Meena Harris never intended to start a movement. The attorney, CEO and founder of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign—and coincidentally, also the niece of the only black female presidential candidate running in 2020—was just trying to make a statement when she launched a line of t-shirts that read “Phenomenal Woman” in 2016, paying tribute to her favorite poem by Maya Angelou—a phrase inspiring to women, but particularly for black women everywhere.
“It was never supposed to be a thing,” Harris recalled, speaking with The Glow Up by phone on Tuesday. “I had no plan for this to go beyond one month, which was what it was originally; it was a one-month fundraising campaign to raise money for women’s organizations during Women’s History Month...The real inspiration and genesis for it were, I think, like a lot of people, coming out of 2016 election and feeling, frankly, despair and thinking, ‘What can I do? What contribution can I make in this moment?”
After her “Phenomenal Woman” tees instantly went viral, the following fall, Harris used the brand’s cachet to launch the brand’s first Black Women’s Equal Pay Day campaign, galvanizing celebrity ambassadors to bring attention to the deep wage gap affecting women of color. Now in its third year, on Thursday, Phenomenal Woman launched the “Phenomenally Black” campaign to commemorate the day black women hypothetically “catch up” to the earnings of their white male counterparts.
“Just three years ago, when we started this, we did it because we saw a need for it and a gap in sort of the mainstream conversation and mainstream discourse around equal pay,” Harris told The Glow Up. “There wasn’t really a prominent narrative and conversation around the fact that for women of color, it’s a much different experience...We were one of only a few voices who were able to leverage our platform and celebrity voices to really bring attention to this and to really bring intersectional analysis to the issue. My perception is now a lot of people are talking about it, which is so amazing.”
But it’s far more than a t-shirt; Harris is clear that while the momentum continues to build around this issue, the objective is to tangibly move the needle forward on pay equity; a mission challenged by the fact that this year, Black Women’s Equal Pay actually moved back two weeks, due to the increasing wage gap.
“This is still an issue and it’s not a celebratory day,” said Harris. “But we’re also really intentional about using it as an opportunity to kind of flip the script from something that is frankly a negative, unfortunate thing that we’re recognizing around inequality to say it’s also a moment to celebrate and to acknowledge the contributions and accomplishments of black women.
“And to note the fact that [black women] are disproportionately heads of households,” she continued. “That they make up the largest group of minority women-owned businesses; that they’re a key voting bloc with one of the biggest voter turnouts; and to say what we believe is the obvious: when you lift up black women, you lift up entire communities. You lift up the entire country. And they are phenomenal; they are phenomenally black and they deserve equal pay.”
This Black Women’s Equal Pay Day, Harris once again teamed up with Alicia Garza, Black Lives Matter co-founder and creator of Black Futures Lab, which is the beneficiary of proceeds from this campaign. The two previously joined forces last year during the Kavanaugh hearings for the #1600Men campaign, an homage to the 1500 black women who, in 1991, took out a full-page ad in the New York Times in support of Anita Hill. Throughout Thursday, celebs and regular folks alike proudly posted pictures of themselves in their “Phenomenally Black” t-shirts, highlighting the unique contributions and challenges faced by black women in the workplace.
“Oftentimes, we hear things about the wage gap between white women and white men and that’s not necessarily the wage gap between women of color and white men and in particular Black women and white men,” Garza told HuffPost. “I think for me, what’s so exciting about Phenomenally Black is the opportunity just to make that visible. Not just the struggles that we have—but we also want to be able to highlight the ways in which we are persisting and resisting and enduring circumstances that are not ideal and we want to be able to [focus] that to encourage and motivate and activate people to take action.”
And like their previous collaboration, Harris and Garza are making their activism inclusive, also rallying men to support the effort for equal pay for black women.
“It’s about showing the power and necessity of male allies’ support alongside black women, because this is an economic issue that affects black families—in fact, the entire black community,” Harris says. “And the burden cannot be on women alone.”
As for that two-week delay in recognizing Black Women’s Equal Pay Day this year? Harris hopes we’re taking notice. “That’s kind of the power of recognizing it in this way, right?” she asks. “Like, damn...just imagine: as a black woman you are working for free for those two extra weeks, during a time when people are on summer vacation, just to get equal pay from the year before.
“[T]his is both a moment of needing to recognize a serious issue, but we can also derive power from it,” Harris later adds. “And we can also, you know, validate our power and say that because we are able to come together around this and have this community, we’re able to recognize this and also get through it; because that is inherently within us...we can all use that reminder, and use that encouragement, and use that validation to keep going, because there clearly is a lot more work to do.”
And while the Phenomenally Black campaign aims to change future prospects and progress for black women in the workplace, it continues to hold a deep reverence for our collective legacy.
“What we sort of think about throughout all of our work in all of our campaigns is remembering the black women who came before us,” said Harris. “The black women who paved the way [and] made it possible for women to march on the [National] Mall in historic numbers like we had never seen before [during the 2017 Women’s March].
“And you realize that there are people who came before us that made that possible, and those are people like Maya Angelou, who most people know as a poet and author, but she also was a civil rights activist; women like my mother [political analyst, advisor and strategist Maya Harris]. Black women have been in this fight doing this work before Twitter and Instagram,” Harris continued. “We know that that’s the case; that black women always show up and pave the way, and they’ve led so many of these movements, often as hidden figures.”
“We’re phenomenal, we’re going to get through this, and this is what means to be a phenomenal woman: it’s to use your voice, to be engaged, to know what’s going on the world, to stand up. And it’s just been an incredible thing to see it grow,” Harris concluded. She and Garza share a commitment to advocating and elevating the marginalized; a mission that extends beyond cisgender black women to our trans sisters. As Garza revealed to HuffPost, Black Futures Lab’s upcoming Black Census Project highlights the ways in which black trans women are even more deeply affected by the wage gap.
“What we found is that 85% of Black trans women who responded to our survey reported that they were making incomes less than $50,000 a year and 23% reported that they are making incomes less than $15,000 a year, and so you’ll note that there is incredible opportunity,” Garza told HuffPost. “I mean imagine what would happen when Black cis women and black trans women got together to fight for better wages for all of us.”
The Glow Up tip: You can support Black Futures Lab and pay equity for black women while looking fly in a Phenomenally Black tee, available here.