At one point during Carol Moseley Braun’s tenure as the first African American woman in the U.S. Senate, the politics became too much and she decided to resign. As an Illinois Democrat, she had difficulty swallowing the idea that then-Gov. Jim Edgar (R) would replace her with a political opponent. Then on the eve of her decision, she turned on the television to relax and saw a biopic of Miss Jane Pittman, a former slave. And on another channel, a feature on Rosewell, the former Virginia slave plantation.
“I knew then that it wasn’t just about me,” Moseley Braun, 66, said during a recent panel discussion looking at the history of African Americans in the Senate.
Braun saw her term to completion, even running for reelection in 1998, as well as for the Democratic presidential primary in 2004 and for Chicago mayor in 2011. She didn’t win any of those races.
Braun, who served as Ambassador to New Zealand for the Clinton administration and now heads the organic food supplier Ambassador Organics, is done with politics. But she still thinks about her political career and the implications of her historic term.
“To this day, I still question why it’s hemlines, husbands and hair,” Moseley Braun, in an interview with The Washington Post, said of the media’s treatment of women in public office. “Women get marginalized in the political process by so many sets of negative preconceptions and prejudices that sometimes it can be very difficult. … Nobody cares if a male senator’s pants are flooding.”
The year Moseley Braun was elected to the Senate, 1992, was heralded as “the year of the woman.” In one election cycle, the number of women in Congress increased 69 percent growing from 32 to 54 at the start of the 103rd Congress. But in 1993, she was was investigated by the Federal Election Commission for $249,000 in unaccounted for campaign funds. Moseley Braun was never indicted but her image was tarnished by controversies regarding her personal finances and her relationship with her campaign manager and one-time fiance, Kgosie Matthews. Of the Democratic women who were elected to the Senate in 1992, Moseley Braun was the only one to lose reelection.
At an event on Tuesday honoring past and present African American senators, Moseley Braun said that while racism is local, gender bias is universal. Both, she said, make a “doubly difficult set of hurdles” that “mitigate against” candidates at a time when money is more important than ever in campaigns. When considering the challenge of combating two different sets of negative stereotypes and raising sufficient campaign funds, Moseley Braun is convinced “women still have a long way to go.”
“Somebody once asked me which is worse,” she said during the panel discussion, referring to her race and gender. “My response to that is, if someone has their foot on your neck, it doesn’t really matter why it’s there.”
“It’s a small wonder why there aren’t more women, women of color and women of color from not very privileged backgrounds getting involved,” she said in an interview after the discussion.
Moseley Braun, at the time the only African American in the Senate, joined the Congressional Black Caucus in unity with her African American House colleagues, all of whom were Democrats. More than two decades later, two African Americans hold seats in the Senate: Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, and Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, who was elected last year.
Scott hosted the event at which Moseley spoke in honor of Black History Month. Scott, a former House member who was appointed to the Senate in 2013 to finish the term of a retiring member, has not joined the Congressional Black Caucus.
Although both parties are clamoring to appeal to women and racial minorities in time for this fall’s midterm elections, the Republican Party has struggled to attract African American and female voters.
“You just don’t have the African American representation in the Republican party at this time. But it hasn’t always been this way,” Moseley Braun said, noting that her referring to her Republican grandmother.
“Diversity is not a partisan issue,” she insisted. “I think it’s important that both parties reach out and diversify along the lines of race, gender and economic background.”
That sentiment might be less convincing if Moseley Braun was running for public office again. But she’s not. Instead she hopes, because of her, another woman will go in her stead.