Six months after the nation's first organization for the political empowerment of black women was created and four months after the 1984 election comes the proof that the black woman's vote is a growing political force.
According to figures released last week by the Women's Vote Project, the percentage of black women voting surpassed the percentage of the total male population for the first time in history. In addition, the rate of increase among black women was significantly higher than among white women.
Women overall voted at a higher rate than men in 1984; there was a 5.2 million increase over 1980 in the number of women who voted, while the jump in the number of men voting was 3.6 million.
And while the turnout among blacks increased overall (from 51 percent to 56 percent), black women showed the most dramatic rise -- from 52.8 percent in 1980 to 59.2 percent in 1984, an increase of 6.4 percent. By contrast, white women increased their turnout from 60.9 percent to 62.0 percent, an increase of 1.1 percent.
"Fantastic, absolutely fantastic," one of the most visible black women in politics, California Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, said of the figures. "I'm sure that's because of a lot of things. The Women's Vote Project geared special funds for female registration. An extraordinary number of women were inspired by Jesse Jackson's run for office."
This new political thrust is significant because for years black women have been reluctant to organize solely to advance their own political agenda, although their organizations have done many things. Some support black colleges, others focus on civil rights and women's issues. But these are nonprofit groups prohibited from overt political action.
In recent years, however, some women leaders had begun moving in a more overtly political direction. They recognized their powerlessness when no black woman was even interviewed during Walter Mondale's selection of Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.
So last August, representatives of some 35 black women's organizations and black women leaders from across the country created the National Black Women's Political Caucus, recently renamed the National Political Congress of Black Women, and elected former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm as its chairwoman.
According to executive director Donna Brazille, the organization now has over 1,000 members in 32 states and cities and has scheduled its first convention for June in Atlanta.
In Washington, an organizing meeting to form the local chapter of the group is scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday Feb. 23 at the Watha T. Daniel Public Library, Seventh Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW.
"Washington is the nation's capital; the eyes of the world will be on us and now is the time to come together to assess our political clout and make sure we use it wisely," said City Council member Nadine Winter (D-Ward 6), one of the members of a steering committee organizing the Saturday meeting.
"I think this is an urgent cause now because we are at a point where the tide is changing in history," added Hilda H. Mason (Statehood-At Large), also on the committee.
The dramatic rise in registering and voting among black women is just one step in a growing political sophistication that will culminate in more women seeking elective and appointive office at all levels in all parties as well as endorsing and supporting candidates. Leaders foresee major politicians being forced to respond to the special issues of black women who are at the bottom of America's economic ladder.
One of the less positive aspects of this political empowerment, however, is the insecurity that it has provoked in some black men who argue that a separate organization is dangerously divisive.
"In many ways black men and women have a common agenda," said Chisholm. "But the fact remains that in many ways, consciously and subconsciously, black men have not permitted black women to express themselves to their fullest potential . . . . People have to understand that black women are not trying to compete with black men . . . but we have intelligence, brains, ability and aptitude like all the rest of the people who make up the human species, and we're no longer going to be sitting back letting others use us or be submissive and not have real input.
" . . . Black women have been strong, resilient persons," continued Chisholm, "and I think there is a hidden fear that if they begin to move out and develop organizationally, there is a possibility they can outstrip other groups . . . . But we will be mobilizing . . . to become a political force to be reckoned with in the American scheme of things."