One More Time

Scholars have long lamented the lack of women candidates for public office. Attempts to recruit women candidates have been widespread, targeting older women with empty nests, younger women without children (or those not interested in having them), lawyers and businesswomen whose experience mirrors that of typical male candidates. But another pool is waiting to be tapped:   losers, women who have previously run for office but did not win. Challenges to re-recruiting these women to run are deep-rooted in societal expectations of women. Yet, the 2016 presidential race offers two examples, Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina, who have not let political setbacks stop them from pursuing their goals. Their decisions to persist despite earlier failed campaigns should inspire other women who have run and lost to jump back in the fray.

The common refrain that “when women run, they win” refers to evidence that women and men have similar win rates in general elections (Newman 1994; Sanbonmatsu 2006). But what happens if they lose? Women are less likely than men to run for election after suffering a defeat (Dolan et al 2015). Convincing women (who are less often self-starters) to throw their hats into the ring in the first place takes time; sometimes it requires additional resources from political parties and women’s organizations. (See CAWP resource Poised to Run.) If the woman candidate loses her first election and sours on the prospect, that investment may never pay off. For women who suffer from self-doubts about their qualifications, a loss may provide an excuse not to run again. (Fox and Lawless 2010).  

Yet the 2016 presidential campaign showcased two women candidates who dusted themselves off and got back in the game. Hillary Clinton’s presidential run in the 2008 Democratic primary was a bruising political defeat. Conceding the nomination to relative newcomer Senator Barack Obama, then-Senator Clinton said, “Although we were not able to shatter that highest and hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you it has 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.” Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina lost a highly visible Senate race to incumbent Barbara Boxer in 2010. The return of both Clinton and Fiorina to the presidential race in 2016 to take yet another crack at high office is a welcome model for women recovering from election defeats at lower levels all across the country.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Fiorina’s senate campaign manager, Marty Wilson, said, “Carly was bummed after the loss, but I encouraged her to stay involved and run again. I told Carly she should run for president in 2012 and she said I was ‘Nuts.’” Fortunately, Fiorina changed her mind (with encouragement from a political insider). Her compelling performance in the August primary debates established her as a significant presence in the crowded Republican field.

Despite her loss in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton was identified early as the obvious choice for her party’s nomination in 2016, based in part on experience she gained as Secretary of State – a position she won as a consequence of both her service on the Senate Armed Services Committee and her strong showing in ’08.

One never knows what may follow even a losing campaign. Many women officeholders cite their campaigns for lower office as having signaled  to powerbrokers their willingness and ability to serve in appointed positions unanticipated before their races. In Hillary Clinton’s case, seizing the opportunity to serve as Secretary of State under her 2008 opponent, Barack Obama, positioned her for her 2016 run, with the added credential leading many to call her the most qualified presidential candidate of the modern era.

There are plenty of reasons not to dust oneself off and try again. Campaigns are costly, both financially and emotionally, as well as in time that may be in short supply for women who are still responsible for the bulk of household maintenance and often breadwinning for their families. But there may be more at play as well.

Self-doubt has been documented among women in likely candidate pools, and it begins early. In analyzing college-age women and their pursuit of leadership opportunities on campus, Keohane et al 2003 found that at Duke University many women undergraduates were under the pressure of “effortless perfection: the expectation that one would be smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful, and popular, and that all this would happen without visible effort”. It is possible that women candidates face similar social expectations (think supermom and having it all) and a hard-fought campaign loss is hardly evidence of effortless perfection.

So what will it take for women to overcome this? Angela Lee Ducksworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that success is largely dependent upon grit, described as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina”. Political campaigns certainly require stamina, and women’s individual tenacity should be supplemented by political parties who can provide volunteers, funds, and public statements of support to make it easier for women to take another chance. Like political campaigns, the adage exemplifying grit, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again” may also be gendered. Carol Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton professor of psychology at Stanford University, has found that talented girls are less likely to persist following a failure because they perceive abilities to be innate rather than a consequence of effort and practice (Dweck and Leggett 1988). These beliefs may persist into adulthood, as Kay and Shipman (2014) find that women are more likely to blame themselves for failure and give credit to other factors when they succeed, while their male counterparts dismiss failure and claim credit.

