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Happy 50th anniversary, women’s legislative caucuses! Here’s how to be even more effective.

Black women legislators can point out policy blind spots others might overlook

Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) speaks at the National Council for Incarcerated Women and Girls “100 Women for 100 Women” rally at Black Lives Matter Plaza on March 12, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Women Legislators of Maryland, the oldest women’s state legislative caucus. That’s a milestone to celebrate. We examined how such single-identity caucuses might benefit from a more intersectional approach to policymaking, considering that policies affect citizens with more than one marginalized identity that involve mutually reinforcing inequalities.

We find that Black women understand politics differently, not only because they are Black and because they are women, but because they are both at once. Scholars and advocates use the term “intersectionality” to explain how this may give them a unique perspective on politics and policy consequences, allowing them to see forms of discrimination and policy blind spots that may be invisible to others.

Black caucus or women’s caucus?

Legislative caucuses are groups in which legislators work together on a shared mission, outside committees. While Republicans and Democrats have their own caucuses, smaller caucuses can be formed within a party of legislators who share an ideological approach, or across party lines based on shared identities such as race and gender. For example, in 2014, the cross-party Hawaii Women’s Legislative Caucus advocated for a bill to restore funding for domestic violence services and met with a Honolulu police chief about domestic abusers on his staff.

Legislative caucuses may also work to change the informal norms that may make some groups feel unwelcome in government. For example, in 2018, the Women Legislators of Maryland produced a report about sexual harassment within state government. Members of the Black Caucus in Mississippi worked to have statues of white supremacists removed from their Capitol.

Our research finds that Black women lawmakers can be highly influential in identity-based caucuses. They draw from their raced and gendered identities to push single-axis caucuses such as the Black Caucus or the Women’s Caucus to think more holistically and intersectionally about politics.

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Doing it for themselves

Black congresswomen, for example, created the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls (CCBWG) to focus on issues of importance to that group. The caucus tackles issues that could fit under the work of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) or the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues (CCWI). But the CCBWG was created from the feeling that the CBC and CCWI are not fully addressing the needs of Black women. The CCBWG advocates for issues of importance to Black women, such as calling attention to the high rates of maternal and infant mortality rates in Black communities — working with community stakeholders, public health organizations and health-care providers to raise awareness of these gendered and racialized differences in health outcomes. As a result, Congress passed and President Biden signed into law the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act of 2021.

In a forthcoming essay, we analyze tweets from all 26 Black women lawmakers during the 117th Congress (Jan. 3, 2021, to the present). We used Twitter’s application programming interface (API) and the statistical software rtweet to examine how and with whom Black congresswomen have worked to advance health equity during that period. Of 10,073 tweets, we found that Black women legislators overwhelmingly drew on their lived experiences to publicly promote this issue and form coalitions with others. Congresswomen included @CBWGCAUCUS in their public discussions of policies and tagged other lawmakers.

We found that, through the CCBWG, Black congresswomen discussed the increasing U.S. mortality and morbidity rates for all women — and especially for Black women. They appealed to both the congressional women’s caucus and the Black caucus, urging them to remedy this public health issue. Using personal examples about their birthing experiences or the first moments of life for their newborns, these lawmakers showed how this mattered, especially for Black women who are mothers.

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Revealing blind spots

Nadia E. Brown’s book “Sisters in the Statehouse” demonstrates that sometimes a legislative women’s caucus may not include the perspective of marginalized women. For instance, when working on domestic violence legislation introduced in 2009, the Maryland women’s legislative caucus endorsed a bill that would have listed anyone accused of domestic violence on a statewide database. Maryland’s Black women state legislators argued that this could harm people wrongly accused by denying them their chance to show they were not guilty of the charges. The Black women state legislators pointed out that unsubstantiated claims could seriously harm Black communities; in particularly, Black men who had been wrongly accused could be denied housing or jobs simply if their names were found on that list.

The Black women lawmakers made their arguments in several ways. Some shared personal stories about how domestic violence had hurt families, friends or themselves. They also told stories about how, when lower-income Black women seek state protection from domestic violence, they face the possibility of eviction and unemployment — while police may respond with disproportionate force and excess surveillance. Both consequences can hurt the community as a whole, increasing instability and distrust.

The Black women legislators’ objections resulted in the bill’s defeat. Further, the Maryland women’s legislative caucus vowed to listen more to Black women legislators to better understand their perspective.

Black History Month and Women’s History Month

When Maryland formed its women’s caucus in 1972, few women and few Blacks served in elected office. In the third decade of the 21st century, many key public institutions still include no Black women. No Black woman has served on the U.S. Supreme Court or as a governor in any of the 50 states.

February is Black History Month; March is Women’s History Month. While each group deserves its due, these separate celebrations lose sight of the individuals who occupy both identities: Black women.

Black women in politics will continue to point out how many public policy challenges look different from the intersection of those two marginalized identities. If our governing institutions are to effectively address these problems without creating new ones, policymakers may want to listen and join Black women in taking a comprehensive approach to solutions.

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Nadia E. Brown (@BrownPhDGirl) is a professor of government and director of women’s and gender studies at Georgetown University. She is the co-author of “Sister Style: The Politics of Appearance for Black Women Political Elites” (Oxford University Press, 2021).

Christopher J. Clark is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of North Carolina and author of “Gaining Voice: The Causes and Consequences of Black Representation in the American States” (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Anna Mitchell Mahoney (@Annammahoney) is an administrative associate professor of women’s political leadership and director of research at the Newcomb Institute at Tulane University, and author of “Women Take Their Place in State Legislatures: The Creation of Women’s Caucuses” (Temple University Press, 2018)