Black female voters drew national attention for their outsize performance in December’s special Senate election in Alabama. In 2018 several African American women will try to make history as candidates for Congress and statewide offices.
In Georgia, Stacey Abrams, a former state lawmaker, hopes to become the first black woman elected governor in the country, and several candidates are running to become the first black women to go to Congress from their respective states, including Colorado, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.
A new report says this year’s midterm elections offer “a ripe opportunity to harness and expand black women’s political power, both as voters and candidates.” The report, issued by Higher Heights Leadership Fund and the Center for American Women and Politics, is titled “The Chisholm Effect: Black Women in American Politics,” in honor of the 50th anniversary of Shirley Chisholm’s election as the first black woman in Congress.
Nineteen black women hold seats in Congress, including one in the Senate. An additional two black women are nonvoting delegates in the House. Three black women hold statewide offices, including lieutenant governors in Kentucky and New Jersey. And in 2017, voters in New Orleans and Charlotte made history by electing black women as mayor.
Still, the report notes that black women remain underrepresented in elected offices at all levels. Although black women are 7.3 percent of the U.S. population, they make up less than 5 percent of officeholders in Congress, statewide executive offices and state legislatures.
Glynda Carr, a co-founder of Higher Heights, which encourages political engagement among black women, said the number of African American women running for higher office has grown steadily over the past several years. She cites a “role modeling effect.”
“When black women see black women in leadership roles, it motivates us to run for office,” she said in an interview. Carr also said that the current political environment, in which President Trump’s rhetoric and policy positions are not viewed favorably by many women and people of color, “black women see themselves as part of the solution, and running for elected office is an important piece of that.”
Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who in 2016 became only the second black woman elected to the Senate, said in the foreword to the report that black women continue “to make important political gains even as our country struggles against some the most regressive, dangerous leadership and policies propagated since before Chisholm’s emergence.”
Chisholm, a New York Democrat, won a newly drawn congressional district consisting of racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Since her 1968 election, 38 black women have held seats in Congress, representing 16 states. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill.), who was elected in 1992 and served one term, and Harris are the only two black women to have won election to the Senate. Rep. Mia Love of Utah, who was elected in 2014, is the first and only black Republican woman elected to Congress.
Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, noted that the majority of newcomers elected to Congress in 2016 were women of color. Still, she said, black women are underrepresented in elected office despite their strong participation in elections.
“Black women vote at the highest rate of any gender or racial subgroup,” Dittmar said in a news release. “They did that in 2008, 2012, and in the Alabama special election last year. They’re the most reliable of voters.”
Higher Heights, which recruits and trains black women to run for office, has partnered with groups such as VoteRunLead to try to increase the number of African American women who are elected.
Jehmu Greene, chair of the board of VoteRunLead, said that 60 percent of the women the organization has trained are women of color, and she called on other groups to “start prioritizing black women’s political leadership.”
She also said that in addition to focusing on big races, organizations and black women who want to serve should look to local offices.
“I think certainly the gains we have seen in recent election cycles have been higher for black women, and not just at the federal level like we saw in 2016, but also even more significantly in the state legislatures,” Greene said.
This story has been updated.