Knowing that these gendered differences exist, it is important to highlight the number of men in public office who were not successful at first. They include President Bill Clinton in his 1974 Arkansas congressional race and President George W. Bush in his 1978 Texas congressional race. Even President Barack Obama lost a 2000 Illinois Democratic congressional primary before going on to win a Senate seat in 2004. Speaking to a broader audience, Johannes Haushofer, assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, recently posted a CV of his failures, arguing that making his own failures visible to others would prevent them from wrongfully attributing their own failures to individual flaws rather than the external factors that could be at play.

In the context of a campaign, there could be any number of reasons why a candidate doesn’t receive the most votes irrespective of a candidate’s suitability. The knowledge gained from an initial loss is invaluable to a qualified candidate who may perceive her loss as an indictment of her abilities alone, when in reality she might just need a different campaign manager, a better communications strategy, or a race for a different type of office. Start-up companies across Silicon Valley have spoken out about the importance of failure and learning from our mistakes, indicating that value can come from experience – even negative experiences.

Publically admitting failure is certainly easier for those with privilege. Because male candidates are the default, men who lose and try again may be seen as the “comeback kid” or a “fighter”, while women may be tainted by the loss. It most certainly is easier for a man than a woman to overcome a loser association. That means women should be strategic in the selection of their races, but being strategic shouldn’t mean permanent retirement. It should mean learning from one’s mistakes and demonstrating the toughness that qualifies you for public service. With so few women running for and holding office, the pressure not to let down an entire gender is high. Furthermore, those with fewer resources don’t always have the option of another go-around. It is vital, then, that political parties and women’s organizations provide the institutional support that would make it easier for women to make a second attempt.

For their part, women who don’t win on that first try should take a lesson from Secretary Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina and go back at it, bringing even more as a consequence of the earlier defeat. In her commencement speech at the University of Rhode Island, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor told graduates, “The ‘uh-oh’ moments are worth cherishing just as much as ‘ah-ha’ moments: Mistakes, failures, embarrassments and disappointments are a necessary component of growing wise”. Wisdom is surely a valuable commodity for public officials. Wisdom gained through failure is something previously unsuccessful women candidates can bring to the table, rather than something that should disqualify them from another campaign. We need more women in public office. Not perfect women – wise women. Sometimes that is going to mean stepping up one more time.

 

When 100 isn’t a passing grade: A closer look at Women in Congress

One of the most circulated “women’s stories” of this week’s election has been the celebration of reaching 100 women in Congress. Because Alma Adams (D-NC) was elected in both her special election and general election contest, she will be sworn in to the 113th Congress next week and cause the number of women in the House to move from 79 to 80, and thus the overall number of women in Congress to reach 100 from 99. Reaching this marker is no small feat, as those of us who study and work with women in politics know. Just over two decades ago, in the 102nd Congress, only one-third (32) as many women served. Even more, it was not until Shirley Chisholm’s election to the House in 1968 that a Black woman served in Congress. Alma Adams becomes the 32nd Black women to serve in Congress, and was one of four new Black women members elected to the 114th Congress on Tuesday.[1] In fact, women of color will make up over one-third of the House women’s caucus in 2015, as they have in the 113th Congress.

First, those 100 women in Congress serve in a 535-member body (combining House and Senate). Doing the math yields a number far less worthy of celebration: 18.7%. Even with 100 members, women are less than one-fifth of Congress, despite being over 50% of the U.S. population. Second, we hit 100 women in Congress congress_swearin-4_3on Tuesday from a starting point of 99. Even if all remaining races with women candidates break in their favor, only 105 women will serve in the 114th Congress. That’s a net increase of six in the best case scenario for women, indicating a pace of progress that’s hardly impressive. Third, even among new members of Congress, women remain seriously underrepresented. According to the latest numbers of new members of the 114th Congress (with some races still undecided), women will be 19% of the freshman class. This isn’t terribly surprising when women make up a similarly low proportion of nominees going into Election Day. I don’t point out these statistics to discount the success of the women who put themselves forward for congressional offices this year. They are on the front lines of progress, doing what’s needed to disrupt the relatively stagnant trends I note here. For example, our two new women senators are the first women elected to the U.S. Senate from their states. Among the new women in the House, Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ) and Mia Love (R-UT) are the first Black women from their states to serve in Congress. They are joined by female trailblazers at other levels of office this year, from Gina Raimondo’s election as the first woman governor of Rhode Island to the addition of 10 new Republican women in statewide elected executive offices nationwide. Rhode Island’s newly-elected Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea is the first Latina elected statewide in all of the northeast, Evelyn Sanguinetti (Illinois) was elected as the nation's first Latina Lieutenant Governor, and Maura Healey will become the first openly LGBT person to serve as a state’s Attorney General next year. We should not overlook or reduce the accomplishments of these women, but I raise the concerns above to ensure that the narrative of women’s success is not so overstated by one statistic that it yields complacency. We can all take a minute to celebrate this marker of women’s progress, and more importantly the women who’ve marked it, but let’s also note where 100 falls short and what we can do to move well beyond it in elections to come.

