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

Black women are often the backbone of political campaigns—making calls, managing offices and registering voters. And we show up at the polls. In the last two presidential elections, the turnout percentage of African-American women was greater than all other demographic groups. In Virginia, for instance, Gov. Terry McAuliffe owes black women, in particular, for his win in a year when President Barack Obama was not on the ballot. Yet the numbers, in terms of black women in elected positions, don’t reflect black women’s passionate political activism.

Is it a matter of cultural stereotypes? Is it harder to raise the money crucial to any successful campaign? Is reluctance of black voters to support black women an unexpected hurdle?

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Why this is so and how the numbers can change were topics at the recent National Association of Black Journalists convention in Boston. At a roundtable on African-American female voters and leaders hosted by the Democratic National Committee and EMILY’s List, women shared obstacles they had encountered on the way to electoral success and reasons why the struggles are far from over. They also addressed the pivotal role African-American female leaders and voters will play in the 2014 midterm elections and in the future of an increasingly diverse country.

Sharing notes and strategies as I moderated the panel were Ayanna Pressley, the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council; Charniele Herring, a delegate and minority whip in the Virginia Statehouse; and Jessica Byrd, manager of state strategies at EMILY’s List, which is dedicated to recruiting, training and electing pro-choice Democratic women at all levels. 

“Without speaking with too wide a brush,” said Pressley, an obstacle for black women becoming candidates is “that we don’t tend to operate with the same sense of entitlement. There is this ‘I don’t know enough, I need one more degree. I need to have one more baby.’”

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In explaining her own success, which includes being the top vote-getter in her last several races, Pressley said she could credit “the typical things,” including having a “message that resonated” and “a strong field plan.” In Boston, though, the conflict was less about partisan politics than race, she said. “The codified question was, ‘Can Ayanna Pressley appeal to traditional voters?’ or ‘Can this black woman represent an entire city?’

“Ultimately, why I believe I was successful is that I didn’t take any vote for granted and I didn’t stereotype voters or neighborhoods,” she said. “I ran on a platform of wanting to save girls. People told me out loud that’s not the job of an elected official—go run a nonprofit. But I didn’t pander. I was consistent in saying broken girls grow up to be broken women. … I recognized that the issues that I wanted to work on—poverty, violence, trauma—were really neighborhood-transcendent issues.”

She said many people encouraged her to run on her résumé, having worked as political director for then-U.S. Sen. John Kerry and as a senior aide for Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II. “I was discouraged from telling my personal narrative,” Pressley said, “that of being raised by a single mom in very tough circumstances in Chicago, Illinois; a father who struggled with addiction who was in and out of prison and our lives; and my being a survivor of sexual violence”—all things that she said informed her desire to run for office. “So I had to fire those people; I’m not going to allow someone to dictate the story that I tell.”

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She added, “It wasn’t white folks that had a problem with that narrative; it’s black folks,” with many telling her, “‘We don’t want to hear any more Precious stories’—black folks who did not want me perpetuating a stereotype.”

Herring, who in 2009 became the first African-American woman elected to represent Northern Virginia, said one of the things she had to fight when she ran for the first time was a presumption that she needed to “wait in line” for her turn.

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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“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.”

Mary C. Curtis is a Roll Call columnist and contributor to NPR and NBCBLK. She has worked at the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Charlotte Observer and Politics Daily and as a contributor to the Washington Post. She is a senior facilitator for the OpEd Project at Cornell and Yale universities. Follow her on Twitter.