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(WOMENSENEWS)– Evidence of Latinas’ potential diminished political disadvantages can be seen by examining the current representation of racial/ethnic-minority women in elective office compared to their male counterparts.
As of 2005, women of color at the state and national level made up a larger proportion of their minority delegation, compared to their respective minority male counterparts, than white women compared with their white male counterparts. Racial/ethnic-minority women currently account for a greater share of minority political representatives than white women do of white elected officials, in both the U.S. Congress and state legislatures.
In the 108th Congress (2003–2005), Latinas made up 29 percent of the Latino membership, black women made up 33 percent of the black membership and Asian American females made up 29 percent. By contrast, white women were only 57 out of 463 total white representatives, or 12 percent of the white membership.
In the 109th Congress (2005–2007), women made up 15.1 percent of all members of Congress, or 14 percent of senators and 15.4 percent of representatives. In the 109th Congress 81 women were serving, of whom 61 were white women (which is 13.2 percent of the total white delegation) and 20 were women of color. This includes 12 African American women, or 28 percent, of the black delegation, seven Latinas, or 27 percent, of the Latino delegation, and one Asian Pacific Islander woman.
In the 112th Congress (2011–2012), women held 90 total seats in Congress, with 73 in the House and 17 in the Senate. White females were 73.3 percent of the female delegation, or 66 seats. In comparison, there were 13 black females, four Asian females and seven Latina females in Congress.
Latinas first attained national electoral office in Congress in 1989, and have gained increased representation in state legislatures since the 1990s. The first Latina elected to Congress, in 1989, was Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban American from Florida. Over the course of the 1990s, Latina representation in Congress increased 500 percent (from one to six) and their representation in state offices increased 280 percent (from 16 to 61). Latina office-holding grew more modestly at the county, municipal and school-board levels, but at each level of government “Latina increases far outpaced increases in Latina/o representation overall.”
As of 2011, out of the 28 Latino members of the U.S. Congress only seven were Latinas (from California, Florida, New York and Washington); five of these were Democrats and two were Republicans. However, Latinas made up a higher percentage of state legislators nationwide. In 2011, 1,740 women state legislators served nationwide, of whom 347, or 20 percent, were women of color and 1,393, or 80 percent, were white; the women of color included 241 African American women, 35 Asian American/Pacific Islander women, 63 Latinas and 8 Native American women. Racial/ethnic-minority women constitute 4.5 percent of the total 7,382 state legislators nationwide.
In 2011, 63 out of 245 Latino state legislators were Latinas. Twenty Latinas were in the state Senates and 43 in the lower house of the state legislatures; of these the majority, 57, served as Democrats and six as Republicans. The states with the most Latinas in the state legislature were New Mexico (11) and Texas (eight). In Texas’s 2011 House, Latinas made up 20.7 percent of the Latino delegation. In California’s 2011 state assembly, Latinas made up 13.3 percent of the Latino delegation (with three Latinas). Overall, Latinas have increased their political presence across a wide variety of state legislatures and “at a rate that outpaces overall gender representation.”
Although Latinas are increasing their representation in elective office, they remain underrepresented compared to their population numbers. Having more women in elective office offers many benefits to the country: legitimate democratic government and more diverse points of view and leadership styles. Women and men also tend to have different life experiences and points of reference, which “can translate into a distinctive way of viewing existing legislative proposals and can lead to different agendas.” Mary Hawkesworth, distinguished professor of political science and women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, contends “that the mere presence of women of color in the U.S. Congress is transforming the institution, as they battle stereotypes of minority women and shape the public policy debate on issues pertaining to women and minority groups.”
The growing number of Latina officeholders will also bring leadership differences to both politics and their communities. The presence of more Latina officeholders will have multiple effects on the political environment, including changes to political institutions and government policy.
Latinas have made significant strides at attaining political office in the last 10 years and yet researchers have not been able to explain this phenomenon. Latinas’ political success has surpassed expectations and explanations. Since there are no clear explanations, we cannot know whether this phenomenon will continue in the future or level off.
Excerpt from “The Latina Advantage: Gender, Race, and Political Success” by Christina E. Bejarano (copyright © 2013 by the University of Texas Press), used by permission of the University of Texas Press. For more information visit www.utexaspress.com.
Christina E. Bejarano is assistant professor of political science at the University of Kansas. She is a specialist in American politics, minority political behavior and political psychology.
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