 
For more information on how women candidates fared at all levels of office on Tuesday, see CAWP's post-election press release.
[1] Other new Black women members include: Brenda Lawrence (MI-14), Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12), Mia Love (UT-4). Stacey Plaskett (D-VI) was also elected as a non-voting delegate.

Numbers Matter: Black Women in American Politics

This week, the Center for American Women and Politics and Higher Heights released The Status of Black Women in American Politics, a report that takes a snapshot of Black women’s current political representation and participation and reflects back on the historical advancement of Black women as voters, candidates, and elected and appointed officials. This report identifies and outlines the problem of Black women’s underrepresentation and serves as a call to action for citizens, advocates, potential candidates, and those in political power. I wrote this report over multiple HHAReportCover(1)months, poring through CAWP’s databases of women candidates and elected officials and gathering new data on Black women and men in politics to provide the most comprehensive possible analysis. . Throughout these months, I – a scholar of women and politics accustomed to the significant gender disparities in political power – was continually surprised by the dearth of Black women in elected office at all levels and throughout our states and cities. I was shocked when I realized that Black women have represented fewer than 30 different congressional districts in only 13 states in all of U.S. history and disturbed that I could count the number of Black women who have ever served in statewide elected executive offices on two hands. I was even more taken aback upon noting that 77% of the Black women who have served in Congress and 9 of the 10 Black women who have been elected to statewide executive offices have entered office since 1993. While these data make evident the delay in Black women’s political advancement, this recent history of representational growth demonstrates enormous opportunities for continued progress and power. To ensure that progress, organizations like Higher Heights are working to build a stronger infrastructure of support for Black women candidates and urging Black women to harness their power at the ballot box --  not only to amplify their own political voices, but also to support (and become) the much-needed Black women officeholders. The research proves that advancing Black women’s representation is not only a matter of democratic fairness, but influences policy agendas and debates, as well as the political engagement of underrepresented constituencies. There is much more work to do to in harnessing Black women’s political power, but this report provides an important foundation upon which to foster dialogue and identify opportunities for growth. Why? Because numbers matter. Numbers validate perceptions of inequality. Numbers illuminate the sites for and extent of those disparities. Numbers demonstrate how much work we have left to do. Finally, numbers are power in making the case for change. Take a few minutes to arm yourself with the numbers that resonate most for you from our report. Then please share them with your networks to help us continue the conversation that we began Thursday on harnessing the political power of Black women. On social media, use the hashtag #BlackWomenLead.  

Leadership in Action: NEW LeadershipTM Alum Raises Consciousness about Women in Politics

The following blog is a guest post from Felise Ortiz, a senior at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, double majoring in Political Science and Women's and Gender Studies with a minor in Spanish. She is an alumna of the NEW Leadership NJ Class of 2011. Felise is the Founder and President of Douglass D.I.V.A.S., a female empowerment student organization at Rutgers University. She is also an Institute for Women's Leadership Scholar as well as an Eagleton Institute of Politics Undergraduate Associate.
jenfelise Jennifer Osolinski (L) and Felise Ortiz (R)

