Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Puerto Rican woman from New York, appears to have come out of nowhere. Her name suddenly spread after her surprising win in the Democratic primary election of New York’s 14th Congressional District late last month.
Women of color who are breaking ground in politics – most without previous political experience – don’t often get attention until after they win, which is illustrated by the New York Times’ lack of coverage of Ocasio-Cortez’s wildly successful campaign.
When women of color do win elections, the focus is on their gender and race. But, as Ocasio-Cortez and Stacey Abrams – a black woman who secured another surprise win in Georgia’s Democratic primary for governor in May – did this election season, women are taking their rightful place in politics.
When candidates are seen primarily as just women of color, voters dismiss their career experience. And while some may believe there is no need to continue pushing for a diversified government, diversity is not just numbers and one person of color does not equal a diverse environment. By continuing to only celebrate women of color who are the first or the youngest, their accomplishments are not seen on the same playing field as others.
As women continue to break barriers to become the first or youngest to rise to certain posts in government and business, we should celebrate them. But, we can’t stop there. We need to support women’s achievements regardless of their race and age and detach their success from these identifiers.
Focusing on a woman’s age or race when defining her achievement can be misleading. Katherine Johnson was not the first black woman in the United States to calculate the trajectory for a manned space flight, she was the first person to do it – period.
When Johnson’s identity follows the word first, it gives the illusion that others accomplished this feat before her. Mentioning her background is important – but the phrasing is essential. Johnson should be recognized as the first person to have calculated a trajectory, because even after all the struggles she faced as a woman of color in the South, she managed to do something nobody else had done before.
Similarly, Ocasio-Cortez is projected to be the youngest member of Congress, but many news outlets are calling her the “youngest woman in Congress.” Crisanta Duran from Colorado’s State Assembly has been dubbed the “youngest Latina,” but she is simply the youngest.
While both Ocasio-Cortez and Duran are proud of their gender and racial background, that shouldn’t be the first description when talking about their accomplishments.
It’s easy to understand why people root for the firsts. It is amazing to see people push past roadblocks that could have slowed them down. However, it is vital that we understand that roadblocks still exist even after one person is able to overcome challenges to succeed in their career.
In 1991, the United States Department of Labor created the Glass Ceiling Commission with the goal of eliminating barriers faced by women and minorities in the workforce due to bias. Minorities are affected by the glass ceiling, not just in politics, but in any other career around the world and many see breaking the glass ceiling as the pinnacle of eliminating barriers minorities face in the workforce. But it is important to continue encouraging minorities even after they are no longer the first, because they still face hardships.
Change is slow. Women of color have long fueled workplaces across the country, but they are still primarily remembered for their race when placed in an organization that is made up of less than 20 percent minorities, according to Jay Newton-Small, the author of “Broad Influence: How Women Are Changing the Way America Works.” It is not until women of color reach that point that their voices start to shine with individuality rather than identity.
Women of color are strong. They are mothers, leaders and entrepreneurs. By limiting their accomplishments to their gender and racial background, we undermine an entire group of people.
It might seem that women are already equal to men, but women’s representation is still not equal – which can be seen by the number of women that could become the first to hold positions in Congress after this year’s primary elections.
To achieve equality and a government that reflects the population, we must support achievements of women without defining their work by their race, age or whether they were the first to reach a particular milestone.
Continue to celebrate the women who become the first to reach a goal, but don’t stop there. Celebrate the 10th, 20th and 99th, too.
Alejandra Velazquez, a sophomore majoring in political science, is a Hatchet columnist.
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