. Scholars must be cognizant of their own identity in preparing for, conducting, and analyzing research. This reflexivity exposes bias and advantages in how researchers understand the experiences, meanings, and politics of those whom they research. In this way, identity is doubly used as a lens to simultaneously explore power and social relations in a more complex manner than solely presenting findings on the identity of the researched. Studies that consider seriously the complexity of identity must also include how context affects the questions asked and answered, the ways in which subjects view the researcher, and how privilege and access are built-in markers of identity. This study illustrates the need for additional and more systematic research to investigate the ways in which the scholars’ identities may impact what we know about legislative representation.

Next, this study raises questions about Black feminist ethics and the production of knowledge. A Black feminist ethic seeks to give voice to the concern of Black and minority women through a holistic feminist approach centered on caring and justice. As a Black feminist researcher, I seek to clarify obligations between me and the women in this study precisely because we are not paradigmatically equal. By removing the names and concealing some of the more personal narratives of the legislators in this study, the findings offer limited accessibility. I sought to carefully select the silences and chose how to present the legislator’s stories. Although all their interactions with me were on the record—indeed, I had a tape recorder and took copious notes—in the vast majority of my interactions with the legislators and their staff, much of what was shared with me may not have been meant for public consumption. While the legislators knew that I was working on a research project that would one day be published, their interactions with me were often relaxed, familiar, and personal.3

The hypervisibility of Black women—meaning the prominence of Black women on the national, cultural, and political landscape—pushes Black feminists to reimagine how we present Black female subjects and voices. The hypervisibility of recent African American women political actors, such as Jennifer Carroll, Mia Love, Cynthia McKinney, Condolezza Rice, and Maxine Waters, marks a new period Black women’s politics. Black women do not have agency over the ways that images of their bodies, politics, and representations are proliferated within American political discourse. Indeed, the hypervisibility of Black women politician’s images resembles the stereotypical and controlling images of Black womanhood. Take, for example, Mia Love, the mayor of Saratoga Spring, Utah, congressional (p.180) candidate, Republican, Mormon, daughter of Haitian immigrants, and stay-at-home mom. While heralded as a breath of fresh air for the Republican Party, Mia Love faces sharp criticism from opponents who see her as inexperienced and lacking a clear political agenda. Her identity is more complex than she is given credit for as a Black woman, and her image and politics are consistently diminished by challengers who say she is simply a Tea Party radical with little more than an anti-Obama platform. Local voters and national commenters alike find that she lacks a clear political message. In this way, she is stereotyped as an angry Black woman with little substance to back her anti-Obama rhetoric.

I made the decision to combat the hypervisibility of Black women politicians by providing my subjects some anonymity in this study. Because these women are also running for public office I sought to remove parts of their narratives that would jeopardize their relationship with constituents, colleagues, and their family members. I have sought to preserve a modicum of privacy in their very public lives. My adherence to a Black feminist ethic and the desire to provide a semblance of anonymity necessitates that I keep some very personal aspects of the legislators’ narratives private. Thus, the findings that are presented in Sisters in the Statehouse are mildly sanitized.

The explication of my Black feminist ethic is to remind readers of the political component of knowledge production. The contextuality of knowledge production, the moral consequences of researchers’ decisions, and the nature of the unequal relationship between the researcher and her subjects plays a significant role in Black feminist ethics. I have chosen to publically acknowledge my methodological constraints and choices to highlight the fact that some things will always remain absent in academic scholarship. The decisions of what to include and exclude naturally affects the final outcome of the research project. Therefore, I recommend that scholars honestly and openly disclose their own research ethics.

This discussion alerts scholars to a few necessary considerations in the reading and evaluating research interviews, particularly important for scholars who might be interested in using interpretivist methods to study the politics of identity. As a scholar, as with the individuals and populations that we study, there is only so much control that we have even over, our own identity. As such, interpretations based on our own researcher identity can affect us all, from the seemingly unmarked White man to the too-often othered Black woman. Future studies should consider methodologies that discuss the multiple facets of the researcher’s identity, even if these may not provide the in-depth information that ethno-personal interviews yield.

(p.181) Alternative Approaches

Expanding the focus to other policy areas would be helpful for more fully examining the effects of Black women’s multiple identities on their legislative behavior. Given the present study’s focus on domestic violence, marriage equality, minority business enterprise programs, and financial protection of the elderly, other policies that have a distinctly feminist or Black politics emphasis would be useful lenses through which to assess my representational identity theory. This inclusion of alternate lenses would more fully interrupt Mansbridge and Tate’s (1992) finding that race sometimes trumps gender for Black women. Furthermore, the multiple identities of Black women and their own political objectives will illustrate the complexity of their policy positions.

Take for example legislation on reproductive justice or, more specifically, abortion policies. In 2010, the Georgia legislature saw the introduction of the OB/GYN Criminalization and Racial Discrimination Act (SB 529/HB 1155), which sought to criminalize providers who supposedly performed race- and sex-selective abortions. Chief among the statutes of this proposed bill was the probation of the abortion of a fetus based on race, color, or sex. This bill focused explicitly on women of color (and perhaps White women who were impregnated by racial/ethnic minority men) but most distinctly signaled out Black women and women of Asian descent. Several advocacy groups for women of color, reproductive justice advocates, feminist organizations, and pro-life groups organized to defeat this legislation. Undoubtedly, women legislators of color in the Georgia statehouse also used their race-gender identities as an experiential basis for their opposition to this legislation. Like marriage equality legislation in the Maryland statehouse, the bill before the Georgia state legislature produced strange bedfellows within African American politics. Here we saw coalitions of religious leaders, Black conservatives, and pro-life activists who mobilized around ending what they called “Black genocide.”

