Many people are compelled to become political officeholders due to some higher calling. Whether it be a civic duty, love of country, or some pull to power. Black women are no different. However, their civic duty and love of country may look quite different than their white male and female counterparts. When Black women speak of doing the work of their ancestors, it is the experience of racism and discrimination that propels them to office. It is their desire and their ability to speak for a community that has no voice. It is the oppression that they seek to eradicate through policy and politics that fuels their public service. The type of power Black women seek and their motivations behind their political behavior are unique to their own experiences of double discrimination in this country.
In my work on Black women and leadership in state legislatures, I find that intersectionality (being both Black and a woman) increases the probability of legislative leadership. But the findings suggest there is something specific about Black women that lends to their abilities to break down barriers and achieve feats once thought impossible as a result of discriminatory practices and laws that had prohibited them from voting and running for elected office. I focused my novel theory, the heavy lifter theory, on how the labor market and its restrictive policies ensured that Blacks suffered economically, forcing Black women and Black men to work outside of the existing state and federal institutions to make a living. Black women's unique experience with the labor market informed and shaped their talent development and honed their roles as the heavy lifters in their communities: specifically, Black women’s disparate access to jobs that served white families in their homes ensured they were key to the financial well-being of their own families and communities. The heavy lifter theory argues that this history of service and strong tie to the community informs Black women’s political behavior. This argument aligns with other research on Black women, including work on political ambition. Pearl Dowe (2020) forwards in her work that Black women's ambition is shaped by political socialization, identity, and networks. The heavy lifter theory offers a historical and labor market focused understanding of Black women's socialization and identity. The heavy lifter theory both compliments and further examines two important components of Black women's political ambition that Dowe presents.
Stacey Abrams, former Georgia state legislator and minority leader of the Georgia House, 2018 gubernatorial nominee, and leading voting rights activist, provides a worthy illustration of my theory. After Abrams lost a highly-contested 2018 gubernatorial election – a result tainted by claims of voter suppression – the national Democratic Party placed her on a shortlist for federal office. Party leaders lobbied her heavily to run for the Senate in 2020 and she was frequently mentioned among Joe Biden's vice president considerations. But when presented the opportunity to make a federal bid for office, Abrams declined and stayed in Georgia.
As Georgia turned blue in presidential voting for the first time since 1992, it would seem that Abrams' political behavior reveals the need to reassess how we conceptualize political ambition. Abrams refused to concede the 2018 gubernatorial election to her opponent and then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp and promptly sued the state for "gross negligence" in managing the election. NAACP president Derrick Johnson said of Kemp, whose office oversaw the election in which he ran, “Kemp's actions during the election were textbook voter suppression. His actions were strategic, careless, and aimed at silencing the voting power of communities of color in the state.” Abrams’ response was not to move on to pursue another office, but instead to form a political group called Fair Fight Action, which focuses on challenging restrictive voting laws and educating people on how to protect their right to vote. Abrams reported that 800,000 new voters were added to Georgia's voting rolls between 2018 and 2020, and her own grassroots work has been largely credited for these gains.
Understanding why and how Black women continue to do this type of “heavy lifting” for their communities – and to the benefit of American democracy as a whole – means challenging both scholarly and applied concepts of gender and political ambition that ignore the distinct histories and situatedness of Black women. The previous understanding of political ambition highlights the individual motivations of political actors. But Black women push us to reimagine ambition as a community endeavor. Pearl Dowe has begun this work already by describing a theory of “ambition on the margins” to explain Black women’s political engagement and emergence as candidates. Consistent with her approach, the heavy lifter theory highlights the importance the community plays in shaping Black women's policy preferences, and linked fate, a theory that describes how self-interests of Black individuals are tied to the shared experiences and outcomes for the Black community, tells us that Black women's priorities align with their community’s needs. Therefore, it is necessary to imagine that for Black women, political ambition goes beyond personal ambition — their ambitions involve community lift.
In an interview with Abrams, she credits her parents and grandmother – who feared casting a vote in the South – for motivating her political activism, “ambition,” and overall commitment to voting rights. More recently, the data show disproportionate effects of disenfranchisement along racial lines. From 2012 to 2016, 1.5 million voters were purged from Georgia's vote roster, more than 10% of all voters. Not surprisingly, the removal of these voters disproportionately affected groups that often vote at lower rates, including minorities and low-income voters. And these are the same people who generally support Democratic candidates.
The political behavior of Black women is also distinguishable from Black men. Importantly, state and federal policies concerning Blacks' entry into the labor market after slavery ensured that Black families could not survive without Black women working outside of the home. This created an economic situation where Black women were in large part, economically responsible for the well-being of their families and community. This history is reflected in the more current economic gender dynamic of Black families. In the last four years, Black families were more reliant on women's income than other families were, since 80% of Black mothers are the breadwinners of their families.
Black women’s strong links to the community are reinforced and reemphasized through their election to office, which overwhelmingly comes through grassroots initiatives. Abrams cites Fannie Lou Hamer as an inspiration for her work in Georgia. Hamer organized at the grassroots level during a time when Black women were forced to “make a way out of no way” as they faced both sexism and racism at the polls and in elected office. Dowe refers to this marginalization as motivating Black women’s political participation, especially in identity-based organizations to make visible both their presence and power. Those often grassroots networks help to elect Black women. Together, this reliance on grassroots campaigning, their experience of a stronger sense of linked fate, and their role as the heavy lifters of their communities might also re-orient Black women’s ambition to focus on the political work they can do in a local or state elected position as more meaningful to them than achieving a nationally elected position.
Black women also behave differently than Black men when they hold political power. In my own interviews with Black women legislators, they made evident that when Black women are elected to office, they take their fiscal responsibilities and their loyalty to the Black community with them. This is reflected in their policy preferences and their ideology; previous research has shown that Black women legislators have more liberal preferences on issues than their male counterparts (in part by Black women focusing more on “women's issues” that align with more liberal stances).
The way in which scholars understand political ambition is the reason for confusion and surprise by some political observers to Abrams’ decision to focus her post-2018 work on activism at home. But the case of Stacey Abrams highlights the need for an expanded understanding of political ambition, especially as it relates to Black women. Abrams’ actions show that neither expressive ambition – explicit signaling of an elected official that they want to run for higher office due to a new opportunity – nor nascent ambition – which considers what type of people who want to run for office actually become candidates – aptly describes the type of political ambition that she has displayed as it relates to her work in the community. Instead, her actions should be understood through an intersectional lens of ambition. Building on Dowe’s work, I suggest that Black women may not see their elected local/state position as a springboard into the national political arena. They may see their grassroots work as more important than the work they can do at the national level. Abrams’ actions have shown that her unique experience and strong tie to the Black community as a Black woman drives her political actions. However, this heavy lifting is not unique to Abrams. Moving forward, in order to fully examine Black women's representation and contributions to American democracy, we need to begin to apply frameworks that consider their unique history and identity in this country.