Black Women in Politics: From Social Mobilizing to Elected Office

February 14, 2016

Black women are at the forefront of today’s changing political landscape, just as they have been for decades. They are leaders in mobilizing communities for both electoral and sociopolitical movements. And they’re increasingly making their voices heard at the ballot box. Since 2008, black women have turned out to vote at higher rates than any other demographic broken down by race and gender. In 2012, a whopping 74 percent of eligible black women registered to vote and voted, compared to about 58 percent of all eligible voters overall, and it’s suggested that this trend will continue for the 2016 election.

Sociopolitically, black women are the leaders behind some of the most prominent racial justice movements of our time. The #BlackLivesMatter movement was founded by three queer black women: Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi. The movement has leveraged its influence to meet with a number of elected officials as well as presidential candidates. On an even larger scale, black women activists have inspired others to organize. A clear example of this is the student protests that occurred at the University of Missouri this past fall. That movement, which was also led by queer black women, inspired similar forms of student activism across the country.

When it comes to civic participation and mobilization, black women are leading the way (or, as Beyoncé might say, they’re getting in formation). Yet, according to a new report by the Center for American Women and Politics for Higher Heights Leadership Fund, black women remain severely underrepresented in electoral politics. Only 3.4 percent of U.S. Congress is made up of black women. Even worse, not a single black woman is currently serving in the Senate. Once elected, however, these women are impactful and work to support each other. When black women run for Congress, they not only increase the likelihood that other black women will vote, but also raise the level of political activism of all women. Ultimately, we need more black women to run for office so that the diverse interests of all communities are represented.

Research shows that black women are less likely to be recruited for and more likely to be discouraged from running for office than their white female counterparts. That makes the work of programs such as AAUW and Running Start’s Elect Her — which gives young women the chance to learn from powerful political role models — so important. Howard University student Allyson Carpenter attended an Elect Her training facilitated by Tasha Cole, a vice president at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. After Elect Her, Carpenter went on to become the youngest elected official in Washington, D.C., at the age of 18. The chain of political support continued as Carpenter helped a friend, Howard University student Amanda Bonam, successfully petition for Carpenter’s seat when she resigned.

Elect Her facilitator Tasha Cole poses with Elect Her attendees at a workshop held at Howard University in 2015.

Elect Her facilitator Tasha Cole poses with Elect Her attendees at a workshop held at Howard University in 2015.

Attending Elect Her or bringing an Elect Her workshop to your campus is a great step toward diversifying elected offices. But it’s not enough. We need to address the gendered and racial biases that keep black women from getting elected. A good way to start change is by becoming more informed; sign up to be the first to know about AAUW’s latest research report, Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership. Do you know a black woman who’s a change-maker in your community? Ask her to run for office. And don’t forget yourself — maybe you are that woman!

This post was written by Elect Her intern Regina Monge.


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