“Black women saved America.”
Those words peppered post-election analysis of the highly contested 2017 Alabama Senate race.
The record-breaking voter turnout of Black women catapulted the defeat of Republican Roy Moore in a campaign clouded by allegations of anti-Semitism, racism and sexual misconduct. Black women in Alabama cast 98 percent of their ballots for Doug Jones compared to 35 percent of White women and 93 percent of Black men.
Black women’s turnout in that election topped all demographic groups across the markers of race, gender and education. Women of color, particularly African-American women, have emerged as a cohesive and consistent voting bloc. The twin patterns of mass incarceration and felon disenfranchisement have elevated that significance as more Black women are eligible to vote than their male counterparts.
Converting that numerical strength into electoral power has been a more arduous task that begs the question, “What do they receive in return?”
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Shirley Chisholm’s ascent as the first African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Congress. Chisholm’s election came nearly 100 years after the first African-American man, Hiram Revels of Mississippi, was elected to the U.S. Senate and 50 years after the first woman, Jeannette Rankin of Montana, was elected to serve.
Four years later, Chisholm became the first African-American to seek a major party nomination in her bid to run for the U.S. presidency. Chisholm was a woman, Black, the daughter of immigrants and elected to represent economically depressed communities largely overlooked by mainstream society. Her entry into the hallowed halls of Congress was a direct indictment of America’s failure to live up to its promise of democratic inclusion.
In her 1970 autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed, she writes:
I was the first American citizen to be elected to Congress in spite of the double drawbacks of being female and having skin darkened by melanin. When you put it that way it sounds like a foolish reason for fame. In a just and free society it would be foolish. That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, Black and a woman proves, I think, that our society is not yet either just or free
In the 50 years since Chisholm’s election, Americans have elected 38 Black women to Congress, including two to the U.S. Senate. Thirty-six women have been elected as governors in 27 states, with no Black women breaking that barrier.
In 2009, Sonia Sotamayor became the first Latinx Supreme Court Justice while women of color have captured city halls in places as diverse as Compton, Baltimore and New Haven. Women across the political spectrum have made gains as members of presidential cabinets and party organizations and as strategists.
In spite of this progress, the path forward for Black women remains constrained.
According to a new report released by the Center for American Women in Politics and Higher Heights for America, Inc., Black women are underrepresented at every level of government. Black women are 7 percent of the total U.S. population but less than 5 percent of elected officials.
The absence from statewide elected office is most glaring. To date, only 12 Black women have held statewide office in American history. That number includes two women currently serving: Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton, a Republican, and Connecticut State Treasurer Denise Nappier, a Democrat who will retire at the end of this year.
A number of persistent issues such as difficulty raising campaign funds, electoral structures that favor incumbents and stereotypes regarding women’s leadership style are persistent challenges for women candidates. These challenges are magnified for Black women, who face the additional hurdle of embracing the historic nature of their candidacies while rejecting attempts to pigeonhole their issue priorities and party affiliation.
Being first can be a hollow prize when your identity is used as both a credential and a source of critique. As pundits point to 2018 as the “Year of the Woman,” the large cadre of women seeking elected office remains stratified by race, ethnicity, class, geography and gender identity. It is a reminder that in 2018, American society is not yet just, not yet free.
Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University, where she writes about American politics, political psychology and public policy. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.