The underrepresentation of women in politics in the United States is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately and with urgency. With the help of the Institute of Women’s Leadership, my partner Jennifer Osolinski and I were able to facilitate a conversation addressing this issue. Our social action project was not only an opportunity to hone our feminist leadership skills but it also served as testament to the fact that the personal is indeed political. As former Eagleton and CAWP interns, Jennifer and I wanted our event to make at least one young woman consider a first step in the direction of politics. We were inspired by programs such as NEW LeadershipTM and Ready to RunTM because they inform women about the current political climate and encourage them to become involved in public service. While strategizing on how to reach a youthful audience, we were approached with the possibility of doing a film “Raising Ms. President” a new documentary about getting girls politically active. Once we watched the trailer, we agreed that it would be a great foundation for our project and our overall message. I learned a lesson in patience and professionalism from this portion of the experience. I also learned that is apart of the feminist model of leadership to use your network. Our networks ultimately resulted in three amazing panelists and the film arriving on time. We had an audience of about twenty-five people who were enthusiastic about the film and project as a whole. I had a list of prepared remarks and questions for the panelist. However, I learned the most from the audience’s engagement with the panelists. There were many though-provoking questions asked and answered. The key moment of the event for me occurred after most of the attendees departed and two panelists were left talking passionately about campaigns. One woman was a Caucasian Republican representative from a suburban town and the other was a Black Democrat from an urban city, and they were networking. I watched politics (how it should work) happen organically with two women who shared a love for public service. This project has taught me three key lessons: 1. The message is worth the madness. We were able to spread our message that women’s political involvement is important and can be transformational when it is made a priority. Any of the difficultly that we may have faced along the way was well worth it. 2. Not only is the personal, political but also the political is often better executed when it is personal. The research and our panelists attested to the fact that there is a dire need for more women in office in order for issues that affect women to be adequately advocated for. Another example would be my personal connection to this project, made me invested enough to see it through to the end. 3. Social justice based women’s leadership has been and will continue to be a force to be reckoned with. During this process I have been inspired by the social action projects of my classmates and how we have rallied together to support one another. The bond we created through this experience has strengthened me and I am truly grateful to have had this opportunity.  

Presidential Lists are Due for Disruption

Today, as we celebrate those individuals who have held our nation’s highest office, it is worth taking note the absence of women from the list of 44 male presidents who have served in U.S. history. While multiple trailblazing women have challenged the expectations of masculine leadership in the White House, too few have received the recognition they deserved or the votes they needed to be labeled as “viable” contenders.Presidents-Day-Graphic-2014-MS The words “woman president” today often cue “Hillary Clinton” among peers, colleagues, family, and friends. Too few people think of Margaret Chase Smith’s historic bid in 1964, as the first woman to have her name placed in nomination at a major party convention; or Shirley Chisholm in 1972, who was the first woman and the first African American to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency at a Democratic National Convention, winning 151.95 delegate votes; or even Victoria Woodhull in 1872, who campaigned for the presidency before women could even vote nationwide. It’s true the 18 million cracks Hillary Clinton made in the proverbial “marble ceiling” of presidential politics may have made it less remarkable for a woman to be taken seriously as a presidential contender, but, as Dr. Ruth Mandel has written, the women who ran before her were instrumental in “[making] the idea [of a woman president] less outrageous to conceive.”  Hillary Clinton is not only viewed as the most viable women who has run, but supporters and opponents alike view her as the most likely woman who will run in 2016. Consistent with all things Clinton, the attention paid to a possible Hillary Clinton candidacy in 2016 is already extreme. Thirty-three months before Election Day 2016, major news outlets like Time Magazine and the New York Times Magazine have made Clinton’s potential bid their cover stories, and few of Clinton’s public appearances go by without analysis over what they indicate about her campaign strategy. But as the assumptions of a Clinton candidacy grow stronger, the idea that she is the (cue: only) woman candidate in 2016 is not only unfair to the many qualified women who could be added to the Democratic and Republican short lists (see Kasie Hunt's commentary on this here), but also places a great deal of pressure on Clinton. While Democratic short lists for 2016 have included more women than in the past – floating Senators Warren, Gillibrand, and Klobuchar in addition to Secretary Clinton, men’s names outnumber women’s names, and few Republican short lists have included women amidst a very open, and arguably weak, Republican field. When women like Governor Susana Martinez are discussed, they are often considered as potential Vice Presidential nominees instead of among those likely to top the party ticket. These short lists are not only important in the horse race, but present cues to voters about who is qualified to run for president. And though women’s stables of elected officials remain smaller than men’s at all levels, there are just as many qualified women – Democrats and Republicans – as men to seek a home in the Oval Office.  So as we reflect on the absence of women on the list of U.S. presidents to date, let’s also question the dearth of women’s names floated as potential presidential contenders.

Woman vs. Woman Races: Gender Exclusivity for Gender Inclusivity?

