How Black Women Became Powerful

In Part 1 of our Women’s History Month series on leadership, a look at the roots of female empowerment.

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With the historic overhaul of civil rights in America underway, the ascension of women into formal positions of governmental authority was both novel and totally natural. “The civil rights activism was on one track and the electoral process was on another track,” says Carol Moseley Braun, the first and only black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. “They came together in the aftermath of the marches in the South. And I think I was part of that impulse,” she recalls.

“I remember when it was just Cardiss Collins and Katie Hall—before Eleanor [Holmes Norton], Barbara Rose Collins, Maxine [Waters] and Carrie Meeks,” adds Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic organizer and legatee of the civil rights era. “Then the explosion of black women from all over.” In Congress, this included Chisholm (also the first black woman to run for president, in 1972) and Barbara Jordan, who gave a barn-burning speech at the 1976 Democratic National Convention.

What distinguished these early congressional pioneers was their commitment to women’s empowerment. “They self-identified as women, and they self-identified as feminists,” says Maureen Bunyan, a longtime Washington political analyst and television journalist. In Chisholm’s 1972 announcement, her hybrid identity became central to her political authority. “I’m black, and I’m a woman,” she said. “The hour has come in America when we can’t be passive recipients.”

Now, Public Office for Too Few

Yet for all of the women in the spotlight and behind the scenes, few actually made the push for elected office—even as black women are overrepresented in college and in professional life. Ursula Burns of Xerox is the first black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Condoleezza Rice was the first black female secretary of state. Women like Julianne Malveaux, president of Bennett College, a black women’s college, and Princeton political science professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell, are dynamic, respected leaders in academia. President Barack Obama’s cabinet is full of high-flying women like senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, UN ambassador Susan Rice and EPA administrator Lisa Jackson. But many of the black female power wielders, including Brazile, who was the top manager of Al Gore’s campaign for president in 2000, have stuck to consulting and organizing rather than running for office. Even Oprah Winfrey stayed out of politics until 2008.

The big question goes back through black history: Why didn’t Rosa run? After becoming a celebrity in her own right, with the political chops to change the nation (at the time of her arrest, she was planning a major conference for black youth), Parks never tried to play the inside game. Of her initial involvement in the civil rights movement and the NAACP, Parks noted: “I was the only woman there, and they needed a secretary, and I was too timid to say no.” And before her death in 2005, she maintained that she had no interest in politics.

But today, the bar is lower, and women’s rights more solid. The real obstacles to elective office may be less about rights and more about belonging to the right club.

Read on tomorrow as Part II of this series examines why more women—and black women in particular—aren’t successfully running for office.

Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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