Feminist leaders joined with local officials from Prince George’s County, Maryland today to condemn the one-sided, sexist media coverage of U.S. Senate candidate Congresswoman Donna Edwards, who currently represents Maryland’s 4th congressional district in the U.S. House.
If elected, Edwards would be the first African-American woman to represent Maryland in the U.S. Senate, and only the second African-American woman in history to serve in that chamber. She has run on a strong platform that includes equal pay for women, paid family and medical leave, affordable child care, reproductive rights, measures to curb gun violence, reducing student debt and lowering the cost of higher education, LGBTQ rights, and environmental sustainability.
But despite this broad agenda, her service in the House, and her long history of leadership as the cofounder and former executive director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence and as head of the Arca Foundation (a progressive philanthropic foundation that focuses on economic and racial equality and human rights), media outlets, and most recently the Washington Post, have focused instead on critics who claim that Edwards is “pandering” to women and black voters by talking about her experience as an African-American single mother and discussing the importance of electing an African-American woman to the Senate.
Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal called these attacks patently outrageous. “When male candidates tell their stories or talk about their families, they are applauded as being authentic,” said Smeal, “but when an African-American woman tells her story, she is somehow pandering to African-Americans and women or playing the race and gender card. It’s a dangerous attack. Donna Edwards can’t stop being a woman, and she can’t stop being an African-American woman.”
“What these critics are really saying then,” continued Smeal, “is that Donna Edwards shouldn’t be talking about her own experience—an experience that is representative of millions of people. What they’re saying is that she shouldn’t have dared to run in the first place.”
Maryland State Senator C. Anthony Muse, speaking to the press this morning, noted that “everyone deserves representation,” pointing out that of the nearly 2,000 senators who have served in the U.S. Senate since its beginning, only nine have been African-American and only one has been an African-American woman. “We deserve women and African-Americans at the table,” stated Muse.
Muse also blasted the Washington Post for using “racially-coded language” to paint Edwards as a stereotypical “angry black woman.” A profile of Edwards that appeared in the Post on Wednesday, said that the Congresswoman “has roiled her Democratic colleagues, who chafe at what they describe as her brusque manner [and] sharp-elbow tactics.” The article also criticizes Edwards’ constituent services, providing absolutely no data to substantiate its claims.
National Organization for Women President Terry O’Neill called comments like that “flat out sexist” as they reflect a negative bias toward women’s leadership. “These attacks are not only intended to damage Edwards, but they have an insidious bystander effect as they disincentivize other women from running.”
Research shows that African-American women, who make up only 3.4 percent of Congress, face numerous barriers to political leadership. According to a report issued by the Center for American Women in Politics for the Higher Heights Leadership Fund, African-American women are less likely to be encouraged to run for office, and more likely to be discouraged from running for office, than either African-American men or white women. As candidates, African-American women also have a more difficult time raising money for their campaigns. Donna Edwards’ opponent, for example, has raised over $4 million more than Edwards for this election, a gap that Emily’s List has been helping to fill by running pro-Edwards advertising.
Of course, Emily’s List was criticized for supporting Edwards in the Senate campaign. Bizarrely, the allegation was that Emily’s List supported her only because she was a woman. How dare a woman-led political action committee, dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women to office, support someone who aligns precisely with its mission.