Gesturing toward issues like this 2010 legislation in Georgia illustrates the complexity of Black women’s positions on abortion. As state legislators continue to place abortion policies on their agendas, an intersectional approach will become even more necessary for understanding Black women legislators’ policy positions. Furthermore, issues like abortion reveal the complicatedness of Black politics—namely, they expose the difficulties of an essentialist Black political identity. Similar to the findings on same-sex marriage in Chapter 5, African American women legislators have demonstrated diverse opinions abortion legislation. By potentially viewing abortion as a policy issue, I expect to find Black women legislators drawing from (p.182) their identities and experiences as part of their decision-making processes. A simplistic view of Black women legislators as either pro-life or pro-choice distorts the complex legislative decision-making process and reduces the intricate ways in which Black women draw from their identities and personal experiences to arrive at difficult policy decisions.

Lastly, while conducting feminist life histories with the Black women Maryland state legislators, I heard many voluntary comments about their hair and how their decisions to wear their hair impacted how their colleagues and constituents viewed them (Brown, forthcoming). These remarks on hair were frequently coupled with comments about skin tone. The legislators’ articulation of the politics of hair and skin tone points to a unique aspect of Black women’s legislative experience. This culturally relevant expression of self is in fact a political matter for Black women state legislators in their efforts to interact with their colleagues in the statehouse and represent their diverse constituents, both of whom use hair as a political heuristic. Examining the multiplicity of Black women’s identities and experiences will lead scholars to other topics, such as hair and skin color, that warrant a more complicated view of identity politics and Black women’s political behavior than is currently common in scholarship.

Significance of Findings

Theories of descriptive representation that keep identity constant over time and context fail to account for the substantive work of African American women state legislators. The connection between descriptive and substantive representation, in the case of Black women legislators, hinges on how such legislators perceive the effects of their own race-gender identity on their legislative work. I have extended the argument that descriptive representation influences substantive representation of race and gender groups by investigating differences within these demographic groups. Although I have shown that Black women legislators descriptively and substantively represent the interests of African American women, I revealed several distinctions within the legislative work of these legislators to provide a broader perspective that exemplifies how an intersectional approach can enhance our understanding of political representation.

Standing on the shoulders of Black women’s studies scholars who investigate Black women’s politics, such as Jewel Prestage and the foremothers of Black political activism such as Anna Julia Cooper, I have sought to draw continued attention to Black women’s politics. Sisters in the Statehouse has made central the voices, experiences, concerns, and policy priorities of (p.183) African American women Maryland state legislators who, by sharing a similar race-gender lineage with Prestage and Cooper, make known the “messiness” of Black women’s politics. Rather than neatly fitting within a discrete and tidy category of identity politics, the women in this study explode conceptualizations of a monolithic political identity. As a group, they share policy preferences but draw from their experiences and identities in different ways.

By making room for Black women’s politics within the discipline of political science, along with other Black feminist scholars, I call for a deeper critical engagement with the intersections of identity politics and representation literature. Here we see the limitations of existing studies, which maintain race, gender, and class as a constant and fixed identity. The examination of the simultaneous effects of multiple identities on one’s political behavior renders visible the complexities of group-based politics and the individual political objectives of African American women Maryland state legislators. My main assertion, that scholars need a more robust understanding of the role that identity plays in descriptive representation, must allow for the investigation of the complex role of intragroup identity politics in policymaking.

Identity is not static or one dimensional for Black women state legislators. Indeed, the ways that these women bring their personal experiences to the statehouse illustrates that race and gender identities do affect their political behavior but in a nuanced manner. Indeed, the powerfulness, complexity, and dynamism of Black women’s representation pose bold challenges to a race-only or gender-only approach to political representation. These challenges to a collective Black identity and uniformity of Black women’s legislative behavior invites scholars to ask new questions about our current understanding of race, gender, and the intersection of these identities as they affect the outcomes of legislators’ political behaviors. (p.184)

Notes:

(1) . Deliberative democracy is a conception of democratic politics in which decisions and policies are justified in a process of discussion among free and equal citizens or their accountable representatives.

(2) . While I did not focus on the two Asian American women and Latina legislators interviewed for this study, our interactions were similar to those with African American women legislators. Indeed, one of the Asian American women legislators was extremely warm and open. It was through her office that I was initially granted access to the Prince George’s County Delegation Night. Her staffer also took me to lunch on my second day in the Maryland statehouse because she “want[ed] someone to look after her daughter in college the same way.” This experience leads me to believe a study on other minority women conducted by women of color researchers may have similar outcomes.

(3) . In addition, the legislators were most likely calculated in what they shared with me. While our conversations were often candid and comfortable it cannot be assumed that they granted me full access into their world. For example, one delegate was under criminal investigation during the time of our feminist life history interview. She did not talk about the allegations and the impending criminal and civil lawsuits. I did not ask about the charges because I wanted her to feel at ease during our interactions. (p.206)