Even before odd-year elections in states like NJ and VA are over, we’re looking ahead to the 2014 midterm elections for opportunities to increase women’s representation. In a year when 36 states will hold gubernatorial elections and another 32 states will elect (or re-elect) U.S. Senators, will women move forward on the path toward political parity? It’s too early to predict electoral outcomes, but CAWP is keeping track of women who have put their names forward as potential candidates for statewide or federal office. By looking at these early lists, we can get an initial sense of how many and where women are running, and how the pattern compares to candidate statistics at this point in previous cycles. Over the next year, we will report on trends we spot, interesting facts we find, or news you can use about women in the 2014 election in our news alerts and on this blog. This week, we’re looking at woman vs. woman races. How many have we had? Do we expect any women-exclusive races in 2014? And what’s the political significance of such races? Based on our latest counts, women are potential challengers to three of the four incumbent women senators up for re-election in 2014. Women are also running in both major party primaries for open Senate seats in Georgia (Democrat Michelle Nunn and former Republican Secretary of State Karen Handel) and West Virginia (Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito and Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant).  No women have yet emerged to challenge the four incumbent women governors up for re-election next year, but many women have put their names forward as potential gubernatorial contenders in Florida, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. Finally, as of today, women are running for both major party nominations in eight U.S. House districts, and another six districts have more than one woman running in either party’s primary. Historically, woman vs. woman races for federal and statewide offices have been very rare. Of all general election U.S. Senate races to date, only 12 have pitted a Democratic woman against a Republican woman, and three of those contests occurred in 2012 alone. Women have faced each other in only four gubernatorial races in U.S. history, with two of those races in 2010 (in Oklahoma and New Mexico). Finally, while there have been 134 woman vs. woman elections for U.S. House seats over time, these represent less than a third of House elections held in any single year. Some might argue that woman vs. woman races are not necessarily a sign of progress, that pitting women against women could actually be harmful to women’s representation, or that gender exclusivity for men or women is an unjust goal. Each of these arguments has merit and is worthy of greater debate. However, it is hard to say that increasing evidence of woman vs. woman races does not signal at least some progress.  At the least, woman vs. woman races reflect an increased willingness among women to run for the highest levels of elected office – and a willingness among parties and voters to elect them.

And for those who fear gender exclusivity of any stripe, let’s look at recent electoral history. Over 60% of general election U.S. House races in the past decade have been all-male contests, and 85% of uncontested candidates have been men.

About two-thirds of general election races for the U.S. Senate have been between two male candidates, and 80 of 106 gubernatorial races between 2004 and 2012 had no women. In contrast, about 2% of U.S. House races, 4% of U.S. Senate races, and less than 2% of gubernatorial contests in the past decade have been all-female.  And of course, men-only races at each of these levels of office only increase the further back we look.

Gender exclusivity in electoral contests should not be a goal, but it has been a reality for male candidates for far too long. For women to increase their political representation, they need to be more present as candidates. And if woman vs. woman races are a surefire way to get more women into office, then maybe an increase in gender exclusivity for women candidates actually means greater gender inclusivity in today’s politics.

The Smart Business of Women’s Public Leadership

Last night, I joined an expert group of women on HuffPost Live to talk about Warren Buffett’s Fortune article on the importance of women’s full inclusion into American business, politics, and leadership. Put simply, Buffett argues that women are essential to American growth and success, representing half of the population that has been underutilized (“relegated to the sidelines”) for too long. Stifling half of the country’s talent is not only unethical, he writes, but is also bad business. And, as we know at the Center for American Women and Politics, under-representation of women in political offices is bad for democracy and governance. Our research shows that women bring unique voices to government, as voters, advocates, and elected officials. When in office, women prioritize different issues, build upon unique experiences, and often take a more inclusive and collaborative approach to Women in Congress Pie_Webgoverning. In the current political environment, it’s women who have provided at least some hope of breaking the paralysis that has characterized our nation’s capital. And, with women still representing less than 20% of Congress and under a quarter of state legislative posts, we have significant “human capacity,” in Buffett’s terms, left to be tapped. How do we capitalize on women’s capacity to lead? Buffett calls on his male colleagues to “get on board” with gender parity, but also urges women not to doubt their abilities nor give in to structural or self-imposed barriers to advancement. There is a symbiotic relationship between structural barriers and self-doubt, however, where women’s experiences with (or within) male-dominated institutions make it hard for them to view themselves as equal players in what remains a man’s world. The change that fuels Buffett’s optimism for the future is reliant on disrupting masculine dominance in public life, and that means altering long-held images of and expectations for public leadership. Buffett describes how, as a young man in the 1940s and 1950s, his floor for professional success was the ceiling for his sisters. In other words, society’s expectations for boys were not only greater than those expectations for girls, but women faced structural barriers that halted their path to leadership before they could even dare to see themselves as heads of communities, companies, or countries. Buffett is right to note that those structural barriers are eroding, but societal expectations of how leaders look and act still fall heavily into a male mold. CAWP has recently launched Teach a Girl to Lead, a campaign meant to change those expectations among boys and girls so that the idea of women’s leadership is not extraordinary, but ordinary – and essential. If we are to be as optimistic as Warren Buffett is about America’s future, we know that it’s imperative that future generations of girls and women not only see themselves as public leaders, but help to shatter the glass ceilings that remain in politics and government. That’s not only good for democracy, but it's also best for our country’s bottom line.

