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.

The modern women’s movement took shape after World War II, when females began to populate the factories and office spaces once reserved for men. Black women, who had long had to work and keep homes, were early entrants to a more political, more calculated second wave of feminism that would later be embraced by white counterparts. The women activists of the 1940s and 1950s—Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Rosa Parks and others—became the backbone of a civil and social rights movement that was surprisingly integrated by gender. While men were standard-bearers—for the ballot or the bullet—ordinary women marched side by side with them in Montgomery, Selma, Greensboro and beyond. Women like the politically savvy Parks (who “didn’t get arrested by accident,” said one acquaintance) cleared the collective throat of the black women who followed their example. By the 1960s, women like Angela Davis and Kathleen Cleaver could command a megaphone with as much authority—and notoriety—as their male counterparts in the Black Panther movement.

Then, High-Profile Pioneering

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.”