The report, titled “Black Women in American Politics: 2017 Status Update,” was created by Higher Heights Leadership Fund and the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. Author Kelly Dittmar argues the main narrative of “political loss” for women following the election glosses over wins by women of color, and black women in particular. Failing to highlight these victories, she argues, obscures the political power that black women have attained over the past several decades.
By analyzing election outcomes at both the federal and state level, the study highlights black women's contribution to the incremental progress made by women during the 2016 election. All the net gain for women in state legislatures from 2016 to 2017 was thanks to newly elected women of color. Women in 2017 represented 24.9 percent of state legislators in 2017, up from 24. 5 percent the year before, according to the study. Additionally, black women accounted for three out of the 14 seats won by non-incumbent women in Congress in 2016.
In addition to the overall increase, several black women made history in Congress on election night. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Del.) became the first woman and first African American to represent the state of Delaware. With her win, Vermont and Mississippi became the only states left to never have elected a woman to Congress. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif) became the second African American woman elected to the Senate. And Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.), Orlando's first female chief of police, was elected to represent Florida's 10th District, making her the first woman and first African American to hold the position since the district's creation in 1963.
In state politics, Attica Scott joined the Kentucky legislature, making her the first African American woman to win a seat there in 19 years.
Additionally, Sharon Weston Broome became the first woman to be elected mayor-president of Baton Rouge.
During a press call to highlight the study last week, Broome, reflecting on the wins from the past election, said she was optimistic about the future of women of color in politics. At the same time, she noted that women of color face a number of obstacles including a lack of mentorship opportunities and difficulty financing a campaign. For Broome, one major hurdle was fundraising. She recalls her opponent had a $1 million political action committee, forcing her to spend more time on raising money to catch up.
“We were outspent two to one,” she said during the call. “But it wasn't the money that made the difference. I won by forging an effective and communicative campaign that touched the hearts of people in this community and spoke to the challenges that they faced.”
Scott, who is currently the only woman of color in the Kentucky State Legislature, said women of color have an important role to play in public office. Scott ran against a 34-year incumbent and won, allowing her to bring a number of important issues into the legislature she said.
“As women and women of color we are speaking up and standing up on issues that matter most for people who are marginalized or do not see themselves represented in the halls of government,” Scott said. “I ran because people wanted someone who could stand up for public education, LGTBQIA rights, speak out against the school prison pipeline, someone raising the wage for people who work paycheck to paycheck. That was my platform: bringing people along who feel like they don't have a voice.”
Despite those wins, women of color and women in general are still underrepresented at all levels of government, the study found. There has yet to be an African American woman elected governor. Black women represent 2.7 percent of all the women in statewide elected executive offices and 0.6 percent of all statewide elected executive officials in the United States, according to the study. There are only 19 black women in Congress, making them less than 4 percent of all members.
As of 2015, African American women made up almost 13 percent of all women in the United States, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit advocating for women in the workplace.
Increasing representation requires a concerted effort to remove any barriers that impede black women from being elected to office, said Dittmar, CAWP scholar and author of the report.
“As we look ahead to Black women’s political future — at least in elected offices, we need to develop strategies that recognize the distinct stories of Black women’s political past and present,” she wrote in an op-ed about the study. “That means tackling disparities in support infrastructure — political and financial — among women, as well as identifying geographic opportunities and challenges that are unique to black women.”