On Importance, Power, and Politics

On April  16, the Center for American Women and Politics welcomed Melody Barnes - former assistant to President Obama and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council – as this year’s Senator Wynona Lipman Chair in Women’s Political Leadership. Barnes spoke on Policies that Empower: The Journey from Vulnerability to Engagement, detailing the policy agenda that she deems essential to moving our country forward – particularly among the most vulnerable and most growing populations of Americans. barnes2In addition, Barnes paid tribute to the Chair’s namesake – Senator Wynona Lipman – by detailing both her accomplishments and her legacy. While Senator Wynona Lipman became the first African American woman elected to the New Jersey State Senate in 1971, her legacy is not simply as a “first;” she is best remembered as an advocate, activist, and champion for those whose voices could easily be left unheard in the halls of power. In her remarks, Barnes referred to a quote from Senator Lipman that shaped the remainder of her speech. Senator Lipman frequently told young people, “If you want to create change, don’t just get to know important people, become important people.” This message resonates amidst recent discussions about “leaning in” not only to make a difference in your own life, but also to affect the lives of others. Women in politics have begun to heed this message. Women play an essential role in electing our political leaders; they vote at higher rates and in higher numbers than their male counterparts, and women’s votes have decided the outcomes of recent elections. While this could be viewed as women supporting other important people, women voters have proven that they, in fact, are some of the most important people in electoral politics today. But women’s political participation should not stop at casting ballots. To take Senator Lipman’s words truly to heart, women should fight for their rightful places at decision-making tables throughout our nation, whether on councils, boards, or in our state and federal legislatures. Senator Lipman knew that advocacy and activism are essential to make change, but being in positions of power to heed the calls of advocates in creating policies or statutes is essential. And, as Barnes noted, Senator Lipman emphasized follow-up to ensure that once on the books, laws were enforced effectively. Melody Barnes shared her journey to becoming an important person who was able to sit at some of the highest decision-making tables in the land – advising President Obama and shaping his domestic policy agenda. She has followed Senator Lipman’s advice and has made tangible change – from helping to craft and pass the Affordable Care Act to enacting education reforms from early childhood to higher education. But what Barnes reiterated in her remarks were the ways in which we all are, or can become, important people by harnessing the power we already hold (and of which we are often unaware) to make change in the areas we choose. Politics is an opportune site for harnessing that power, and it’s one where women must engage to create the lasting change they seek.

From the Bus to the Ballot: African American Women’s Electoral History

Rosa Parks – a civil rights icon and activist – was born a century ago today. At age 42, her refusal to abide by segregationist rules on a Montgomery, Alabama bus became a national symbol of civil rights resistance. However, as biographer Jeanne Theoharis writes, Parks’ “lifelong history of activism and anger at American injustice” began far before and continued long after she refused to give up her seat to a white man. The activism that Parks embodied has been woven through African American women’s history and political participation in the United States, but it was not until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that African American women could translate that activism into holding electoral office. Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman, elected to Congress in 1968, leading the way for the 29 African American women who have since followed her footsteps to the United States Capitol. Among these women, only one has served in the United States Senate (Carol Moseley Braun, 1993-1999). Still, the percentage of African American women among all African American members today – 32% - is larger than the percentage of women (18%) in the U.S. Congress. Today, 13 African American women (all Democrats) serve as U.S. representatives, and two Black women are delegates from the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands. Two hundred and forty African American women currently serve in state legislatures, representing about 13.5% of all women state legislators. Representative Crystal Dreda Bird Fauset (D-PA) became the first African American woman elected to a state legislature 75 years ago. In 2008, then-Assemblywoman Karen Bass (D-CA) became the first woman of color, and first African American woman, Speaker of an Assembly or State House in the country. Two years later, she was elected to Congress; that same year, Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-NJ) became the second African American woman chosen to lead a state’s lower chamber. Dr. Wendy Smooth’s research has shown that the growth in African American women’s electoral representation has outpaced that of African American men since the 1990s, but Smooth writes that African American women’s (formal) political empowerment has yielded “mixed results”:

