Kerry Washington is best known for playing political power broker Olivia Pope on TV in the historic series Scandal—a character who became renowned for her ability to get things done. So, she was honored but also disturbed when Olivia Pope began trending on Twitter the morning after the 2016 election. People were asking a TV character to come save the day.
“The reason we got into this situation is because we believed a person on television could fix things, and the only way we can save our democracy is if we realize we are the Olivia Popes of our communities and families,” Washington told Katie Couric at TIME’s Women of the Year event to celebrate International Women’s Day on Tuesday. “So how do we remind people that they wear the white hat?”
Washington graced the cover of TIME’s inaugural Women of the Year issue in because of her dedication to building democracy. Her production company, Simpson Street media, shines a light on the stories of BIPOC women, in particular, in the hopes of convincing her audiences that anyone can be the hero of their own story. And last year, she created the Vision Into Power Cohort, which support grassroots organizations that empower marginalized groups and do democracy-building work. Washington stumped for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris during the 2020 election and worked with grassroots organizers and politicians like Stacey Abrams during the Senate runoffs in Georgia.
When Washington was cast in the role of D.C. fixer Olivia Pope, she was the first Black woman to lead a network television drama in 38 years. A decade after its debut, Shonda Rhimes’ series has had a long-lasting impact on the culture: Its abortion episode, the first time the procedure was shown on network TV, broke barriers; Washington paved the way for other BIPOC female leads on network TV, from Viola Davis on How to Get Away With Murder to Priyanka Chopra on Quantico.
The hyphenate also spoke about her time playing another iconic feminist hero, Anita Hill in the HBO movie Confirmation. Hill bravely testified that she experienced sexual harassment at the hands of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings in 1991. Though Thomas was confirmed, Hill’s testimony brought the conversation about sexual harassment to the forefront of culture.
“I had some young people say to me, oh yeah Anita Hill, she lost right?” she remembers. “And there was nothing to lose. She gave her truth. That person still sits on the Supreme Court. But, the number of women who ran for Congress the following year, the number of women who stepped into power; the cultures that were transformed by suddenly having sexual harassment training or the way in which you say something is happening to me that I’m not OK with—that was amazing.”
Washington produced the project as well as starred in it and remembers teaching the younger people on the set about the importance of Hill’s work. She remembers the experience of playing Hill helped her empathize with how difficult it must have been to testify in front of congress. But she and Hill, who consulted on the project, had a laugh about the power-switch on set. “I was terrified to sit in that room and look up at all the straight, white, cisgendered men, I really felt [her] fear,” says Washington. “But this time along, they were all working for me.”
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