The History of Black Women in Politics

The History of Black Women in Politics, The Root, 8 March 2010.

Part 1 of a Women’s History Month series on leadership.

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush held a closed-door meeting at the White House to discuss law and order after the race riots in Los Angeles. Bush and the other lawmakers in attendance received an unexpected visitor in Rep. Maxine Waters, then a freshman representative from South Central Los Angeles, who had invited herself into the deliberations. The gatekeepers were taken aback, but Waters was unfazed: “I don’t intend to be excluded or dismissed,” she said then. “We have an awful lot to say.”

Waters, currently one of 13 black female members of the 111th Congress, is part of an American tradition stretching back to the times before slavery ended. But what role does the outspoken black female play in today’s politics?

First lady Michelle Obama, the nation’s most visible symbol of black female power, has shown a studied neutrality when it comes to political engagement. (The Harvard-trained lawyer and hospital executive has stuck to hula hoops and vegetables since hitting Washington). Nevertheless, at a spring ceremony honoring Sojourner Truth in the U.S. Capitol, she let the veil slip: “One can only imagine what Sojourner Truth, an outspoken, tell-it-like-it-is kind of woman—and we all know a little something about that, right—just to imagine what she would have to say about this incredible gathering.”

What would Sojourner Truth think of women’s political fortunes in the age of Obama?

At First, Empowered Behind the Scenes

In the 19th century, abolitionist leaders like Truth, Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Tubman and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, were eloquent and activist spokeswomen for their race and gender. Harper, an author who by the 1860s had become a regular on the anti-slavery speaking circuit and an ally of suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, expressed a clearly feminist philosophy: “The true woman—if you would render her happy, needs more than the mere development of her affectional nature,” Harper wrote in her 1859 short story, “The Two Offers.” “Her conscience should be enlightened, her faith in the true and right established, and scope given to her Heaven-endowed and God-given faculties.”

This rejection of the romantic and embrace of the intellectual still holds up as a manifesto for black female political empowerment. Yet for decades, these women remained outliers in the narrative of African-American political history. Before and after women won the right to vote in 1920, it was black men who first broke into formal politics. Free black Joseph Rainey was elected to Congress in 1870—and it was not until a full century later, in 1969, that Shirley Chisholm became the first black female elected to Congress, representing New York state.

This delay can be understood in part as a function of antiquated gender roles in American society. Politics has rarely been considered “women’s work.” For most of the 20th century, political scientists accepted a model wherein “political participation” meant running for office, or the back and forth in Congress over a particular piece of legislation. Now, according to Zenzele Isoke’s recent work on gender, race and politics, the academy now analyzes “a long strand of variables such as voting, donating money, campaigning for an elected official, protesting, contacting elected officials, attending board or community meetings, or formally affiliating with a political organization.” In other words, what black women in the United States have been up to since the days of Harper and her sisters.

The modern women’s movement took shape after World War II, when females began to populate the factories and office spaces once reserved for men. Black women, who had long had to work and keep homes, were early entrants to a more political, more calculated second wave of feminism that would later be embraced by white counterparts. The women activists of the 1940s and 1950s—Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and others—became the backbone of a civil and social rights movement that was surprisingly integrated by gender. While men were standard-bearers—for the ballot or the bullet—ordinary women marched side by side with them in Montgomery, Selma, Greensboro and beyond. Women like the politically savvy Parks (who “didn’t get arrested by accident,” said one acquaintance) cleared the collective throat of the black women who followed their example. By the 1960s, women like Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver could command a megaphone with as much authority—and notoriety—as their male counterparts in the Black Panther movement.

Then, High-Profile Pioneering

With the historic overhaul of civil rights in America underway, the ascension of women into formal positions of governmental authority was both novel and totally natural. “The civil rights activism was on one track and the electoral process was on another track,” says Carol Moseley Braun, the first and only black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. “They came together in the aftermath of the marches in the South. And I think I was part of that impulse,” she recalls.

“I remember when it was just Cardiss Collins and Katie Hall—before Eleanor [Holmes Norton], Barbara Rose Collins, Maxine [Waters] and Carrie Meeks,” adds Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic organizer and legatee of the civil rights era. “Then the explosion of black women from all over.” In Congress, this included Chisholm (also the first black woman to run for president, in 1972) and Barbara Jordan, who gave a barn-burning speech at the 1976 Democratic National Convention.

What distinguished these early congressional pioneers was their commitment to women’s empowerment. “They self-identified as women, and they self-identified as feminists,” says Maureen Bunyan, a longtime Washington political analyst and television journalist. In Chisholm’s 1972 announcement, her hybrid identity became central to her political authority. “I’m black, and I’m a woman,” she said. “The hour has come in America when we can’t be passive recipients.”

This recapitulation of Harper’s ambition and Waters’ defiance had a marked impact. Indeed, the end of the 20th century was a heady time for black women in national politics. Sharon Pratt Dixon Kelly was the mayor of Washington, having taken over from an embattled Marion Barry. Though there wasn’t then a women’s bathroom near the Senate floor, Moseley Braun was representing Illinois in the upper chamber. Shirley Franklin made history as the first black woman to run Atlanta. In 1992, following what many women viewed as gendered mistreatment of Anita Hill during confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, 54 women—and 11 black women—swept into Congress.

