During our quest to learn what it takes for a black woman to make it in politics, The Root turned to former ambassador Carol Moseley Braun. She was the first black female senator in Congress, serving Illinois from 1993-1999. She also ran in the 2004 Democratic primary for president of the United States, so we figured if anyone had an inkling of what's required, she would.
"One of the things is confidence," says Moseley Braun. "Men will look in the mirror and say, ‘I should be the next governor, senator, president, whatever.' Women look in the mirror and say, ‘Well, I'm too old; I'm too young; I'm not this; I'm not that. I'm not a politician.'"
Moseley Braun shared with us what happens after you look into the mirror, and see a politician:
The Root: You made it from community organizing in Chicago to becoming the first black female senator. What made you run? Did you ever think twice?
Carol Moseley Braun: I had no idea I would spend 20 years of my life as an elected official. And I wasn't born at the Democratic National Committee meeting in 1992. I have served in state government, in local government, before I got to national government.
[But] the state representative in our area … announced that he was not going to run for reelection …. The Independents in the area were looking for a candidate. And I was invited by my neighbor who had gotten me involved with [an environmental] protest, to step forward to submit my name. At first I demurred …. But I went with her to a community meeting, and one of the political activists stood up and targeted me. He said, ‘You shouldn't run because you can't possibly win.' I was just sitting there listening. He said, ‘The blacks won't vote for you because you're not part of the machine; the whites won't vote for you because you're black, and nobody's going to vote for you because you're a woman.
TR: You say you are a civil rights activist. In what ways did that shape your interest in politics? How has that affected black female political engagement since?
CMB: I was fortunate in that my late father introduced me to black women who were involved with public affairs-whether they were judges or aldermen. I remember meeting Judge Edith Sampson, who was the first black female judge in this area-he literally took me to her house, so I could meet her. I [also] met a woman by the name of Anna Langford. She was the first black woman elected to city council in Chicago and was a civil rights activist. So I come out of that tradition.
I think is important to observe is that [historically] the civil rights activism was on one track and the electoral process was on another track. They were parallel tracks that never came together. It was only after the [civil rights] movement that people who saw themselves as politicians began to be involved and engage with civil rights, and people who saw themselves as civil rights activists began to be engaged with electoral politics. They came together in the aftermath of the marches in the South. And I think I was part of that impulse.
TR: There are a lot of black men for whom the election of President Barack Obama has been very encouraging. Is there a similar trend for black women?
CMB: Well, no, for a variety of cultural reasons that include women not supporting one another. When I ran for president, a very smart woman lawyer and community activist said, 'What you don't understand, Carol, is that black women aren't feminists.' It took the breath out of me because I had never put together the relative relationship of black women to black men, whether in church politics or electoral politics. But really, women don't come together as women in politics, black or white, frankly.
That's what Hillary Clinton ran into [in 2008]. The Republicans thought that there was going to be an upsurge of feminist support, or female support, for a female candidate. And that's why they came up with Sarah Palin. They organized themselves around what they thought the Democratic ticket would look like. And exit polling showed that women as a bloc did not come out for Hillary Clinton. Women for Obama was as large as the Hillary Clinton crowd.
CMB: This is where being black and female comes in. Because black women have to work on being docile. There are some people who are naturally that way, but I say what's on my mind, and I'm not going to not express my opinion or point of view because I'm the only girl in the room. I'm not built that way. Because I missed some of the cultural cues, particularly with regard to both gender and race, I was not as sensitive as I should have been. And I paid the price for it.
TR: So when are we going to see a female president? 2012 or 2050?
CMB: I don't think it's even rational to handicap that. Who knows? Life is change, isn't it?
There might be somebody like Meg Whitman who winds up being the best candidate ever and then president of the United States. The pipeline isn't necessarily restricted to people who hold public office. And there is a very deep bench on the private sector side, even as the bench on the public sector side is not so [deep]. But it is possible for women to be successful, not just in electoral politics. Think about the women in the intelligence and diplomatic circles who are doing very well.
Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.