Tomorrow's Crop of Black Women Leaders
In Part 3 of our Women’s History Month series on leadership, why the future looks brighter.
State and local races, however, are key to building the female political talent of the future. "The reason women in politics have been bottlenecked [is] because there has been less of a movement to draft women at the local level," says Ayanna Pressley, an African-American woman who recently won a seat on Boston's city council. "By recruiting on the municipal level, it will not only attract more women, but more diverse women. Because that's where you find a lot of women of color activists in their community, who don't even know they have the sharpened skills to run and win."
Creating a Winning Candidate
Even when a promising woman with a free moment is asked to take a shot at elected office, few have the built-in skill set to win a statewide or even citywide race. Just ask Massachusetts attorney general (and recently failed Senate candidate) Martha Coakley. "If you can't communicate your message in three minutes and do it in a compelling way, it's difficult to get elected," says Andrea Steele, a Democratic activist who founded Emerge America as a way to train women for elected office. "Martha Coakley is the perfect example."
Nonprofits like Emerge, Emily's List, the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the White House Project are trying to change the math on women in politics. At Emerge, women train at local meet-ups one weekend a month, says Steele, to learn, "how to fundraise, how to put together a message ... everything from how to hire a consultant to going through the nuts and bolts of governing." Forty percent of their alumni are women of color, and 41 percent of all trainees eventually run. The Lee Foundation focuses on state houses and governorships--the historically proven route to the presidency. They offer female-oriented campaign advice on how to be "Not Too Tough, Not Too Soft," or "Who comes First, Your Family or the Public?"
"We have to start making it a priority," says Steele. "If you don't have stellar, well-trained candidates, you're not going to win elections." To combat this deficiency, "there has been a girls' network being cultivated for quite some time that is on par with and will rival the old boys' network," says Pressley. This includes specific programs for women of color like "Run, Sister Run," provided by the Center for Women in American Politics.
Swimming Against the Tide
Matthew Yglesias of the Center for American Progress has pointed out that black women--comprising 30 percent of the Congressional Black Caucus--are overrepresented as compared to the rest of the Congress which is 17 percent female. But this doesn't mean women of color are moving up as easily as men. According to statistics from the Gender and Multicultural Leadership Project, black men still outnumber black women at the federal, state and county level--including local school boards--at times at a ratio approaching four to one. Of the 100 largest U.S. cities, only one has an African-American woman mayor. This isn't a battle of the black sexes, but the status quo seems to sell short black women whom countless studies show are achieving more than black men in college and in professional life.
Generally, the Democrats appear to be more committed than Republicans to growing the talent pool of minority women. Angela McGlowan, a former Fox News contributor, is a black Republican running for a seat in Mississippi--and made her announcement at the recent tea-party convention in Nashville. But there are few other women of color in the GOP pipeline. There are only 18 Republican women of color out of the 1,799 women in state legislatures, versus 330 female Democrats of color.