For Women Candidates of Color, Progressive Doesn’t Always Mean Inclusive

For Women Candidates of Color, Progressive Doesn’t Always Mean Inclusive

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SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. – When Donald Trump called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” during the final presidential debate, the insult became a rallying cry for women everywhere, including the Bay Area. But despite San Francisco’s liberal reputation, some female politicians still get the impression that the progressive establishment here doesn’t want them around.

And that’s especially true for women of color.

San Francisco District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim is a progressive Democrat who has focused on affordable housing and income inequality, among other issues. She says she’s found herself having to perform two different roles for much of her political career. “Real or perceived, I always feel like I have to balance between being someone who pushes hard and someone who doesn’t get too much attention,” she says.

“You want to be in a supportive role because you don’t want to draw the ire of male colleagues,” she says.

Kim, 39, has had a long career in community organizing and is the former president of the San Francisco Board of Education. But in running for State Senate this year, she says, “I’ve been stunned by how nasty the race has gotten.”

One advertisement critical of her depicts a woman’s mouth next to the words “BLAH BLAH BLAH,” suggesting that she’s all talk and no action; the imagery conjures a gender-specific stereotype about women who talk too much.

“I feel like a lot of my personal life has been put out in the press,” she says, referring to recent stories in the mainstream media that have focused on whom she’s dating. “I haven't learned anything about my opponent’s personal life in this process. I don’t know any more about him than when I started. I’ve been exposed in a way that I really was not prepared for.”

Keally McBride is a professor of politics with a focus on feminist theory at University of San Francisco. She says the ugly nature of local politics and gender-based public commentary sometimes keep women from running at all.

“In general, the Bay Area has pretty strong involvement of women in electoral politics, more so than a lot of places. But there’s a pretty well-documented problem of getting women to run for office,” she says. “You open yourself up to a lot of very personal attacks, and for very good reason women tend to look at the possibility of running for office as not worth the personal pain.”

“When we have contentious races they become very personality-based, and that’s always going to be more difficult for women” because of gender-specific expectations, she says.

The flip side of that is that when women do run, they tend to do well, because many voters have assumptions that women are more trustworthy and morally upright.

When Lateefah Simon, a San Francisco native and former MacArthur “genius grant” winner entered the race for BART board in District 7, she knew the campaign would be tough.

Simon is a self-described radical whose views nonetheless align with the city’s progressive wing. She agrees with McBride’s assertion about the pressures of contentious races and the impact on women. “The difficulty of being a woman of color running for elected office is that you are under more of a microscope,” she says.

But being black, she adds, the assumption that women are more trustworthy doesn’t necessarily apply to her. “As a woman of color and someone who doesn’t come from money, I believe people have an expectation that we are going to be less trustworthy than our white counterparts,” she says.

Even in the Bay Area, a bastion of the left, progressive does not necessarily mean inclusive when it comes to women who aren’t white.

Kim is San Francisco’s first Korean American elected official, and represents the South of Market and Tenderloin area, a diverse district that has seen increasing displacement of residents and local small businesses due to the burgeoning tech industry.

Historically, the District 6 seat hasn’t gone to an Asian candidate. Kim says hostility toward her is often as much about her race as it is about being a woman.

“People used to say to me, ‘I would support you if you ran in the Sunset or the Richmond or in Chinatown [all neighborhoods with sizable Asian populations]. But not this district,’” she says. “I’ve had a lot of progressives tell me that actually. [They say,] ‘This isn’t your seat. This isn’t the Asian seat. Go run in an Asian seat. Don't take our seat.’”

Simon has felt herself more welcome across the Bay in Oakland, which has retained much of the diversity that San Francisco has lost as its lower-income residents have been pushed out. “I don’t know if there’s a place in San Francisco for a black woman, progressive … the progressivism [in San Francisco] doesn’t want me there,” she says.

“Oakland is my home, where I have found that I can articulate and also live my politics,” she says. “I don’t buy that the progressive agenda is deeply supportive of African American woman leadership. We haven’t seen it.”

The current BART board, which oversees Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, which serves the wider region, is predominantly white and male. Simon says she “can’t fathom” that the board has lacked women of color, because “transportation has always been the backbone for women of color’s existence.”

“I’m not going to go to City Council meetings week after week anymore and beg people to think about women of color. I’m going to be part of the decision-making body,” she says.

For Kim’s part, she says she’s become accustomed to being overlooked.

“In my time in office, rarely does a week go by when someone doesn’t confuse me for my own assistant,” she says. “People come into my office and they say, ‘Give this to the supervisor’ … People have come into my office for meetings with me and have sat down and asked me when the supervisor was going to come into the office.”

Neither Kim nor Simon is optimistic that attitudes toward women of color in politics will change anytime soon, or that the electoral environment will be more hospitable to female candidates, even after Hillary Clinton’s historic campaign.

Still, both of their campaigns represent forward movement.

“I think it is difficult for people to see women in power,” says Kim. “[But] clearly there has been progress over time. The fact that we can run for office and we see our names on posters across the city – my mother and grandmother couldn't do that.”