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.

Carol Moseley Braun during her presidential campaign in 2004. (Joe Jaszewski/Getty)
Carol Moseley Braun during her presidential campaign in 2004. (Joe Jaszewski/Getty)

When Ayanna Pressley decided to take a shot at a seat on the city council in her adopted hometown of Boston, Mass., she was committed to winning by any means necessary. This meant cashing in her 401(k) retirement plan–earned over 16 years as a Democratic operative in Boston and in Washington for Sen. John Kerry and other lawmakers. With a mother needing regular care, chasing a job that depended entirely on her willingness to, say, shake hands outside Fenway Park, her run was something of a gamble. “I know what it is to live in the margins; I know what it is to feel that your government doesn’t reflect you, represent you, or advocate for you,” Pressley–whose investment paid off with a win in November 2009–says today. “I was unafraid.”

Fearlessness is what it takes for a woman to run for elective office, especially a black woman. In his official proclamation designating March Women’s History Month, President Barack Obama noted that America “must correct persisting inequalities” facing women in every sphere of life, such as making less money and having greater family burdens than men.

These inequalities have an impact on representation in the public sphere. Women are only 17 percent of the United States Congress, with the 21 African American, Hispanic and Asian females comprising only 4 percent. The number of black women in Congress has flat-lined since 1992, the so-called “Year of the Woman”: There were 11 black women in 1992; 13 in 2002, and only 13 today.

“It is definitely more complicated running for office as a woman,” says Andrea Dew Steele, founder of Emerge America, a nonprofit that trains women for political leadership. “We don’t feel as qualified as men; we’re not recruited in the same numbers; we feel turned off by the mechanics; we have persistent family barriers, and we don’t have the same networks as men.”

Those networks and social supports make a difference. Obama might not have been able to make his first runs for the Illinois statehouse and Congress without the stability of a two-income home and a wife who also took care of the kids. But according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, black women, especially since the 1970s, have traditionally had fewer of these support systems–and are more likely to be the single breadwinners in their household.

Lacking a Sense of Entitlement

What’s more, Obama had been tagged for greatness from his earliest days as a student at Harvard Law School. Karen Bass, a congressional candidate who was the first black woman to lead the state assembly in California, didn’t have that sense of destiny. Having spent over 20 years as an activist in her community, organizing voters, developing domestic and foreign public policy, educating elected officials, watching them term in and term out of office–her own qualifications as a candidate didn’t spring to mind. “One person who was really instrumental in me running was my congressman, Diane Watson–who tapped me and told me that I had been in the community long enough, and that I had to go to Sacramento because there were no African-American women in the state legislature,” she recalls. “And when someone like that calls on you, you respond.”

Bass’ case is not uncommon. Studies have shown that women win elections just as often as men–but it takes seven people to convince a woman to run, as opposed to a single fan for male politicians. “We are not set up with the same sense of entitlement,” says Pressley. “Which is why a 19-year-old white male will challenge an incumbent and a woman of color who is the VP of a company, who serves on nine boards, has two advanced degrees and raised four children will say no. We never think we’re ready. We never think we’re good enough.”

Flying Without a Net

The “persistent family barriers” Steele spoke of are also a contributing factor. Donna Edwards, a freshman congresswoman from Maryland who won her seat in 2008, says she could only contemplate running for office once her son headed to college, and “I didn’t have to be the mom driving him around the beltway, going to different events and back and forth to school and work.” Her decision to run for her first election came from a sense that incumbent Al Wynn wasn’t right for her district. So on a quiet Good Friday, Edwards drove alone down to a filing center, wrote a check for $100 and “became a candidate for the 4th congressional district of Maryland,” she recalls. “It’s a pretty nontraditional pathway to Congress … And I would never have done it with a small child.”