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.
This recapitulation of Harper’s ambition and Waters’ defiance had a marked impact. Indeed, the end of the 20th century was a heady time for black women in national politics. Sharon Pratt Dixon Kelly was the mayor of Washington, having taken over from an embattled Marion Barry. Though there wasn’t then a women’s bathroom near the Senate floor, Moseley Braun was representing Illinois in the upper chamber. Shirley Franklin made history as the first black woman to run Atlanta. In 1992, following what many women viewed as gendered mistreatment of Anita Hill during confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, 54 women—and 11 black women—swept into Congress.
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.