1of5Senator Kamala Harris speaks during intermission at the presidential candidate forum sponsored by She the People at Texas Southern University Wednesday, April 25, 2019.Photo: Melissa Phillip, Staff photographer / Houston Chronicle
Among the things I learned this past week is that the phrase “women of color” apparently was born in Houston, in 1977.
That November, about 2,000 delegates and some 20,000 observers from across the United States gathered in the city for the first-ever National Women’s Conference — or, as conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly snidely dubbed it, a “Foolish Festival for Frustrated Feminists.”
The gathering, authorized by federal law, drew heavy-hitters such as Rosalynn Carter, Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Barbara Jordan and Coretta Scott King to come up with a plan of action for advancing women’s rights. Some of the feminists in attendance were frustrated with the leaders of groups such as the National Organization of Women, most of whom were white, and took the opportunity to raise their concerns about the resulting myopia in the women’s movement.
That myopia has persisted, and the 2016 presidential election called attention to it.
In 2016, a majority of white Americans voted for the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump. To be more specific, Trump won 62 percent of white men and 52 percent of white women, according to CNN exit polls.
A majority of voters in all other demographic groups cast ballots for Democrat Hillary Clinton. Women of color, in particular, rejected Trump by overwhelming margins: Clinton won 69 percent of Latinas and 94 percent of black women.
So it was that eight of the Democrats jostling for their party’s 2020 presidential nomination trundled down to Houston on Wednesday for a forum at Texas Southern University that was organized by She the People, a nationwide network focused on expanding the political power of women of color.
The group held its inaugural summit in 2018, in San Francisco. And in her opening remarks at the presidential forum, group founder Aimee Allison explained that her goal in starting the network had been to uphold “four fundamental values”: “To love our own and each other; to seek justice for all; to ensure that everyone belongs; and finally, to make sure that this American democracy lives up to its greatest promise.”
Since this was the group’s first presidential forum, attendees encountered some minor technical issues.
Supplies of granola bars and bottled water ran low. The event’s program featured a photo of U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D- San Antonio, rather than his twin brother Julian, who is running for president and was to speak that afternoon. And Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont, did not take kindly to being booed when he cited his attendance at the 1963 March on Washington in response to a question about the rise in white supremacy.
“I have dedicated my life to the fight against racism and sexism and discrimination of all forms,” said a slightly cranky-sounding Sanders.
Still, the She the People forum was, by all accounts, a resounding success.
“Energizing! Exhilarating! Hope-giving! Inspiring! These are words I would use to describe the forum,” said Dee Scott, 62, a Houston-based activist who attended along with other volunteers from the Texas Organizing Project.
Julian Castro, the former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, was well-received, as were candidates such as U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of El Paso. And U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, seemed to speak to the hearts of many attendees.
“I have a plan,” she said at one point, and the attendees greeted that comment with a standing ovation.
That the event was held in Houston was taken as a measure of Texas’s new relevance for Democrats across the country, who are hoping to retake the White House in 2020.
The state is still red on paper, and Trump easily won Texas’s electoral votes in 2016. But Clinton came closer than any Democrat since her husband, Bill, in 1992 and 1996. And in last year’s midterm elections, Texas Democrats made further inroads. In addition to picking up two seats in Congress and 12 in the Texas House, for example, Democrats swept countywide races in Harris and Fort Bend counties.
“It was a recognition of all the hard work that’s been done to increase Democratic turnout in Texas,” said Lillie Schechter, chairwoman of the Harris County Democratic Party, among the organizations that partnered with She the People.
And that the forum was held at all was a measure of the growing political power of women of color—whose influence in the Democratic Party has not, historically, been commensurate with their support of it, or their commitment to its values.
The Wednesday forum was, in fact, the first presidential forum ever focused on the policy priorities of women of color, such as health care, immigration, housing, gun violence, and criminal justice reform.
Such women represent 1 in 5 voters in the Democratic primary — and perhaps 25 percent of the electorate, Allison noted, in key swing states including Texas.
But the voices of women of color are worth centering, nonetheless — in part because of the perspective they bring to political debates. As Scott put it, after the forum: “We know what we experience, and what we’re exposed to.”