Black Women in Politics through the Lens of Collins

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2018
Black Women in Politics
through the Lens of Collins
BRITTANY ADAMS
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Black Women in Politics through Collins
In today’s society, it is becoming much more common for women to be in occupations
of high status. Traditionally, men are considered to be the breadwinners of the household so
they can provide for the family. If a woman somehow becomes the breadwinner, then a
negative representation is placed upon her because she is living outside of the norm.
Historically, women are not supposed to work outside of the home. Women were, and more
often than not, expected to stay inside of the house and take care of the children and the
home. If a woman strays from this “social norm” even a little bit, then her motherhood is put
into question and to other people, it is assumed that she doesn’t take her “womanly duties”
seriously, nor are they a priority for her.
Patricia Hill Collins developed a theory called Standpoint theory. Standpoint theory
emphasizes that what one knows is affected by the standpoint one has in society. The
important thing about a standpoint is that it refers to history and historically-group based
experiences; therefore, it is not about the individual. Collins also wrote a book about and
titled ““Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge Consciousness and the Politics of
Empowerment”,” In this book she talks about her idea of Black Feminist Thought as well as
the Matrix of Domination. Her idea of Black Feminist Thought comes from various black
women and the experiences of their own or other African-American women in which they
then develop a shared certain standpoint. She is concerned with how social groups become
dominant and how other groups become dominated.
Nowadays, it is more common to see African-American faces in the political world. The
world welcomed the first African-American president when, Former President Barak Obama
was elected which also came with his wife, Former First Lady Michelle Obama.
Congresswoman, Maxine Waters, is a politician who serves as the 43rd congressional district
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of California, who broke the internet and went viral with her speech about “Reclaiming her
time”. There are a myriad of African-American faces in the political world but it is very often
the case that most of the women especially who are African-American, get overlooked in
society. We often praise these figures for being so brave and outspoken and for giving the
African-American community somewhat of a voice, instead of constantly feeling like the
African-American community is being spoken for by people who are in the dominant group.
African-American women may not all have the same experiences, but Collins is
arguing that all African-American women share the same standpoint or at least one of them.
An example of this would be the idea that African-American women are followed and watched
closely in stores. Even if this has never happened to one African-American woman, she is
still aware that it exists; therefore she shares that standpoint because historically, it is
something that happens to African-American women. Standpoints are always fluid; meaning
that group identities are not fixed and they can change at any point. My research question is
about whether or not the representation of African-American women in politics, a
representation of their presence in American society. Participation in American politics of
women of minorities is drastically different than the political participation of white women.
Individuals with multiple standpoints, will experience different things, but will ultimately
share a certain standpoint that is different from one of white women. One of the greatest
differences in white women in politics and African-American women in politics is the idea
that African-American women are “doubly” disadvantaged because of the fact that they are
not only just women, but that they are African-American women (Darcy, Hadley 1988).
Being a woman in society comes with its own disadvantages and stigmas, as does being
African-American in society. Combining the two puts these women at an even greater
disadvantage that is way beyond politics and transcends to their status in society as well.
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Double Disadvantage and Black Matriarchy
The double disadvantage hypothesis is the “assumption that we can reach the
experiences of African-American women in politics through a general understanding of both
African-American politics and women in politics” (Darcy, Hadley 1988). The idea that AfricanAmericans are already at a disadvantage in politics and because women are also at a political
disadvantage, African-American women are “doubly” disadvantaged (Githens and Prestage
1977; Epstein 1973; Baxter and Lansing 1981; Carroll and Strimling 1983; Higgenbotham
1982). Darcy and Hadley (1988) then talk about how this double disadvantage puts AfricanAmerican women in a position of choosing, which white women are not forced to do. Charges
of matriarchy can and do play a political role in the African-American community. There is
an argument known as the matriarchy argument that says that African-American women are
less dependent on a man, than society realizes. There is some evidence that shows that
African-American women and more likely to step up and be the breadwinner for her family
because the African-American man is not doing it (Terrelonge 1984). There is not sufficient
evidence that suggests that the roles of a woman in an African-American relationship, is
different from the role of a woman in a white relationship. There is, however, evidence that
suggests that when it comes to politics, African-American women are more likely to be put in
a position of vulnerability that her white counterpart is not. Darcy and Hadley (1988)
explained that “they are expected to have all the disadvantages associated with the race and
sex as well as the perceptual burden of appearing as the potential matriarch.” Shirley
Chisholm, who is the first African-American woman elected to Congress, replied with “in a
society that denied them racial manhood, I was threatening their shaky self-esteem still
more…to the African-American man—even some of those supposedly supporting me—
sensitive about female domination, they were running me down as a bossy female, a wouldbe matriarch” (Chisholm 1970). African-American women are expected to take a back seat
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while the men do all the work and get all of the credit. Matthews and Prothro (1966) found
that “Negro women tend to be frozen out of southern politics.” Chrisman and Johnson (1976)
wrote, “If women are scare in the government, minority women are even scarcer.”
