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Category: Politics, Race/Ethnicity

How Can 30+ Million Women Be Invisible?

| October 17, 2008

At great consequence to our nation, appallingly high numbers of women of color have not felt compelled to go to the polls in the past. The author set out to find out why and what to do about it.

This election cycle, media pundits and analysts have blanketed the coverage ad nausea with discussions of the black versus the white vote. They occasionally address the brown vote. But the conversation remains largely superficial: What happened to the women?

How come no one ever hears about the Asian American women and other women of color who happen to number over 30 million citizens in the United States today?   Perhaps it’s the startling revelation that in the 2004 elections 47 percent of Asian American , 40 percent of Latinas and 28 percent of African American women who were U.S. citizens did not register and failed to turn out to vote.

Think back about the 2000 elections and how the United States Supreme Court stopped the recount and declared Bush the winner by 537 votes.  What kind of impact could these women of color have had on our 2000 elections if even 2 percent more women turned out to vote?

After learning about the high percentage of women of color who failed to turn out to vote, I spent nine months exploring the complex reasons why this large portion of our population doesn’t vote.  After many interviews, we were able to produce a documentary called “Engage Her.”  The reasons we discovered are complex and fall into three distinct areas: cultural, social and political.

We found cultural constrains among women emigrating from countries where there was no democracy, where they lived under dictatorial leadership or tyrannical despots that seized political power by force.  They learned to distrust the government and never developed a sense of civic engagement or individual power exercised through voting.

On the social level, many women traditionally didn’t vote in their homeland countries or even when they emigrated to the United States. Their parents may never have voted and therefore didn’t reinforce the civic duty to vote.

Beyond the immigrant community, political habits and gender politics also affect women. They told us their husbands oftentimes discouraged them from voting by saying that their votes wouldn’t count and that they shouldn’t even try.

For each of these categories, there are far more reasons to be explored. But for some women whom we learned about in our interviews, the reason was amazingly simple: no one asked them to vote.

In order to engage this electorate, the most important thing to recognize is that women of color and ethnicities are not monolithic cultures.  Take the Latinas for example. Latinos or Hispanic is a convenient label the government puts on people who grow up with a Spanish heritage.  Yet Puerto Ricans differ greatly from Peruvians or Mexicans. While they may speak Spanish as a common denominator, their cultural differences can be quite vast.  Asian American/Pacific Islanders is an even more complex group of cultures. 

We’re talking upwards of 26 different ethnic cultures including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Laotian, and Malaysian and so forth.  Unlike Latinos, they don’t even share the same language in any unifying fashion.   Is it any wonder that the AAPI communities are so diverse and difficult to coordinate as a large voting bloc?

Why is this important and why should we care?  In most families, women are the caretakers, nurturers and the major decision maker in the household.  If the women vote, they will influence their husbands, children, sisters and communities—and future generations as well.  More often than not, women of color occupy the lower half of the socio economic scale, so issues of survival, putting food on the table, educating their children and finding adequate housing is uppermost in their minds. They are also concerned with the environment and such social justice issues as immigration and reproductive rights.

But when politicians and media commentators talk about the “$700 billion bailout for Wall Street” or the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, how relevant is the presentation of such issues to helping these women solve their everyday concerns?  Do they care more about whether Sarah Palin shoots moose from helicopters or making sure their children get adequate education from the failing public school system?

We continue to ignore or fail to engage this large population of voters and household decision makers at great risk to our democracy.  In the U.S. population today, minorities represent 34 percent, but that will grow to a majority within a few generations. By 2042, Latinos are projected to account for 30 percent overall, African Americans 14 percent and Asian American/Pacific Islanders more than 9 percent.

Still, when the mainstream media do get around to the issue of women’s needs they generally survey non-minority women. They rarely talk about women of color unless it is a report that is specifically focused on them.  Because most of the traditional media just “doesn’t get it,” women of color become further marginalized and disenfranchised.

We women of color need to be “Invisible No More” and work together with all women to demand that attention be paid to the issues that are of paramount concern to our families, children and communities.  That means identifying key concerns, seeking solutions to our problems within our communities and compelling the media and politicians to take notice.  Our influence in terms of consumer buying power, increasing representation in the work force and demand for services will only escalate in the decades ahead.  We need to be “at the table” to demand our fair share of both government investment and media attention.

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