The Era of the Black Woman

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: When did the golden age of black female achievement begin?

Nobel laureate Toni Morrison (C) accepting the applause of partygoers Susan Taylor, Rita Dove, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Maya Angelou and others
Nobel laureate Toni Morrison (C) accepting the applause of partygoers Susan Taylor, Rita Dove, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Maya Angelou and others Will McIntyre/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Black musical culture (jazz, the blues, rhythm and blues, soul music and most certainly hip-hop) has without a doubt become the lingua franca of American popular culture, along with African-American vernacular speech patterns and phrases and, of course, black dance forms (a process effected by the unprecedented run of Don Cornelius’ historic syndicated television program, Soul Train, which we celebrate in the final episode of Many Rivers).

Then there is a long roster of print, radio and broadcast journalists who have distinguished themselves in every form of media, the integration of executive positions in legal firms, corporate America and on Wall Street, and the thorough integration of the most popular American team sports—even country-club sports like golf (with Tiger Woods [b. 1975]). And of course, the professoriate teaching American literature and history (along with other humanities and social science disciplines and professional schools, especially law schools) have been thoroughly integrated as a result of both the black studies movement and the so-called canon wars of the multicultural movement of the ’80s and ’90s.

All these things, and many more, attest to the mainstreaming of African-American history and culture, their embrace not just by African Americans but by Americans, and the triumph of affirmative action in integrating the most elite professions in American society.

Entering the Corridors of Power

In the aforementioned fields there has been tremendous progress, but in surveying the landscape of recent African-American history, I think the most remarkable accomplishment has been rise of black women, in a blend of what we might think of as black power meets black feminism. So extensive has this phenomenon been that this most recent period can be—perhaps should be—characterized as the era of the Black Woman, an era fueled by increased access to higher education, structural changes in the U.S. economy and dynamic social attitudes and norms. 

To take just one example, “Black women currently earn about two thirds of all African-American bachelor’s degree awards, 70 percent of all master’s degrees and more than 60 percent of all doctorates,” according to The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, which adds, “Black women also hold a majority of all African-American enrollments in law, medical and dental schools.” It is safe to say that few observers could have predicted these outcomes on that day back in 1966 when Stokely Carmichael led the cries for “black power.” In virtually every field of endeavor, black women have risen. While I can’t review all of the remarkable strides black women have made in every field since the ‘60s, a few examples will prove my point.

We can start in the political field, appropriately enough, with the election of Shirley Chisholm in November 1968 as the first black woman ever to serve in the House of Representatives. Four years later, Chisholm would also mount the very first campaign for the presidency, in the same year that Barbara Jordan would become the first black woman from the South to win election to Congress, winning a seat now held by my classmate, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (both of us beneficiaries of Yale’s late-sixties commitment to affirmative action). In 1977, Patricia Harris (1924-1985) was confirmed as President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of housing and urban development, the first African-American woman to appointed to a Cabinet post. Two years later, Hazel Johnson (1927-2011) became the first African-American woman promoted to the rank of general in the United States Army, while in 1998 Lillian E. Fishburne (b. 1949) would become the first African-American woman promoted to the rank of rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.

In 1991, Sharon Pratt Kelly (b. 1944) won election as mayor of Washington, D.C., the first African-American woman to do so in any large U.S. city; and in 1992, Carole Moseley Braun was elected to the Senate. To this day, she remains the only African-American woman ever to hold that seat. Just a year later, the astronaut Mae Jemison (b. 1956) became the first African-American woman in space, on the crew of the space shuttle Endeavour.

The church, curiously enough, despite the crucial role of black women in its history and growth, was slow to dismantle its gender barriers, but in 1984, Leontine T.C. Kelly became the first African-American female elected bishop in the United Methodist Church, breaking the stained-glass ceiling. Barbara Harris became a bishop in the Episcopal Church in 1989; Vashti Murphy McKenzie became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2000; Mildred “Bonnie” Hines became a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 2008; and Teresa Snorton in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 2010.

Finding Their Voices Amplified