Why Are There So Few Black Women Politicians?

In Part 2 of our Women’s History Month series on leadership, the real reasons so few are elected.

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Fundraising is even tougher for women representing communities of color that are less accustomed to handing money to candidates. "Oftentimes our communities are the beneficiaries of governmental goodwill," explains Yvette Clarke, who represents Brooklyn in the House of Representatives. "And the prospect of financing a government official, even in the political realm, is one that people haven't quite grabbed hold of yet."

Edwards was unique in that she became a darling of online progressive organizations like Act Blue and MoveOn, which raised tens of thousands of dollars for her attempt to defeat Wynn. "So many of us come to the table with big ideas, but we're not independently wealthy," she says. (In states like Maine and Arizona, which publicly finance state campaigns and restrict how much a candidate can raise from private sources, the rate of female political participation is much higher.)

Under the Media Microscope

And there is yet another layer to the glass ceiling for women, and particularly black women: the media. Erika Falk, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of the book Woman for President, demonstrates a strong and unsettling media bias stretching back to the first female candidates--running in the 19th century. According to her research, women are less frequently written about, and for fewer substantive issues (no matter how much they know about cap and trade). They are more often described using physical characteristics such as what they are wearing, and are more frequently referred to by their married names--such as "Mrs. Clinton" rather than "Sen. Clinton." "The trend lines are flat," Falk says. "When you consider the social changes that have gone on since 1872," she adds, "the fact that the press coverage [has] not improved is really astonishing."

These pervasive media habits serve to diminish women in the eyes of voters--and are rarely applied with such regularity to male candidates. "A woman's hair will make or break her candidacy for high office," says Maureen Bunyan, a longtime Washington journalist on the board of the International Women's Media Foundation.

Sure, John Edwards was briefly known as the "Breck Girl" for his $400 hair-care regime. But it was nothing compared to the hoopla over Clinton's pantsuits, which even spawned a debate question in the Democratic primary. And newly elected Sen. Scott Brown appeared semi-nude as a Playgirl centerfold--which did nothing to diminish his electoral chances. According to a recent Vanity Fair poll, 77 percent of women believed that a female candidate who had pulled the same stunt would have lost any hope of winning. (Strangely, only 56 percent of men thought so).

"The level of scrutiny is certainly more intense for women," says Pressley. "But everything in life is harder to do when you're a woman and certainly a woman of color and a progressive woman of color."

Another contributor to the problem is the evolution and portrayal of American politics as a blood sport. Rather than being a space for public policy to be implemented by reasonable actors, Washington and many state capitals are populated with verbs like "spar," "hammer," "slam" and "blast," which suggest anything but smart solutions for constituents--and punish women who jump into the fray. Elisabeth Gidengil of McGill University, who has researched racial and gender biases in politics says that "when politics is characterized or likened to arenas that we still associate with men, the not-so-subliminal message is that women don't really belong there."

Black women who are not seen as conciliatory sometimes get the short end of the stick. "Behavior that's seen as appropriately assertive [in men] is seen as inappropriately aggressive on the part of the female," says Gidengil. "This presents women candidates with a classic damned if you do, damned if you don't, dilemma." Black women struggle additionally with prevailing cultural perceptions about a black woman's "attitude." "I say what's on my mind, and I'm not going to not express my opinion or point of view because I'm the only girl in the room," says Moseley Braun, who was voted out of office by Republican Peter Fitzgerald in 1998. "And I paid the price for it."

Contributing to this dilemma, adds Bunyan, are other women--who, as the 2008 showdown between Hillary Clinton and Obama showed, are not always eager to favor gender in their voting decisions or speak up when women candidates are being treated unfairly by the media.