Being Black in Society
Scrolling down any type of social media outlet, it is likely that there will be something
if not multiple things, tweets, posts, stories, etc. about some type of racism, racial profiling,
sexism, colorism, etc. The world that is today is something in which these issues are front
and center. Patricia Hill Collins develops the standpoint theory that comes with many
different “mini” theories. One theory that she talks about is the matrix of domination. This
is playing off of the idea of standpoint theory and argues that any one person occupies a
number of positions which provide us with multiple standpoints. With this, she explains her
idea of social positions which are sex, race, age, ability, etc. She argues that we
simultaneously oppress and become oppressed because of these positions (Collins 1990). In
society, African-American people are considered to be a minority and would be the
oppressed. Because of the position in society that African-American people hold, they are
dominated because of it. Being African-American in America affects every single part of a
person’s life. It is not something that can be hidden or that you can fool somebody with.
Being African-American comes with a myriad of stereotypes and stigmas that will affect every
part of a person. Every African-American person will not have the same experience, but
every African-American person will share a standpoint. For example, whether or not you are
a man or a boy or if you have a relationship with an African-American male, you will most
likely be aware of the fact that there is evidence of police brutality against African-Americans
and especially African-American men. This has become something that has begun to
resurface within the past few years. Even if you have not been directly impacted by police
brutality, you are aware of it. Now it is almost essential for African-American parents to sit
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down with their children and talk about what is “okay” to do when a cop pulls her/him over
out of the fear that one day their child could be mistreated or killed by a police officer. That
example illustrates Patricia Hill Collins’ theory because how someone behaves is a direct
reflection of what they know has happened in the past so he/she is either trying to avoid
that, or feed into that; either way, they have to acknowledge that it is taking place with
means they share a standpoint with everybody else who is of the same race, gender,
sexuality, etc.
Being a Woman in Society
As human beings, we are socialized individuals. This means that throughout our
entire lives, we will be taught what types of things, behaviors, words, etc., are appropriate
and when they are appropriate. Socialization starts at a very young age. For example, even
when babies are born, they are still being socialized. Parents dress their children up in
either blue or pink depending on the sex of the child. When the child is growing up, the
parents will more often than not, allow the girls to play with certain toys and the boys to play
with certain toys. It is socially “unacceptable” for boys to play with dolls or makeup, but it is
acceptable and often encouraged for girls to do the same thing. Martin (2014) explains that
these gender roles are somewhat changing but for some change, it might mean parents
enforcing traditional expectations, such as family roles, but also expressing some egalitarian
expectations, such as occupation. Family roles for women are much different from the roles
of men. Historically, it took a while for women to gain political rights. Women received the
right to vote in 1920, but the number of women actually exercising their right was not
equivalent to the number of men that voted until the 1980s (Andersen 1996; Burrell 2004).
