Black Women in Politics are No Longer a ‘First.’ They are a ForceRoundup
tags: African American history, elections, Voting, womens history
Martha S. Jones is a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University and author of the forthcoming book Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.
In the 55 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, Black women have earned, and insisted on, a place in American politics. The Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), will run alongside at least 130 Black or multiracial women seeking seats in the U.S. House and Senate in November. Just eight years ago, in 2012, only 48 Black women ran.
Simply put, Black women are no longer a “first” in politics — they are a force.
Harris, the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, was one of 11 finalists to be Joe Biden’s running mate, six of whom identify as Black. These contenders were neither tokens nor novelties; their experience, accomplishments and capacity to lead qualified them for Biden’s short list. The breadth of that field is a remarkable indicator of how quickly Black women have advanced in politics.
Brooklyn’s Shirley Chisholm was on her way to being a first when she joined the New York State Assembly in 1965, the year the Voting Rights Act gave teeth to the promise of the 15th Amendment, which prohibited voter discrimination based on race, and the 19th Amendment, which prohibited voter discrimination based on gender. A wave of Black women voters was unleashed.
Chisholm’s slogan, “Unbought and unbossed,” signaled that Black women would enter politics on their own terms. By 1968, Chisholm had become the first Black woman to win a seat in Congress. In 1972, she ran for president, aiming to break ground. “I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud,” she said. “I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I’m equally proud of that. … I am the candidate of the people of America. And my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history.”
Next came Barbara Jordan, who in 1972 campaigned in the heart of what had been the Jim Crow South. Black women organized in her hometown of Houston, raising funds and turning out voters. Jordan became the first woman — Black or White — to represent Texas in Congress in her own right.
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