The Future of Black Women in Politics

The Future of Black Women in Politics, The Root, 10 March 2010.

Part 3 of a Women’s History Month series on leadership.

In 2010, black politics is often written in male faces. Tomorrow, women may be the torchbearers of black political power.

Today’s pantheon of African-American political talent begins with President Barack Obama, who rode into office on the strength of organized communities and an overwhelming black turnout. Add to the shining roster: Cory Booker, Rhodes Scholar and mayor of Newark, N.J.; Adrian Fenty, mayor of Washington, D.C.; Deval Patrick, Obama’s Harvard Law School classmate and current governor of Massachusetts; Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee; even Harold Ford Jr., the ingenue from a Tennessee political dynasty who recently scuttled plans to run for Senate in New York state. Ready to join the lineup: Rep. Kendrick Meek, the presumptive Democratic nominee for senator in Florida; and Artur Davis, the congressman from Montgomery gunning to be the first black governor of Alabama.

All of these young and charismatic men have seen an opening for broader political coalitions and bigger victories in the Obama era. But did the first black president open a space for women as well?

Filling Up the Pipeline

“We’ve got a long way to go,” says Jonathan Parker, political director for Emily’s List, a political action committee that supports pro-choice female candidates. But, he points out, “there were fewer women in Congress [30 years ago] than there are now from California alone.” This year, the Center for American Women in Politics has tracked hundreds of women running for office–with several standout women of color in the hunt.

Four black women are currently running in Alabama for the House seat being vacated by Davis. Emily’s List is supporting Terri Sewell, a Selma native who interviewed congressional pioneer Shirley Chisholm for her Princeton undergraduate thesis titled “Black Women in Politics: Our Time Has Come.” Parker calls Kamala Harris, front-runner for attorney general of California, “a superstar for the future.” Likewise, Robin Kelly is poised to win a seat for state treasurer in Illinois, with key backing from the political class in Chicago. Karen Bass, the first black female speaker in the California assembly, might inherit a seat held by Diane Watson, the retiring congresswoman and CBC member who first asked her to run.

It may seem that women are finally achieving parity in politics. In fact, there are a record 90 women in the 111th Congress–and 18 female senators. But not a single senator is a woman of color, and the body at large is not nearly representative of the women who make up 57 percent of the American electorate.

State and local races, however, are key to building the female political talent of the future. “The reason women in politics have been bottlenecked [is] because there has been less of a movement to draft women at the local level,” says Ayanna Pressley, an African-American woman who recently won a seat on Boston’s city council. “By recruiting on the municipal level, it will not only attract more women, but more diverse women. Because that’s where you find a lot of women of color activists in their community, who don’t even know they have the sharpened skills to run and win.”

Creating a Winning Candidate

Even when a promising woman with a free moment is asked to take a shot at elected office, few have the built-in skill set to win a statewide or even citywide race. Just ask Massachusetts attorney general (and recently failed Senate candidate) Martha Coakley. “If you can’t communicate your message in three minutes and do it in a compelling way, it’s difficult to get elected,” says Andrea Steele, a Democratic activist who founded Emerge America as a way to train women for elected office. “Martha Coakley is the perfect example.”

Nonprofits like Emerge, Emily’s List, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the White House Project are trying to change the math on women in politics. At Emerge, women train at local meet-ups one weekend a month, says Steele, to learn, “how to fundraise, how to put together a message … everything from how to hire a consultant to going through the nuts and bolts of governing.” Forty percent of their alumni are women of color, and 41 percent of all trainees eventually run. The Lee Foundation focuses on state houses and governorships–the historically proven route to the presidency. They offer female-oriented campaign advice on how to be “Not Too Tough, Not Too Soft,” or “Who comes First, Your Family or the Public?”

“We have to start making it a priority,” says Steele. “If you don’t have stellar, well-trained candidates, you’re not going to win elections.” To combat this deficiency, “there has been a girls’ network being cultivated for quite some time that is on par with and will rival the old boys’ network,” says Pressley. This includes specific programs for women of color like “Run, Sister Run,” provided by the Center for Women in American Politics.

Swimming Against the Tide

Matthew Yglesias of the Center for American Progress has pointed out that black women–comprising 30 percent of the Congressional Black Caucus–are overrepresented as compared to the rest of the Congress which is 17 percent female. But this doesn’t mean women of color are moving up as easily as men. According to statistics from the Gender and Multicultural Leadership Project, black men still outnumber black women at the federal, state and county level–including local school boards–at times at a ratio approaching four to one. Of the 100 largest U.S. cities, only one has an African-American woman mayor. This isn’t a battle of the black sexes, but the status quo seems to sell short black women whom countless studies show are achieving more than black men in college and in professional life.

Generally, the Democrats appear to be more committed than Republicans to growing the talent pool of minority women. Angela McGlowan, a former Fox News contributor, is a black Republican running for a seat in Mississippi–and made her announcement at the recent tea-party convention in Nashville. But there are few other women of color in the GOP pipeline. There are only 18 Republican women of color out of the 1,799 women in state legislatures, versus 330 female Democrats of color.

The imbalance is reflected in Congress, too. “When we see the growth that’s happened in the Senate and House, it’s Democratic women, not Republican women,” says Parker. And under the Democratic tent–as Yglesias points out in a related posting–electing representation “from the relatively small pool of white male progressives means drawing from a shallow talent pool.”

Beyond Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin

The one lesson of the 2008 race that elected Obama may be that women are expanding their credibility and reach with ever larger segments of the population. Though both Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin fell short of their goals, “I think it opened the eyes of a lot of voters and a lot of male voters who might otherwise be predisposed to vote against women candidates for office,” says Parker. “That is going to have an effect for years to come.”

Obama’s win may also signify that racial politics may be less salient for black female candidates in the future. The multiethnic, intergenerational coalitions that Pressley, Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards and former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin put together may soon become the way forward for black women. Except in several southern regions, the majority-minority districts are turning into pluralities, and gradual demographic integration is putting blacks in action in unexpected places.

Angela Williams, for example, is running to be the first black female in the Colorado state legislature. Embattled New York City Rep. Charlie Rangel represents a “new Harlem” that increasingly filled with Latino, gay and lesbian, and younger black Americans. Even CBC stalwarts Rep. Maxine Waters and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee are experiencing change. Waters’ district recently added new sections of Los Angeles that do not boast large black populations; Lee lost jurisdiction over Houston’s heavily black fifth ward, where Barbara Jordan called home. But new coalitions that are emerging could turn these demographic shifts into a new kind of politics. “The district I ran in for the assembly was not predominantly black. A majority of the voters are actually white and Jewish,” adds Bass. “My God, Obama’s sitting in the White House–we just can’t view things that way anymore.”

Dayo Olopade


3 thoughts on “The Future of Black Women in Politics

  1. Regarding black women running for elected office.
    One says, “We never think we are good enough”.
    I am a white male. What do you say I am expected to do to change her mind?
    Also, single black women are the head of many households. I see pictures of many of them with a last name A and children with last name B, C, D and E. What do I do about that?
    Comments are encouraged.

  2. Insightful article. Like with most examinations of imbalances, it’s not just the results but what leads up to them. For example, asking “Why is there an imbalance of Black women running for office?” before we condemn their smaller presence.

    Would you be interested in interviewing a candidate for Newark’s Central Ward on the issue? He was featured in “Street Fight” about the Newark political battle and I believe he’ll have a big role in ushering in more change in the political scene that will include Black women in politics.

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