Today, women are more likely to vote than men in the United States and even across the
nation, women vote almost if not equally as men (CAWP 2006). Even though women have
the right to vote in almost every country, there are some countries in which “cultural
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barriers” prevent women from being able to exercise their political rights, “including family
resistance and illiteracy” (Pintor & Gratschew 2002; Moghadam 2003). It is no secret that
traditionally, women are considered to be more nurturing than men, and women should
behavior and conduct themselves in ways that show that they are more nurturing. A prime
example of this is the idea that the only way a woman can show that she is nurturing and
stay within that gender role is to work in the home full time rather than going out into the
workforce. If a woman goes out in the work force while she has a family at home, it was
extremely frowned upon because that meant that she was not fully invested in her family and
she was encroaching on the male gender role (Blackstone 2003). Even though Collins argues
mostly for African-American women, there is still a common standpoint between all women.
Women are considered to be minorities which means that in society they are considered to be
the subordinate group. As a social group, they are the oppressed group and in this case,
according to Collins, the men would be the oppressors.
Being a Black Woman in Society
Being a woman comes with its own set of challenges in society and being AfricanAmerican has another set of challenges. Imagine combining those two characteristics and
the challenges both of them together will bring. This is the case for being an AfricanAmerican woman in society today. This is considered being “doubly disadvantaged”. These
disadvantages come in the form of how much a woman is being paid, what types of things
people are saying, what types of media coverage a woman is getting, etc.
It is no kept secret that Michelle Obama is a very important public figure in the United
States. In order to book Michelle Obama for an event or for a public speaking, she is being
paid around $200,000 per speech. Hillary Clinton is being paid about $225,000 for every
speech. President Donald Trump is being paid $1-1.5 million per speech. It is obvious that
between each of these people’s paychecks, there is a huge disparity. There is a large pay gap
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in the US, but this is extreme. Because President Trump is a white, upper-class, male, he is
way more likely to get more money and have more power in this society. Because Hillary is a
white, upper-class, woman, she is being paid less than Donald Trump but more than
Michelle Obama. An article written by Richard Feloni (2017) is titled “Michelle Obama is
being paid a stunning amount of money for speaking gigs that rival recent presidents.” He
also explains that Michelle Obama is being paid half as much as her husband, Barak
Obama, gets. It is interesting that Feloni uses the term “stunning” in terms of how much she
is getting paid. To anyone else, $200,000 would seem like of many, and it is. But when
compared to other people who are doing the same thing, there is something deeper. This
relates back to Collins’ Matrix of Domination. This would fit more into the structural
domain. The structural domain sets parameters that organize power relations. The United
States makes it seems like everyone has equal opportunities and what not, but in reality that
is not the case. The dominant groups will remain in power because the subordinate groups
will never be able to climb up the “food chain” that high. As an African-American person,
you are already at the bottom of the “food chain” but as an African-American woman, you are
below the bottom of the “food chain” which means one will have to climb up twice as far just
to catch up.
Being a Black Woman in Politics
C. Wright Mills is extremely well known for his idea of the Sociological Imagination.
Within this theory, he presents three questions. One of the questions is “what types of men
and women prevail in this society?” In today’s society, white, upper-class, males tend to
dominate and prevail in today’s society. This doesn’t leave much room for social mobility for
other types of people (Mills 1959). Minorities are then left at the bottom of the “food chain” in
just about every aspect of life. Minorities include women, non-white people, people of lower
class, etc. African-American women arguably have the toughest time in society since they
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are considered to be minorities of two different categories. Being an African-American woman
in society is hard enough; being an African-American woman in politics is even harder.
Every time a new characteristic is added, the pool becomes lesser and lesser and begins to
get more challenging. Being a woman in society narrows down the population drastically,
being an African-American woman in society narrows down the population even more. Being
an African-American woman who is involved in politics, narrows the population extremely.
Each African-American woman has her own set of challenges and Collins argues that not all
African-American women are oppressed the same way. This means that not all AfricanAmerican women share the same perspective (Collins 1990). Black Feminist Thought seeks
to center African-American women into intersectionality by addressing the power struggles
that they face not only because of their race, but because of their race on top of their gender.