Now, Public Office for Too Few

Yet for all of the women in the spotlight and behind the scenes, few actually made the push for elected office—even as black women are overrepresented in college and in professional life. Ursula Burns of Xerox is the first black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Condoleezza Rice was the first black female secretary of state. Women like Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College, a black women’s college, and Princeton political science professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell, are dynamic, respected leaders in academia. President Barack Obama’s cabinet is full of high-flying women like senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, UN ambassador Susan Rice and EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. But many of the black female power wielders, including Brazile, who was the top manager of Al Gore’s campaign for president in 2000, have stuck to consulting and organizing rather than running for office. Even Oprah Winfrey stayed out of politics until 2008.

The big question goes back through black history: Why didn’t Rosa run? After becoming a celebrity in her own right, with the political chops to change the nation (at the time of her arrest, she was planning a major conference for black youth), Parks never tried to play the inside game. Of her initial involvement in the civil rights movement and the NAACP, Parks noted: “I was the only woman there, and they needed a secretary, and I was too timid to say no.” And before her death in 2005, she maintained that she had no interest in politics.

But today, the bar is lower, and women’s rights more solid. The real obstacles to elective office may be less about rights and more about belonging to the right club.

Dayo Olopade


3 thoughts on “The History of Black Women in Politics

  1. My generation of Black women and those that follow, Black GenYs, are disappointing. We are disappointments yet we have no idea we are. We are stuck on ourselves believing the world has robbed us of opportunities. We are obnoxious, lazy, and self-possessed that opportunities are not there for us when they are. We have not been nurtured to explore to discover nor claim.

    If you look intensely at our childhoods after the Civil Rights Movement you would notice that no one wanted us to do any heavy-lifting. Parents and educators, whom were parents that cemented this trend–none of them wanted us to have to do any work. I remember the trend that was built to emulate White Privilege they saw of our counterparts in White children who they visually saw and thought had not do to any heavy-lifting. Black Parents who were then teens and young adults that are now our Black Boomer parents wanted to believe they arrived as recipients of progress completely achieved. They wanted to see their vanity of power reflected in the entitlement of their children, us, as being narcissicistic clones of them not having to lift a finger. It was a vainglorous sentiment of flexing arrogance that their children where just like (equal to) White children. Our parents were too immature and myopic to ever think of social evolution and the needs of the people far pass their caricatured ideas of what the privilege they were claiming would look like and produce in residual cultural by-products of actions, inactions, sentiment, and socialized belief. They had no idea they were creating lazy, intellectually lazy, and spiritually lazy princes and princesses of the Post-Civil Rights Movement. They themselves were posers that may have done a thing or two and really took their idea of their significance to social change at the time of the Movement more serious in vocal resume-building by reimagining thier own importance and ownership to have a right to want to see a narcissicistic reflection of themselves through their spoiled, entitled legacies:us.

    And in our adulthood now we tend to see our exclusion from inclusion as being 100% motivated by forces to punish us and leave us out. No one left us out. We were so aloof in not wanting to really jump into anything us someone offered us Tiffany invitations of inclusion. Our parents distorted our childhood sensibilities that we still have and we don’t even know how much our parents and co-horts have raised us on a slant–a deceptive, weak, and circumstantial arrogant, ignorant slant. We think people didn’t invite us because we not invitation with premiere focal interest in invitation and centralized ideas of being and doing was not geared to honor us. If we were not made to feel important, we didn’t venture to be included.

    Our Post-Civil RIghts existences took on widespread entitlement ideas when we never realize that we never examine ourselves nor our parents socialized ideas. We have lots of tendencies to manifest ideas that we were never offered opportunities by the controlling establishments when we were simplied not offered Tiffany invitations to inclusion. We could have brokered in but it was not going to be a party always focused on celebrating us and that is what we wanted and still want. Our insecurities has framed a lot of ideologies without us even knowing it has. And our parents and co-horts stick to rallying behind ideas that they did everything right for us because they know they are in a sense at their denying core completely responsible for shaping such worthless collective Post-Civil Rights’ generations in us who now murmur that the world has jipped us.

    Our parents jipped us and made us lazy, narcissicistic brats. There are exceptions of us but those exceptions to us are rockstars we want to connect ourselves to in Six Degrees of Separation by either associating with their achievements. We don’t even want to really aspire to be breakthrough like the rare exceptions that pioneer today. We stand and stare at them. We surmise and chatter about them but we don’t even really join to do the work to be like them. We are still waiting for our entitlements to pluck us and tell us we are wonderful like we were told by our parents. We don’t get how significance works.

