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How Women Of Color In Politics Have Been Treated

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

California Senator Kamala Harris has been a candidate for vice president for just under two weeks, and already her candidacy is being subjected to crass commentary like this radio broadcast last week from Rush Limbaugh. And I'm going to warn you now that we've skipped the part where he uses an extremely offensive term comparing Kamala Harris to a sex worker. But we're going to play the rest so you understand what we're talking about.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")

RUSH LIMBAUGH: Then there is this from The Spectator - why it should matter to women that Kamala slept her way up. It's no secret but public knowledge that Kamala Harris has slept her way up in the California political life by being a very public escort and mattress for California Democrat kingmaker Willie Brown. Now, some people read this story - mattress - didn't he mean mistress? No, I think they meant mattress here.

MARTIN: Now, you might be asking, why are we playing this? We're playing this because millions of people listen to Rush Limbaugh, and similar remarks were amplified by the president's own son. And we're also playing this because for many women in politics and for many people of color in political life, this type of treatment is not new. For Kamala Harris, who is both a woman and a person of color, these types of personal attacks will most likely continue between now and the November election and may unfortunately get worse.

So we wanted to dig deeper into the history of women in political life and how they are perceived and treated and why it matters. And we also wanted to speak with a woman of color currently in office, so we've called Anthea Butler, who teaches Africana studies and religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania. And she studied the experiences of women of color in political life. And she wrote about this recently.

Professor Butler, thanks so much for joining us.

ANTHEA BUTLER: Thank you.

MARTIN: And we're also joined by Jolene Ivey, who's currently a council member in Prince George's County in Maryland. She previously served as a state representative in Maryland and was a candidate for lieutenant governor.

And, Jolene Ivey, welcome to you as well.

JOLENE IVEY: Thanks, Michel. It's good to be here.

MARTIN: So I was going to start with you, Jolene, because one of the reasons we called you is that you are also - you are - also identify as Black like Kamala Harris. You are biracial like Kamala Harris. And you've also been in public life for some time. And I just wanted to ask, when you heard those remarks and similar remarks, what was your reaction?

IVEY: That man just really made me angry. You know, when he's making it a big deal that she dated Willie Brown a hundred years ago when he'd been separated from his wife for over a decade at that time, and then he gave her some very unsexy appointments to a couple of boards, that did not make her career.

MARTIN: Anthea Butler, you've been writing about this. What have you noticed in the last two weeks since Kamala Harris was announced as the vice-presidential nominee on the Democratic ticket?

BULTER: Well, I've noticed a couple of things, Michel. Rush Limbaugh's statements about Kamala are just indicative of how Black women, you know, political or not, are seen a lot of times in this country. And that has a history in slavery and racism and the kinds of ways in which at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century that Black women were talked about.

One of the ways was to say, a sapphire, a beautiful woman, high-strung, difficult - all of those things, so that was one. The other one, I think, is a Jezebel trope, which is the biblical trope that she's a woman who controls men, and she's seductive, and she does all these other kinds of, you know, really bad things, right?

And so I think the ways in which Rush Limbaugh and others who are conservatives have used this is to try to put a sense of false morality up against her. So we need to really start to consider this election cycle that hopefully Kamala can make a change in all of this. And then we'll start to think about her simply as more than just a pretty face, where President Obama kind of put her.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask you about that. I want to talk about depictions of Kamala Harris that are - that might be seen as in good fun. And that includes Maya Rudolph's impression on "Saturday Night Live," where she portrays Kamala Harris as this kind of sexy, wine-drinking seductress and a bit of a bubble-head, an attention-seeking bubble-head.

And, of course, you know, President Obama, as you alluded, famously called her the best-looking attorney general in the country when she was serving in that role in California many years ago. He apologized subsequently because he was helped to understand that was kind of diminishing of her authority and expertise and professionalism. What do you think, Professor Butler?

BULTER: It's amazing, actually, that we're talking about, you know, a woman of South Asian and Black descent being beautiful because so many times, we're not said that we're beautiful. White beauty is the standard of beauty, right? And so there's a certain kind of aesthetic that I'm hopeful that gets broken with this particular electoral cycle, first of all.

But secondarily, I think that in some ways, the intellect and accomplishments of Kamala Harris can be used by her in a really interesting way because sometimes when you're pretty, you can say things that other people can't get away with.

MARTIN: That's interesting because, Jolene Ivey, you spoke about that. You said that being attractive is generally an asset in public life because people warm to people...

IVEY: People like you more.

MARTIN: ...Who are seen as attractive. Is there a corollary to that where people somehow sometimes see you as less substantive?

IVEY: It's hard. I mean, on the one hand, you do have the benefit of people notice you, and they tend to be drawn to you. On the other hand, there are some women who are going to be haters and some men who are going to be disrespectful, like Rush Limbaugh. So it kind of puts you in a tough place. I mean, Hillary was criticized for not being pretty enough, and Kamala is being criticized for being too pretty. What kind of sense does any of this make? And what difference does any of it make when it comes to the - what the job requirements are?

MARTIN: You know, another epithet that's been directed at Senator Harris is that she's a phony. I mean, she's been accused or described in conservative media and by some conservative African Americans as phony. But I do wonder whether that phony label is in part meant to raise doubts about the authenticity of her heritage and her true connection to the sort of the traditional story of African Americans. Professor Butler, what do you think about that?

BULTER: Well, I think it's on different levels. One level is, is that they have to undercut her accomplishments. So if you call her a phony, then it means these things that she got are not real. She got them because she played a certain card - the race card, right? The second place about the phony thing is the nervousness. The demographics of this country is changing - are changing.

And the third thing is, is that this plays into a birtherism (ph) argument, right? That's the one of the things that happened with that Newsweek article that came out the day after she was announced that tried to say, oh, maybe she's not able to run.

MARTIN: So, Jolene, professor Butler has written that this is most likely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the personal attacks. What in your view is the best way for her to respond?

IVEY: I think she just needs to ignore it and let the rest of us have her back. People have said to me how proud they are of her, how they put their - you know, their granddaughter in front of the TV. They wanted to make sure that their granddaughter saw herself on that television. So the more they attack her, the more they're going to rally the troops and get Black people and most women on board to not just vote for her but to campaign and really support that ticket.

MARTIN: That was Jolene Ivey. She is a council member in Prince George's County, Md., and a former candidate for lieutenant governor. And she's a Democrat. And Anthea Butler is an historian and a professor of religious studies and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

Thanks to you both.

BULTER: Thank you.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF KALEIDA'S "THINK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.