Politically speaking, in comparison to other countries, the United States has one of the
highest rates of women who are involved in politics. With that being said, that does not
mean that women are actually being represented fairly (Paxton, Kunovich, Hughes 2007). In
Patricia Hill Collins’ book, she explains these three different dimensions that make up the
oppression of African-American women. The second dimension she talks about is the
political dimension. She explains that African-American women were not allowed to vote, no
place in public office, and were treated unequally by the criminal justice system (Collins
1990). Collins argues that even know everyone “technically” has a voice, not everyone’s voice
is heard or acknowledged (Collins 1990). For example, Maxine Waters is considered to be a
major public figure in politics and she has been trying to be a voice for African-American
women for a long time. Waters broke the internet, when she went viral for her “reclaiming
my time” videos. In the context of the video, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was
testifying before the committee when Waters asked why his office never responded to a letter
from her and her colleagues about President Trump’s financial ties to Russia. Mnuchin tried
to dodge the question over and over again in an attempt to run out the clock on her
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questioning. Waters put a stop to his attempts and continued saying “reclaiming my time” in
order to get him to answer the question. This moment was more than just a disagreement in
the courtroom. In a time where there are many examples of men interrupting women
because of their belief that they are superior, this was an empowering moment for millions.
An article from The Washington Post explains that, “yes, there is the ongoing silencing and
underrepresentation of women and people of color in boardrooms and business offices. But
there are also centuries of being unable to vote, run for office or participate in public
life…And, more recently, months of watching a self-satisfied and often glaringly nonrepresentative administration make decisions…while expecting those affected to sit quietly”
(Emba 2017). This was not just about women being overshadowed by men; this was about
minorities not having a voice and having the dominant group speak and make decisions on
behalf of the subordinate groups.
Another thing that Collins talks about is the interlocking nature of oppression. This is
the idea that if one type of oppression significantly decreases, that just means that another
type of oppression is going to get worse. Minimizing one form of oppression, while it is
important and significant, it will only lead to them being oppressed in another, dehumanizing
way. Collins uses Sojourner Truth as an example of this when she stated “there is as great
stir about colored men getting their rights, and not colored women theirs, you see the colored
men will be masters over the women, and it will be just as bad as before” (Loewenberg and
Bogin 1976). Going back to the Gwaltey’s interview, the African-American woman, who is
considered the “mule” is obviously considered to be an animal and she is aware of that. On
the contrary, the white woman is seen as a “dog” and will be dehumanized also. The
difference between the two “animals” is that the mule is not allowed in the house and not
very well taken care of. But for the dog, it is deceiving because the white woman will think
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that she is a part of the family on a human level, when in reality she is just a “well-loved”
and well-taken care of pet. Both of these views are coming from people who are in a state of
oppression. Therefore, they both have a clearer view of what oppression actually is and feels
like compared too other groups who occupy more contradictory positions.
The Meaning of Self-Definition and Self-Valuation
In Collins’ article about Black Feminist Thought, she brings borrows ideas from King
(1973) and Gilkes (1981) in order to explain the importance stereotypes offer for grasping the
important of African-American women’s self-definition. King argues that stereotypes provide
images of womanhood that lead to the dehumanization and exploitation of African-American
women. In an interview conducted by Gwaltney (1980), an elderly African-American woman
says:
My mother used to say that the African-American woman is the white man’s mule and
the white woman is his dog. Now, she said that to say this: we do the heavy work and get
beat whether we do it well or not. But the white woman is closer to the master and pats them
on the head and lets them sleep in the house, but he ain’t gon’ treat neither one like he was
dealing with a person.
This is extremely applicable to women in politics. Women in politics are always put on the
backburner and always overlooked, but the African-American woman will always get treated
worse than the white woman, but neither one of them will get treated in a civil manner.