On the one hand, [African American women] are gaining increased access to political offices, now outpacing African American men in winning elections. On the other hand, they continue to face considerable obstacles to securing high-profile offices at both the state and national level.[1]

Only nine African American women have served in statewide elected executive posts – all since 1993 – and no African American woman has ever been elected governor. Two African American women have run in major party primaries for the United States presidency. Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman to run for president of the United States in 1972, receiving a symbolic, but unsuccessful, 151 delegate votes. It was not until more than three decades later that Carol Moseley Braun threw her hat in the ring, but she dropped out of the race before the first votes were cast. Before her death in 2005, Shirley Chisholm reflected on the many electoral barriers she broke and the legacy she would leave:

I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself.

In this African American history month – and every day of the year - we honor the daring women who follow in Chisholm’s footsteps, and we should all encourage more women to do the same. Chisholm_Legacy

 
[1] Smooth, Wendy. 2010. “African American Women and Electoral Politics.” In Gender and Elections: Shaping the Future of American Politics, eds. Susan J. Carroll and Richard L. Fox. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 165-186.

Madam President?

Inaugural National Mall
(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
 

 

Today, we watch as Barack Obama is sworn into his second term as President of the United States. Four years ago, Obama made history as the first African American to win a major party nomination for the presidency and, ultimately, take the oath of office. But President Obama wasn’t the only candidate to make history in 2008. Hillary Clinton won more votes (18,000) and more delegates (1010) than any unsuccessful presidential primary candidate in history. She made history as only the second woman to have her name formally placed into nomination for president at the Democratic National Convention, and left the campaign amidst speculation that she would run again in 2012 or 2016. That speculation has hardly died down and, despite Clinton’s own claims that her candidacy is unlikely, the most recent polls show Clinton as the most popular contender for the 2016 contest. As we celebrate the history being made today on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the women who have blazed a path toward the White House and the potential for a woman to take the oath of office in years to come. Two women became candidates for the presidency in the nineteenth century before they could even cast ballots themselves. Victoria Woodhull in 1872 and Belva Lockwood in 1884 were both nominated as presidential candidates by a group of reformers identifying themselves as the Equal Rights Party. As the first woman to practice law in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, Lockwood knew what it felt like to stand alone and did so again in her second presidential bid in 1888. It wasn’t until 1964, 76 years after Lockwood’s second bid, that Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith from Maine became the first female candidate to have her name placed in nomination for president at a major party convention, winning twenty-seven delegate votes from three states. Eight years later, in 1972, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm of New York, the first African American woman elected to Congress, became the first woman and the first African American to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency at a Democratic National Convention, winning 151.95 delegate votes.

Women PresCandidates

Between 1987 and 2003, three women – Democrat Pat Schroeder (1987), Republican Elizabeth Dole (1999), and Democrat Carol Moseley Braun (2003) - put their names forward as presidential contenders, but all stepped off the trail before the first primary votes were cast. In 2012, Republican Michele Bachmann left the campaign trail 24 hours after placing sixth in the first Republican primary. In 2007, Ruth B. Mandel described the legacy of the women who ran for presidency in this way:

They made a claim on public awareness by attaching voices and living images of accomplished woman leaders to the idea that one day a woman could conceivably be president. Their actions made the idea less outrageous to conceive.

In 2008, Hillary Clinton echoed this sentiment as she conceded the Democratic primary, telling the crowd,

You can be so proud, from now on, it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories, unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the president of the United States. And that is truly remarkable.

Speculation has already begun about who will run, and who can win, the presidency in 2016. Some women, most notably Hillary Clinton, are among the names being floated as serious contenders. Still, the presidency remains arguably the most masculine office in the land – presenting obstacles well-understood by the women who have run. As she fought to allow women to argue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court over a century ago, Belva Lockwood said, “The glory of each generation is to make its own precedents.” While women have (slowly) worked to establish a precedent of women running for major party presidential nominations, our generation has yet to set a precedent of a female commander-in-chief. So as we celebrate the political history made today, let us consider the political history women have left to make.