There is no single story for women in American politics. Take election 2016 for example. Few have characterized last year’s election as good for women.
Whether because the first female nominee for president was defeated or because women saw little to no gain in representation across levels of office, the dominant gender narrative that emerged from last year’s campaign was hardly positive. But this story ignores important successes among women of color broadly, and Black women specifically.
In our latest report, we tell the electoral story that is unique to Black women in 2016. Black women were 3 of the 14 non-incumbent women elected to the U.S. House or Senate in 2016 (and the majority of female newcomers were Black, Asian, or Latina): Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) became the second Black woman to ever serve in the U.S. Senate; Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-DE) was the first woman elected to represent Delaware in Congress; and Representative Val Demings (D-FL) joined Florida’s congressional delegation.
Similarly, all of the net gain for women in state legislatures from 2016 (24.5%) to 2017 (24.9%) came from women of color, including a net increase among Black women state legislators from 257 (3.5%) to 271 (3.7%).
For decades now, Black women have actually accounted for nearly all of the growth among Black state legislators nationwide. Finally, two Black women were also elected as mayors in the 100 most populous cities in America in 2016; they are Catherine Pugh, who became the third consecutive Black woman mayor of Baltimore, MD, and Sharon Weston Broome, elected in Baton Rouge, LA.
Another distinct – and less positive – story for Black women is their continued lack of representation in statewide elected executive offices. To date, just 11 Black women have ever held these offices, of which there are 312 nationwide.
Last fall, just four Black women were major party nominees for statewide elected executive offices, and none were successful. No Black woman has ever been elected governor. By comparison, 37 white women, one Latina, and one South Asian woman have served as governor. 535 women have ever served in statewide elected executive office, including governor; Black women represent just 2.1% of this number.
The electoral story of Black women is not only distinct in numbers. Understanding the present status of Black women in politics requires recognition of a unique past. Black women’s explicit exclusion from American politics – as voters, candidates, and officeholders – has meant that Black women’s political leadership emerged and persists outside of formal governmental institutions.
Translating Black women’s activism into candidacies and challenging prevailing norms of what it looks like to be an elected official are real challenges for increasing the number of Black women in American politics.
But these challenges are far from indomitable. In fact, it is Black women’s history of resistance and resilience that may explain their consistently upward trend in legislative representation at the same time that white women and Black men have seen relative stagnation in growth.
In this political moment, it is no surprise that Black women are leading the resistance in and out of government; there has been no learning curve to combatting injustice for a community that has never had the luxury of ignoring it.
As we look ahead to Black women’s political future – at least in elected offices, we need to develop strategies that recognize the distinct stories of Black women’s political past and present. That means tackling disparities in support infrastructure – political and financial – among women, as well as identifying geographic opportunities and challenges that are unique to Black women.
Our organizations are committed to this work – work that starts with raising awareness about Black women’s political power and continues by creating agendas and conditions for harnessing and expanding it.
We call on Black women to embrace their potential as candidates for elected office, but the onus cannot be only on them. Opening gates of opportunity for Black women in politics requires challenging gatekeepers – including party leaders and funders – to do more than commend Black women on their success; they must be active players in helping to create the conditions for more of it.
We have all got more work to do, keeping in mind what the late congresswoman Barbara Jordan once said: “When do any of us ever do enough?”
Kelly Dittmar is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University-Camden and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University.
Glynda Carr is the co-founder and managing director of the Higher Heights Leadership Fund.