Even though it seems like all of this research points to negative disadvantages, there is
evidence that support the idea that there are some advantages and some positive things that
come from being an African-American woman in politics. Baxter and Lansing (1981) suggest
that the combination of the discrimination of racism and sexism for a long period of time
produced an increase of political awareness. Both African-American and white women
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advocate for a group that is starting to gain numbers in public office. Darcy, Welchm and
Clark (1987), estimated that almost seventy percent of the state legislators and almost ninety
percent of the members of Congress were reelected. This allows for the opportunity for more
candidates to run and come forward. Even though, there chance of getting through is slim,
any discussion of potential minorities in office are significant. From the years of 1975 and
1985, there has been a 111 percent increase in the number of African-American mayors,
there has been a forty-two percent increase in African-American legislators, and there has
been a nineteen percent increase in African-American congressmen. African-American
women and African-Americans generally were able to move faster into public office than
evidence shows that white women did. Not to say that this was easy by any means, but the
odds were made less impossible because of the lack of African-American running against
them. These numbers just go to show that the people who are in these positions are making
a way for those who come after them and promoting the idea to the African-American
community, that it is possible to move up and have a voice in politics as an African-American
person.
Just as Collins explains, her theory relies on intersectionality which is why all of the
little pieces of her theory, all intersect eventually. In her book “Black Feminist Thought:
Knowledge Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment”, she says, “Oppressed groups
are frequently placed in the situation of being listened to only if we frame our ideas in the
language that is familiar to and comfortable for a dominant group. This requirement often
changes the meaning of our ideas and works to elevate the ideas of dominant groups”
(Collins 1990). This quote is a perfect example of why African-Americans have such a hard
time battling for positions of power. In order to be heard, an African-American Person must
be speaking in a language of power; that is the only way people who are already in positions
of power, will pay attention. If the dominant group does not feel comfortable or does not
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understand the way that person is talking, they are not going to even look twice. As a person
of a subordinate group, one must attempt to rise up to the dominant group so that he/she
can be understood or at least given a fair opportunity or chance.
There is this idea that society is constantly changing, but society cannot change that
much if the history is still there. History will always be there so it is up to the individual to
decide whether or not that history is going to hold them back or propel them to keep pushing
through and strive for the “impossible”. Collins does a good job of explaining how society is
broken up into subordinate and dominant groups and why, as well as how, social groups
dominate and are dominated. In her article, Collins (1986), explains that the definition of
Black Feminist Thought, “suggests that it is impossible to separate the structure and
thematic content of thought from the historical and material conditions shaping the lives of
its producers” (Berger and Luckmann 1966; Mannheim 1936). Black feminist thought
although can be recorded by others, it is produced and best explained and experienced by
African-American women. That idea is one of the key themes in Black Feminist Thought.
These three themes aren’t all applicable to black women in politics but are essential to
understanding Black Feminist Thought. Without understanding how Standpoint Theory,
Black Feminist Thought, and the Matrix of Domination all are associated with each other,
there is no way for anyone to apply it to anything, especially applying in to the topic of black
women in politics. Collins main point of her entire theory and all of the parts associated with
it is that intersectional support is necessary. It is up to every one of all kinds to wake up and
acknowledge the fact that this is a problem and one person cannot change this by
themselves; it must be a collective effort. People need to get educate and begin to learn how
to fight back against the oppression.
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Berger, Peter L. and Thomas Luckmann 1966 “The Social Construction of Reality”.
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Collins, Patricia Hill. 1986. “Learning from the Outsider within: The Sociological
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Collins, Patricia Hill. 1990. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and
the Politics of Empowerment. London: HarperCollins.
Darcy, R., Susan Welch, and Janet Clark 1987. Women, Elections, and
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Emba, Christine. 2017. “Opinion | 'Reclaiming My Time' Is Bigger than Maxine
Waters.” The Washington Post
Epstein, Cynthia Fuchs. 1973. “Black and Female: The Double Whammy.” Psychology
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Feloni, Richard. 2017. “Michelle Obama Is Being Paid a Stunning Amount for
Speaking Gigs That Rivals Recent Presidents.” Business Insider.
Gilkes, Cheryl Townsend. 1981. “From Slavery to Social Welfare: Racism and the
Control of Black Women” Boston: G.K. Hall
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Gwaltney, John Langston. 1980. Dylongso, a Self-Portrait of Black America. New York:
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Higginbotham, Elizabeth. 1982. “Two Representative Issues in Contemporary
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King, Mae. 1973. “The Politics of Sexual Stereotypes” Black Scholar
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