Women of color, relying mostly on grass-roots support and their own grit, defied the odds and broke barriers, winning a record number of seats in Congress and increasing participation among voters who often feel uninspired by electoral politics.
A new documentary set to premiere Monday night on PBS looks back at the efforts of a half-dozen female candidates of color, including Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, who became the first black woman to win a major-party nomination for governor. She fell 55,000 votes short of becoming the nation’s first black female governor.
The film, “And She Could Be Next,” comes out at a time when activists are pushing presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to pick a woman of color to be his running mate.
“We’re thrilled this moment is happening,” said Marjan Safinia, one of the filmmakers. “We had women of color run to be the top of the ticket. Maybe we will get one as vice president.”
But more important, she said, is the organizing that the women in the film, and others like them, are doing around the country to prepare voters of color to wield the political power that they could gain as a result of continuing demographic changes.
“The idea of people of color being on the precipice of becoming the majority, and at the same time these candidates who share their lived experiences running for office to shape policies that will reflect the needs of their communities, is igniting the power of the vote and the power of civic engagement,” Safinia said.
Ava DuVernay is executive producer of the two-part series, which airs Monday and Tuesday nights. In addition to Abrams, the documentary chronicles the campaigns of three women who were elected to the House in 2018: Veronica Escobar (D-Tex.), Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). It also follows Maria Elena Durazo, a union organizer who won a seat in the California State Senate, and Bushra Amiwala, a 19-year-old college student who ran a spirited but unsuccessful campaign for the Cook County Board of Commissioners in Skokie, Ill.
Only one of the women featured in the film is not running for office: Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project. But her efforts to register voters and help them navigate the process of casting a ballot are depicted as equally important. The New Georgia Project was founded in 2014 by Abrams, when she was Democratic leader of the Georgia House of Representatives.
Abrams is no longer affiliated with the group, but has created a new organization to protect voting rights and increase participation by communities in the census.
Grace Lee, who partnered with Safinia on the project, said a central theme of the documentary is that “there is an organizer in all of us. That comes across when you watch the film and get to see, literally, organizers knocking on doors to get people to the polls” to vote for candidates who would hopefully better represent their needs and interests. “You don’t have to run for office, just get involved in whatever issue is important to you and your community, whether it’s defunding the police or schools. People are inspired by seeing regular people out there taking action.”
The film explores the backstory of McBath, whose 17-year-old son, Jordan, was fatally shot in 2012 by a man who argued with a group of teens over loud music coming from their car. She left her job at Delta Air Lines to become a national spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action. McBath decided to run for Congress after the 2018 mass shooting that killed 17 students and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Political handicappers gave McBath, an African American Democrat, little chance of winning Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, a seat that had been held by Republicans for nearly four decades, including at one time by former House speaker Newt Gingrich. But McBath’s compelling case for protecting children from gun violence helped her connect with suburban white mothers, and her willingness to reach out to long-ignored voters of color enabled her to eke out a win over Republican Karen Handel in 2018. McBath is running for reelection this year and will again face Handel in the general election.
Viewers in Georgia will have to wait until after November to see the documentary on TV. Georgia Public Broadcasting and Atlanta Public Broadcasting, citing the FCC’s equal time rule, said it would be unfair to McBath’s opponent to show the program. It is available for streaming at pbs.org.
Before becoming, along with Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress, Tlaib had been a fixture at demonstrations in Detroit. She was arrested at a rally calling for higher wages for airport workers just a month before her historic election. Escobar, who represents El Paso, had been a longtime immigration reform activist. She and Rep. Sylvia Garcia, a Democrat representing Houston, became the first two Latinas elected to Congress from Texas in 2018.
The first two Native American women — Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) and Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) — also were elected to Congress in 2018, along with several other young liberal women of color who challenged the conventions and politics of the institution. Among the more outspoken were Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who along with Tlaib and Omar were referred to as “the Squad” for clashing with both their party leaders and the Trump administration on such issues as health care, the environment and impeachment.
Women of color, who are about 20 percent of the U.S. population, remain underrepresented in elected office, accounting for 8.8 percent of Congress, said Kelly Dittmar, an associate professor of political science at Rutgers University and senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the school’s Eagleton Institute of Politics. Overall, women are 50.8 percent of the U.S. population and make up almost a quarter of the 535 members of Congress.
Dittmar said there is “value in seeing women who have taken on candidacy and how they do it, both the challenges and the successes, to hopefully inspire other women to throw their hats in the ring.”
“But then I think the documentary goes beyond that in tying candidacy and activism,” Dittmar continued. “What I like about it is it highlights the work of women activists as candidates and how activism and advocacy can translate into candidacy, and that’s the translation we need to happen in order to expand the pool of women candidates and women of color candidates and officeholders.”