Black Female Candidates Face Different Challenges—Some of Them From Black Voters

African-American women are often the backbone of political campaigns, but the number of elected black women doesn’t reflect our passionate political activism.

Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley Ayanna Pressley for Boston City Counci via Facebook

But then, controversial Virginia laws enacted in 2011 and 2012, which regulated clinics that performed abortions and introduced the term “transvaginal ultrasound” into the political debate, “started the conversation about women in politics and our role,” Herring said. “In 2012 I was asked to lead the state party.” She said people realized it was women who were able to mobilize people to get to the capital “to have this great visual.”

And media coverage can cut several ways for women, black women in particular. “When I did win that first time,” said Pressley, the story wasn’t that her message resonated or that she’d run a smart campaign. “It was that voters wanted to make history.”

She pointed to her remarks at a recent rally in Massachusetts in response to two Supreme Court rulings—one giving Hobby Lobby’s owners the right not to provide contraceptive coverage that conflicted with their religious beliefs, and the other that judged protest-free buffer zones at Massachusetts abortion clinics unconstitutional. At the rally, Pressley recalled, “I said that I’m tired of people discouraging me from being publicly angry because they’re worried that I would be characterized as an angry black woman or an extreme feminist.”

Herring noted that at an event during her first re-election campaign, when she had a woman as her opponent, “We talked about transportation, we talked about education and reforming the standards of learning in Virginia,” but one reporter covering the race “wrote an article about the fact that we both liked to cook.”

Money, and raising it, is another issue, said Pressley. “We’re very comfortable with inviting someone to an event but not necessarily with making a hard ask,” she said, and admitted it was “something I had to mature and evolve into.”

Byrd, of EMILY’s List, leads the first-time-candidate recruitment program for the organization. She said that when she was growing up in Columbus, Ohio, her mother, a poll worker, was the first activist she ever knew. Yet, she said, “I never asked this woman to run for office.” She said that African-American women make up 3 percent of statewide executive seats in the country, barely 11 percent of state representative seats, “where major pieces of legislation are happening that affect your family, my family.”

When recruiting candidates, Byrd said, “The truth is, there is no blueprint.” She said you have to think about “the must-haves and the nice-to-haves. You can’t teach honesty, you can’t teach integrity.”

“There are historical, cultural and social barriers why black women aren’t running for office, and all of those are real,” she said. “It takes women seven times to be asked to run for office. We like to think of every single woman as a new conversation.” She said she has talked to the store manager of a supermarket, a UPS driver and others as she has traveled around the country. “I do think it’s going to be a long game.”