Women of Color in Washington are Getting to Work—and Facing Down Their Detractors

After the midterm election was won by women of color with so many historic “firsts”—the first Muslim women elected to Congress, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar; the first African-American women elected in two states, Ayanna Pressley and Jahana Hayes; the first Native American women to ever enter office, Sharice Davids and Debra Haaland; and the youngest woman to do the same, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—our president was not in a good mood, especially when it came to journalists who happened also to be women of color trying to do their jobs.

In a chaotic press conference the day after the election, the president told veteran White House correspondent April Ryan to “sit down” when she tried to ask him a question and said, “It’s such a hostile media.” He then chastised PBS NewsHour correspondent Yamiche Alcindor after she asked him whether he thought his pre-election campaign rhetoric was “emboldening white nationalists.”

“That is such a racist question,” he shot back, refusing to answer.

Later in the week, CNN’s Abby Phillip asked the president if he wanted acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker to “rein in” special counsel Robert Mueller. “What a stupid question that is. What a stupid question. But I watch you a lot — you ask a lot of stupid questions,” Trump responded, shaking his head. He laid into April Ryan again, too, calling her “nasty” and a “loser.”

The next day, April Ryan called him out on his insults in a fiery op-ed in The Washington Post titled: “I’m a Black woman. Trump loves insulting people like me.

She observed:

The White House has had issues with me ever since January, when I asked, ‘Mr. President, are you a racist?’ After his response to Charlottesville, after ‘s—hole countries,’ after ‘get that son of a b—- off the field’ and ‘What the hell do you have to lose?’ it’s more than a fair question, it’s necessary. As a Black female journalist, I’m going to keep asking it and continue seeking answers. That’s my job, and I am up for it.

Abby Phillips told Elle magazine she wasn’t at all concerned if the president thinks she’s smart or stupid. “I haven’t let [the incident] slow me down… That’s what I told every single person who reached out to me: ‘I’m totally fine, this is not something that bothers me, at all,'” she says. “It just gives me a little information about the kind of questions we need to be pushing.” In a lighthearted tweet, Phillips tagged Ryan and Alcindor, both women she admires professionally, and invited them to “go on a vacation, get brunch, hang out!”

News organizations are also standing up for their reporters. CNN released a statement defending Abby Philip, saying that her question about Mueller’s Russia probe was “the most pertinent question of the day” and colleagues took to Twitter to show their support, as well.

In the same way that journalists are shrugging their shoulders at Trump and getting on with their work, the new ladies of the House are showing all of us what they are bringing to the table. Representative-elect Ilhan Omar of Minnesota tweeted, after arriving in D.C. last week, “We did not come to play,” alongside a link to an article in The Cut. The headline: “Your Cool New Congresswomen Are Already Hanging Out.”

The New York Times praised Representative-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s deft use of social media in crafting an “accessible” behind-the-scenes look at what goes on in the Capitol. A #squadgoals pic of herself and fellow freshman Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib went viral.

“Best photo I’ve seen since 2016,” one commented. “This could be us some day,” said another.

As one Buzzfeed editor noted:

Back in July, I spoke with Aimee Allison, director of Democracy in Color and organizer of the She the People conference in San Francisco. We talked about the number of women of color running for office. One of the things she highlighted was their unapologetic authenticity.

“What Stacey Abrams said was: ‘I’m a Black woman and I’m leaning deeply into my base,'” Aimee explained. “‘I’m not going to try to be something that I’m not. I’m going to stand very proudly in who I am.'”

This was something we observed over and over throughout the campaign. Women were being themselves and running for office. Well, now we’re seeing women being themselves in office—and it’s a powerful, wonderful thing.

“Every morning that I walk through the White House gates, I thank God for the privilege of doing the job that I do, and for the trust and faith that my listeners put in me to ask for, and bring home, the truth,” Ryan wrote in her Post op-ed. “Every day, I try to remember that, to the best of my knowledge of my family’s history, I am only five generations removed from the last known member of my family to be enslaved, Joseph Dollar Brown, who was sold on the auction block in North Carolina. And I carry that knowledge with me, because I owe it to him to cover the presidency the best way I know how, no matter how much pushback I get.”

Originally published on Pat Mitchell’s blog. Republished with author permission.


Pat Mitchell is the editorial director of TEDWomen. Throughout her career as a journalist, Emmy-winning producer and pioneering executive, she has focused on sharing women’s stories. She is chair of the Sundance Institute Board, the chair emerita of the Women’s Media Center board, and a trustee of the VDAY movement, the Skoll Foundation and The Woodruff Arts Center. She is an advisor to Participant Media and served as a congressional appointment to the American Museum of Women’s History Advisory Council.