This guest piece by state Rep. Denise Ennett (D-Little Rock) is part of the Times’ ongoing series on women in Arkansas politics called “That’s What Girls Do.”
Of 135 members, only six black women serve in the Arkansas General Assembly. In a state in which women of color are the heart, soul and backbone of the Democratic party — we are the people who continually show up, work the polls, bring the food, make the calls and turn out to vote — why aren’t we running and winning in higher numbers? And what can we do to ensure that our daughters serve in public office in much higher numbers?
I see two big barriers that tend to exclude black women, and fortunately, we can solve both of them. First, is wealth, or more accurately, the lack thereof. That means both personal wealth and access to institutional wealth. According to a 2010 study, while single white women in the prime working years of ages 36-49 have a median wealth of $42,600 (still only 61 percent of their white male counterparts), the median wealth for single women of color is only $5. Why? Well, for one thing, black women earn, on average, just $0.61 for every dollar paid to white men in the United States. Additionally, recent research by the National Association of University Women found that black women owe, on average, significantly more in student loans than any other demographic group.
It’s no secret that running for office takes money. A lot of money. A candidate’s ability to raise money is often one of the most important factors in a race. Money funds campaign staff, voter outreach, mail and advertising. Money is how candidates get their message across to voters, so even highly qualified and inspiring candidates may not win if they can’t raise enough money. In a world in which some of our presidential candidates are self-funded billionaires and even candidates for local office must raise tens of thousands of dollars (or more) to have any hope of winning, fundraising can be very daunting for women of color, who historically have been excluded from access to institutional and generational wealth. We also have to find a way to take time off of work to campaign while still affording to care for our families, so lack of money can be a huge barrier to entry into politics for black women.
By the way, income inequalities like this are an example of why we need more women of color in public office. Whether it is pushing for a livable minimum wage or explaining to our colleagues why voter ID requirements are truly burdensome for people without a car or a lot of extra cash, our life experiences are valuable and should be heard. As long as the only people with a seat at the decision-making table are those who have never really had to worry about how to afford gas or pay rent, we will continue to pass laws and policies that perpetuate economic inequality.
Luckily for us, black women learned long ago to become smart and resourceful, and black female candidates have figured out ways to game a campaign-finance system that is stacked against us. While it will always be an uphill battle to compete against well-funded candidates backed by special-interest groups and only wholesale campaign-finance reform will actually even the playing field, female candidates of color have modernized an age-old technique: we pass the plate, so to speak, except now we do it online.
During my last campaign for state representative, I was humbled and overjoyed to receive the financial support of hundreds of black women from across the country through an organization called Step Up. Each week during campaign season, Step Up uses its social media platforms to highlight a woman of color running for public office somewhere in the United States, and its members then each donate at least $5 to help support that woman. It’s that simple, and it works. Last cycle, I received thousands in $5 donations. For each donor, it means giving just $5 per week, but for black female candidates who receive a much-needed influx of campaign donations, it can make or break a close race.
Another powerful group that has taken center stage recently is She the People, which is a nationwide organization aimed at harnessing and maximizing the political power that women of color can bring to the 2020 elections. Rather than focusing solely on candidates, She the People thinks bigger and is building a huge network of activists, consultants, fundraisers, donors — basically, the kind of institutional wealth and access to political networking and resources that women of color have for so long been shut out of.
Right here in Arkansas, I and many other women who have run for office have been fortunate to have the support of two relatively new organizations aimed at recruiting and empowering female candidates: Progressive Arkansas Women PAC and Emerge Arkansas, both of which I believe will be featured in future pieces in this series. It is very encouraging that both organizations have actively focused on bringing women of color into the larger movement for increased political participation by women in Arkansas.
The second huge barrier that I see for women of color is lack of childcare and lack of structural support for parents in general, mothers in particular, and single mothers most especially. I know what it is like to do fundraising calls in my minivan with my kids in the back as I shuttle them between therapy appointments and other activities. I genuinely wonder if any of my male counterparts have had to ask potential campaign managers whether they’d be willing to include babysitting as part of their job duties if needed. Like so many women I know who are active in politics, I am fortunate to have a loving and supportive husband who does more than his share of the heavy lifting when it comes to caring for our kids, but also like most women I know, I still find it really hard to balance my duties as a mom with my role as a candidate and elected official.
This is even truer for single parents, and statistically that burden falls heaviest on women of color. The fact is, political participation, whether it is running for office, working on campaigns, volunteering, or advocating through a community group, takes a lot of time away from home and away from our children. Most of us tend to rely on a network of family, friends, babysitters, campaign volunteers and staff to help with our kids while we knock on doors and attend events. We juggle homework, bath time and all the usual parenting duties along with huge new time commitments like fundraising calls and finance reports. And once you are in office, it can be very difficult to explain to your child that you missed her recital because mommy’s legislative committee meeting ran long. No one prepares you for what to do when your child wakes up with the flu on the morning you are supposed to present your first bill. The simple truth is it’s hard for everyone, but especially for moms. And while there is no simple answer to make it easier, I think it would genuinely benefit a lot of women, especially women of color, if we as a society had more open, frank conversations about how hard this can be. It would also help if our society did a better job of supporting mothers in general, in the workforce, in the family, and those running for and serving in public office.
For example, I think women who are considering running for office should know the FEC now allows candidates to spend campaign funds to cover childcare. Prior to a few recent cases, it was unclear whether using campaign donations to cover campaign-related childcare expenses violated the FEC’s prohibition on using campaign funds for “personal” use, but now the FEC has provided guidance clarifying that campaign donations may be used for this purpose. In 2018, the Arkansas Ethics Commission ruled 4-0 that State House candidate Gayatri Agnew could use campaign funds to cover certain campaign-related childcare expenses.
Now that it is clearly legally acceptable to use campaign funds to cover campaign-related childcare needs, we still have to break the taboo around doing so. Many candidates shy away from paying for childcare with campaign funds because they fear that their opponent will use it against them or that their constituents will view it as a distasteful conversion of campaign donations for personal use. Another factor is that any campaign funds diverted for childcare are funds that aren’t then available for advertising or voter outreach, meaning that if you are running against someone who doesn’t need to use their funds for this purpose, you are potentially at a disadvantage if you spend your hard-earned campaign contributions on childcare instead of mail pieces or social media ads.
One of the simplest and most inclusive solutions is for candidates, campaigns and civic organizations to start hosting more kid-friendly events. Not only does it free up the candidate from having to figure out childcare to attend, it allows more voters who are parents to attend as well. Most voters would much rather donate the amount they would otherwise be spending to hire a babysitter to the candidate or cause that the event is benefitting. As an added bonus, raising our children to attend political events helps prepare them for future civic engagement.
So, if you are a woman of color who is considering running for office, my advice to you is that you should do it — but do it with, in, as a part of your community. Draw on the networks you have formed over your life: your church, your sorority, your coworkers, the boards and community groups on which you serve. You can’t do it alone. And don’t forget to lift as you climb. Just as we have had others mentor and support us, we must do the same for young women who are inspired to get more involved.