Carol Hardy-Fanta, PhD’91, is tracking our transforming American political landscape

February 15, 2017

By Bethany Romano

The practice of electing representatives to hold public office at every level of government is a cornerstone element of U.S. democracy. From school committee and town council to president of the United States, there are an estimated 500,000 elected officials throughout the country. Although the election process is a mainstay of U.S. history, the makeup of elected officials has changed dramatically over time. More women and people of color hold public office than ever before—but until recently, we had very little information about this shift in representation.

Carol Hardy-Fanta, PhD’91, directed the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the McCormack Graduate School at UMass Boston for 10 years prior to retiring in 2012 to focus her complete attention on that question. Together with a team of co-authors, she set out to quantify what we know about elected representatives of color, both women and men. With funding from the Ford Foundation, she spearheaded the Gender and Multicultural Leadership Project and built a database of over 10,000 elected officials at all levels of government. 

Hardy-Fanta says, “It was incredibly hard to construct this database because there was no centralized source of information, everybody collects their data in different ways and with varying levels of success. We were the first group to build a system that allowed us to look at women and men of color holding public office across gender, states and racial and ethnic groups.”

After collecting the data, Hardy-Fanta and her collaborators analyzed what they found and surveyed a sample of elected officials. The product of this work is Contested Transformation: Race, Gender and Political Leadership in 21st Century America, published by Cambridge University Press in October 2016 and coauthored by Carol Hardy-Fanta, Pei-te Lien, Christine Marie Sierra, and Dianne Pinderhughes.

Hardy-Fanta says, “This book tells the story of how the transformation of the American political landscape is due to the rise of numbers of elected officials who are black, Latino and Asian women and men.” These changes, she adds, take place in the context of a contested political terrain, where struggles for racial and gender equality continue. Despite the constant refrain that the United States’ demographics are changing, battles for representation in public office remain contested. Every step toward increasing representation for women and people of color has been met with pushback.

One of the key takeaways from the book is that this growth in representation is driven by women of color. Hardy-Fanta says, “Black women make up over 35 percent of black elected officials, and Latina women make up 34 percent of Latino elected officials. For Asian women the figures are similar, just slightly less. White women, on the other hand, only make up 17 percent of white elected officials. If you look at women overall, yes it’s true there are more women in office than ever before. But if it weren’t for women of color, it would be flat or slightly declining.”

Hardy-Fanta cites examples from the 2016 election. “If it had not been for the three new women of color who were elected to the Senate, women would have suffered losses in the Senate for the first time,” she says. “Adding Tammy Duckworth, Kamala Harris and Catherine Cortez Masto increased the number of women of color in the Senate from one to four. It also doubled the number of people of color in the Senate. Women of color are the force of change in politics today, in terms of gains for representation among our elected officials.”

Contested Transformation also examines how and why women and people of color decide to run for office. One key finding challenges a cornerstone assumption about women in politics for decades: that women have to be asked—frequently—to consider running. “At every conference, activist event, wherever—you’ll hear people saying women won’t run unless they’re asked or encouraged,” says Hardy-Fanta. “But the women we spoke with didn’t feel that way, and the people who were promoting this idea had no evidence for it, they couldn’t even remember where they’d first heard about it. It’s just an assumption that women don’t get asked very much. Women overall and women of color run for many reasons, but this idea that you have to persuade or push women into running is just wrong.”

The third concept Hardy-Fanta challenges in her book is that women of color in elected office lack a pipeline. She says, “There’s this idea that we need a career ladder or a pipeline of women of color at every level in order to get them into elected office. But we found that there are multiple paths to public office—some people start out running for higher office, others start in a lower office and stay there for years, never attempting to go to higher office. Most state legislators in our database ran for that office first, they didn’t start in school committee.”

Hardy-Fanta, a recognized national expert on the intersection of gender, race and ethnicity in politics and public policy, first became fascinated with the subject while writing her dissertation at Heller. She enrolled in the PhD program in 1982 where she studied questions of Latina/o participation in U.S. political life, a dissertation topic that resulted in her first book, Latino Politics: Gender, Culture, and Political Participation in Boston.

“My dissertation experience was wonderful,” she says. “Most people encouraged me not to write a book as my dissertation so that I could finish the degree quickly, but my advisor, Deborah Stone, said, ‘If you want to write a book, write a book.’ She was very supportive, and she eventually connected me with an editor who published my first book 1993.

“As the first person in my family to graduate college, I appreciated the fact that my professor encouraged someone like me to write a book, even though it was hard. It meant a lot to me. And writing Contested Transformation was even harder, but I felt like it was a book that just had to be written.”