  2. …And why do you and every Black female journalist always try to find a redemptive sentiment to salvage Michelle Obama’s image, legacy, and her personal social history? Michelle Obama is not exceptional. She was not exceptional as a hospital executive nor when she was the ED of a non-profit. We are so desperately to value titles and status as breakthrough achievements when they are just jobs when the person slides into positions already carved out to slide in a cog. Those positions she had were cog positions. She never truly pioneered in the sense of what a pioneer is. And then as well we don’t want to consider political manuevering of social manuever to slide into the cog positions. We recklessly rewrite her narrative and she allows us to to not be corrected because she desperately needs to feel that she is exceptional herself. She and her brother are rather average in comparison to their White and Other Ivy Counterparts who may have really pioneered and not just assumed positions to be token Blacks or recipients “with Ivy pedigrees” to allow their employers to tout in basking themselves in employing racial exceptionalism.

    Black Journalists rewrote her narrative and she is sticking to it because the rewrite reinvented her marginal achievements that were not exceptional for her being an Ivy-trained citizen and Black woman. She just had jobs–good jobs that offered redemptive cost-base analysis in being able to market altruism out of those positions. We are so naive and intellectually lazy and dumb to not understand the marketing schemes of our peer group.

    Our peers need Michelle Obama to seem exceptional because most of us are actually like her–rather ordinary trying to triangulate our job titles and our pedigree schooling as social justice benchmark achievements. We are frauds. We take ourselves seriously because no one calls us out on on weak sensibilities. It’s too taboo for Whites to point out to us that we are delusional about our exceptionism because they pitied us for decades to simply allow us to reimagine and recalibrate the measures of what we thought was equal measure of the same benchmarks. We distorted the measures so we could have easy and easier wins. Michelle has never done anythng before the election that was transformatinal or breakthrough but she is too self-involved and deceptive to come clean about this. She wants to believe the hype is true and it’s her revisionist narrative and she is sticking to it.

    I know a lot of Black Generation Jones, GenX and GenY peers who have inflated self-reflected ideas of who they are in significance. I have watched those same people rallied behind Michelle Obama because of their need to associate with her marginal achievements as significance so they can and have as a result claimed that they are exceptional when they are rather ordinary. Our elders stressed that we get college degrees and get good jobs with great titles as social benchmarks. Those basic achievements to Blacks are inflated benchmarks that everyone recalibrated as social breakthrough. Whites and Others didn’t and don’t want to step on social landmines to correct us. We never notice that their calibration is more complexly tweaked to demand more than just those bare minumum achievements to anoit one as exceptional. And when they bask in titles it usually follows a new idea or theory or product they created that went with it to get noticed. For us, we think sliding into a cog position is the achievement. It’s socially insulting that my peers are so inflated and trounce around arrogantly touting their exceptionalism. The lowered meritocracy measures have been passed onto our even younger offspring who are just as inflated without true exceptionalism.

    I am not accepting her winking at a ceremony that she is a pioneer. She is a famous, powerful man’s wife. She is the wife of the President. She is always trying to tweak her image to seem transformational and breakthrough when she is not. She attaches herself to other’s ideas and we pat her on the head for really good marketing we can siphon off of.

    Black women need her to be touted as a pioneer when all she did was show up with the President as his Plus-One. She did not win the elected position. She was an accountrement but she did not even carve out the role of First Lady. It was an already systematic cog she became to slide into place.

    We have been so mis-educated on desperation that we think her role and roles before she was famous are all meritocratic because we need the romance and symbolism to cling to to give us value reflected that we can claim as our own.

  3. i agree with the second half of Andrea’s comments that America (not just blacks) tends to legitimize perceptions of ‘power’ via social status/standing. sometimes this is justified/other times its more a reflection of the new media standards and the 24 hr. news cycle focusing every waking and sleeping moment on any given public persona.

    fame should not always equate to power – however, in the case of ‘the first lady’ it has always been the case and who can discount the political momentum any public figure can or has gained from the nurturing support of their spouse? Mrs. Obama hasnt technically done anything independently ‘newsworthy’ on a national level, but neither would President Obama have been elected without support of “Team Obama”, which most assuredly includes his wife in a leadership position. it’s a thin line between ‘the perception of power’ and ‘having influence amongst the powerful’ which Michelle most certainly has now.

    as to the first half of Andrea’s comments, black politics is most certainly in a pitiful condition – HOWEVER, this is the exact same position the civil rights movement dreamed us of having over 40 years ago. we’ve obtained ‘the dream’ – which was to become socially, economically and politically inclusive… civil rights was about integration and assimilation, not about the creation of an empowered black elitism acting separately within the american power structure. civil rights wasnt about creating a lobby on behalf of black people, it was about having a seat of authority where lobbyists would seek us out for political favors on equal levels with our white counterparts. we were blind going in/buying into the system; but this is exactly what we wanted at the time.

    the only problem is we have no perceived unified wealth or power of interest to the lobbyists (outside of our votes, which is only catered to every 4 years).

    the problem with black politics is that there is no black structured empowerment, so our politicians are mostly feckless – this is the legacy of a civil rights movement over a human rights movement. a human rights movement would have recognized african-americans as an independent entity within a democratic community instead of second-class society seeking legal acceptance from its former rulers: we live with a legal equality void of authoritative empowerment. this is the political hand we’ve forced our black politicians to play, regardless of their sex.

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