A record-breaking 130 Black women across political parties filed to run for Congress at the start of the 2020 election cycle. A number of candidates, such as St. Louis activist Cori Bush and Candace Valenzuela in El Paso have won their primaries and are campaigning to become the first Black and Afro-Latinx women to represent their states. More than simply making history as “firsts,” these and other candidates are running on progressive and radical platforms that reflect the demands of current social movements. Valenzuela, for example, is a pro-choice candidate who also supports ending the cash bail system, government-sponsored health care and widening pathways to citizenship for immigrants. Bush supports defunding the police, Medicare-for-all and abolishing ICE. It is no accident that these and other women of color are contenders for congressional seats. Social movements have previously propelled minority women into formal politics. If history is any indication, we are likely to see the Squad expand through the upcoming election.
The significant increase in Black women congressional candidates during this year of unrest is not without precedent. Historically, widespread social movement organizing has prompted shifts in politics and political representation at the local, state and national levels. Civil Rights and Black Power organizing for example, ushered in a period of previously unseen Black political representation.
Activists’ fights to desegregate schools, neighborhoods and the voting booth in the 1950s culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which collectively ended state-sponsored segregation and discrimination and established federal oversight in areas where disenfranchisement was rampant. With these measures in place, by the 1970s, cities and towns elected their first Black mayors and a discernible Black electorate and political agenda developed. Capitalizing on grass roots activism, the Voting Rights Act and a growing black electorate, Black women not only made their way to the polls; they successfully pursued Congressional seats in record numbers.
Barbara Jordan, a native of Houston, was both a product and a beneficiary of the social justice movements of the mid-to-late 1960s. A Boston University-trained lawyer, Jordan returned home and mounted two unsuccessful campaigns for a Texas State Senate seat in 1962 and 1964. She won in 1966 after court-enforced redistricting thanks to civil rights legislation created a minority, left-leaning district in her area. With this victory, she became the first Black woman elected to the Texas state senate and the first African American to hold a seat since Reconstruction.
Working in the otherwise all-White and male state senate, Jordan effectively championed causes of the civil rights movement. She helped pass the state’s first minimum wage law and established the Texas Fair Employment Practices Commission to promote anti-employment discrimination legislation.
Seeking a wider sphere of influence, Jordan ran for and won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1972. In Washington, Jordan took her place among a burgeoning cohort of Civil Rights-era elected officials and gained a reputation for eschewing power-brokering and instead supporting a community and equal rights-focused legislative agenda.
Nothing encapsulated Jordan’s commitments to equality and justice more than her nationally televised speech during the 1974 Watergate Scandal. Proclaiming that she was not going to be “an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, and the destruction of the Constitution,” Jordan gave a searing, 15-minute opening statement that made the case for Congressional support of President Richard Nixon’s impeachment. Most credit Jordan’s speech as a key factor in hastening Nixon’s resignation. It also won Jordan nationwide acclaim as a smart, principled fighter for movement-supported ideas of justice and governmental accountability.
While Jordan was a force to be reckoned with in the South, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke corralled constituencies in the west. Amid the unfolding Black Power and Women’s Liberation movements of the 1970s, Burke became the first Black woman elected to the California Assembly and the first to represent California in Congress in 1973. Like Jordan, court-mandated redistricting helped propel Burke to power.
Once elected, her time in the House of Representatives was historic. Early in her career, Burke secured a much sought after seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee. She was also the first Black woman to chair the Congressional Black Caucus. In this position, Burke led a voting bloc of Black Congressional members who used their political muscle to advance a social justice-oriented agenda, including advocating for the policy preferences of African Americans, pushing for affordable housing legislation and promoting bills to help eradicate the everyday effects of racism on African Americans.
Burke, like other women representatives, worked at the intersection of multiple issues and constituencies. She became the first sitting Congresswoman to give birth and to be granted maternity leave — a distinction that she dubbed a “dubious honor” and one that foregrounded the importance of women-centered political advocacy. Accordingly, Burke joined the Congressional Women’s Caucus, formed in 1977, and was among its first officers. As a member, she transformed national ideas about policy and promoted legislation to support and advance working women, mothers and reproductive rights.
The Squad carries on the tradition of the women who came before them, championing a progressive, class, race and gender conscious agenda that reflects the needs of their constituencies and the demands of contemporaneous social movements. Omar, for example, fights for equal rights and access to health care as well as immigration reform.
Other lesser known members such as Rep. Lauren Underwood — the youngest African American woman in the House — co-founded and co-chairs the Black Maternal Health Caucus to support maternal health outcomes for minority women. The rich history and current representation shows that women of color have long been at the forefront of national political conversations and that social movements often catapult them into political positions that provide a bigger platform during election cycles. The 2020 election then, is set to be another moment when these organizers and advocates are poised to become congresswomen who shape legislation for the next generation.
Congressional representation has always played an important role in amplifying the demands of local organizers fighting for social justice. These progressive female candidates have and continue to be one of the primary ways through which widespread demands for social justice become part of the national conversation and reach the ballot. Candidates who are successful in congressional races end up shaping key policy debates surrounding issues like health care, anti-discrimination legislation, immigration, pandemic relief and taxes. Like the next President of the United States, the women of color vying for congressional seats have the potential to transform the face of American politics.