African-American woman candidates face special challenges

Posted by on Jan 18, 2016 in Get Involved!, Motivation | 0 comments

Last Wednesday, we wrote about the difficulties facing women who want to run for office. Today, for Martin Luther King Day, we will drill down to the specific challenges African-American women experience.

Mary C. Curtis, writing in 2014 for The Root, an African-American news blog, observes that black women are often the backbone of political campaigns, but that the number of elected black women does not reflect their enthusiasm.

At first, this seems puzzling. A study of the 2012 Presidential election shows that a much higher percentage of black women voted, compared to women of other races (60%, compared to 49% for white women and 40% for Latinas and Asian women). In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, himself African-American, owed much of his success to the passionate support of black women. However, African-American women who have won elections, or supported successful Democratic women in their campaigns have several explanations. (Extremely few black women are elected as Republicans. Mia Love [R-Utah] became the first Republican African-American women ever elected to Congress in 2014.)

  • Lack of self-confidence. Ayanna Pressley, a city councilor in Boston, finds black women saying, “I don’t know enough. I need one more degree. I need to have one more baby.” Virginia Henning, a delegate in the state’s General Assembly, said the first time out, she had to fight a presumption that she had to “wait in line” for her turn.
  • When telling a personal story — for example, about her father who struggled with addiction and being a survivor of sexual violence – Ms. Pressley discovered that she encountered less resistance from whites than she did from blacks. Black voters were worried about perpetuating a stereotype.
  • Media coverage tends on making history, instead of on the candidate’s platform.
  • One black woman candidate who was running for office against another woman recalled talking with a reporter about transportation and education issues. So the reporter “wrote an article about the fact that we both liked to cook.”

According to Jessica Byrd of Emily’s List, which provides support for Democratic women candidates, there are “historical, cultural, and social barriers why black women aren’t running for office, and all of these are real.” In the U.S., black women hold 3% of statewide executive seats, and barely 11% of state representative seats.


Rep. Shirley Chisholm in 1972

The key is to get elected. Once they get there, they make a mark. African-American women who have held high elective and appointed office include:

  • Shirley Chisholm (D-New York), who in 1968 was the first black woman elected to Congress. She sought the Democratic Presidential nomination four years later. While in Congress, she was instrumental in expanding food stamps into the WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) program.
  • Barbara Jordan (D-Texas) was a leader in the Civil Rights movement. In 1972, she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives following several terms in the Texas state senate. She was vocal in demanding the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. Four years later, she gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention, where she received one vote for President, despite the fact she never declared her candidacy.
  • Carol Moseley Braun (D-Illinois) became the first black woman elected to the Senate in 1993.
  • Condoleezza Rice was National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under President George W. Bush.
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