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.