How Black Women Became Powerful

Illustration for article titled How Black Women Became Powerful

In 1992, President George H.W. Bush held a closed-door meeting at the White House to discuss law and order after the race riots in Los Angeles. Bush and the other lawmakers in attendance received an unexpected visitor in Rep. Maxine Waters, then a freshman representative from South Central Los Angeles, who had invited herself into the deliberations. The gatekeepers were taken aback, but Waters was unfazed: "I don't intend to be excluded or dismissed,” she said then. “We have an awful lot to say."


Waters, currently one of 13 black female members of the 111th Congress, is part of an American tradition stretching back to the times before slavery ended. But what role does the outspoken black female play in today’s politics?

First lady Michelle Obama, the nation’s most visible symbol of black female power, has shown a studied neutrality when it comes to political engagement. (The Harvard-trained lawyer and hospital executive has stuck to hula hoops and vegetables since hitting Washington). Nevertheless, at a spring ceremony honoring Sojourner Truth in the U.S. Capitol, she let the veil slip: “One can only imagine what Sojourner Truth, an outspoken, tell-it-like-it-is kind of woman—and we all know a little something about that, right—just to imagine what she would have to say about this incredible gathering.”

What would Sojourner Truth think of women’s political fortunes in the age of Obama?


At First, Empowered Behind the Scenes

In the 19th century, abolitionist leaders like Truth, Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Tubman and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, were eloquent and activist spokeswomen for their race and gender. Harper, an author who by the 1860s had become a regular on the anti-slavery speaking circuit and an ally of suffragettes like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, expressed a clearly feminist philosophy: “The true woman—if you would render her happy, needs more than the mere development of her affectional nature,” Harper wrote in her 1859 short story, "The Two Offers." “Her conscience should be enlightened, her faith in the true and right established, and scope given to her Heaven-endowed and God-given faculties."

This rejection of the romantic and embrace of the intellectual still holds up as a manifesto for black female political empowerment. Yet for decades, these women remained outliers in the narrative of African-American political history. Before and after women won the right to vote in 1920, it was black men who first broke into formal politics. Free black Joseph Rainey was elected to Congress in 1870—and it was not until a full century later, in 1969, that Shirley Chisholm became the first black female elected to Congress, representing New York state.

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.”


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.

Become a fan of The Root on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.