Co-founder and managing director, Higher Heights Leadership Fund
Kelly Dittmar, Ph.D.
Scholar, Center for American Women and Politics, Eagleton Institute of Politics; assistant professor of political science, Rutgers University–Camden
Last year the Center for American Women and Politics and Higher Heights joined forces to produce and distribute "The Status of Black Women in American Politics," a report on black women's representation at all levels of government. The report makes clear that the rise in Black women officeholders is a rather recent history, with the most significant gains occurring over the past four decades. The numbers of Black women elected to date are stark and small relative to Black men and all women. However, interpreted differently, these data exemplify the opportunity for Black women to identify, expand, and capitalize upon electoral opportunities. Thus, when it comes to Black women's political representation, we have much history left to make.
What history did Black women make in the 2014 elections? And what is the status of Black women in American politics today?
Eighteen Black women (17 Democrats and one Republican) serve in the 114th Congress, four more than served before Election Day 2014. Another two Black women serve as delegates from Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands, respectively. Alma Adams (D-North Carolina) became the 100th woman in Congress upon her special election to fill a vacant seat for the remainder of the 113th Congress. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-New Jersey) and Mia Love (R-Utah) both became the first Black women to represent their states in Congress (ever!) in January 2015. Love also made history as the first Black Republican woman to serve in Congress. Two other newcomers, Brenda Lawrence (D-Michigan) and Stacey Plaskett (Delegate, D-Virginia) joined the freshman class of Black congresswomen this year. In fact, Black women are one third of the new women elected to the 114th Congress.
Black women's congressional representation increased in both number and proportion by every measure from 2014 to 2015. Black women are 21.4 percent of all women in the U.S. House in 2015, up from 17.7 percent of women in the fall of 2014. They also represent 9.6 percent of the Democratic Caucus, up from 7 percent before Election Day 2014. Still, Black women are only 4.1 percent of all members of the House in 2015 (up from 3.2 percent in 2014), despite being nearly 7 percent of the population.
There remain opportunities for Black women to make congressional history in 2015. Only 35 Black women have ever served in Congress, 11.4 percent of the 307 women who have served as representatives or senators to date. Carol Moseley Braun (D-Illinois) remains the only Black woman to ever hold a U.S. Senate seat. Finally, even including the Black women newly elected in 2014, 35 states have yet to send a Black woman to Congress.
Statewide Elected Executive Office
While the numbers of Black women in Congress inched up this year, Black women remain severely underrepresented in statewide elected executive offices in 2015. Two Black women, Connecticut State Treasurer Denise Nappier (D) and California Attorney General Kamala Harris (D), currently hold these offices, the same Black women who served in statewide elected executive office in 2014. They represent 2.6 percent of the 77 women serving in these offices but 20 percent of the Black women who have ever served in statewide elected executive posts. Only 10 Black women from nine states have ever held these offices, making up just 1.8 percent of all of the women officeholders at this level.
There was particular excitement about increasing these numbers in the 2014 elections, with five Black women nominees for statewide executive offices on Georgia's ballot. All five Democratic women were unsuccessful on Election Day. Similarly, former Delegate Donna Christensen (D-Virginia) came close to making history in her bid for governor of the Virgin Islands but lost by just under 2,000 votes.
While women are better represented at the state legislative level than in Congress in 2015, Black women actually fare proportionately better at the federal level than they do in states. As of Jan. 30, 251 Black women legislators hold office, making up 3.4 percent of all state legislators nationwide and 14 percent of all women legislators in 2015. Before Election Day 2014 Black women were 3.3 percent of all legislators and 13.5 percent of all women state legislators. Unsurprisingly, Black women fare much better among Democratic legislators, representing 7.8 percent of all Democratic state legislators and 23 percent of all Democratic women state legislators in 2015.
Three states -- Maine, North Dakota, and South Dakota -- have never elected a Black woman to the legislature, and Utah just elected its first Black woman to the legislature in 2014 (Rep. Sandra Hollins [D]). Only seven states elected a Black woman to their legislature before 1960, reaffirming the recentness of Black women's representational gains at all levels of office.
Beyond Black women's representation in elected office, 2015 is likely to bring a historical appointment of the first Black woman attorney general of the United States. California Attorney General Kamala Harris has also announced her bid for the U.S. Senate in 2016, a chamber in which Black women have been almost completely absent. As these women seek to make history, they will be joined by Black women making the decision to put their names forward for office at all levels. But these women need not make these decisions alone. Organizations like ours work to highlight the need for better representation of women and provide access to information, training, and resources to help women move from potential candidates to officeholders or appointees.
Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and first Black woman to have her name placed in nomination for the Presidency, once said, "At present, our country needs women's idealism and determination, perhaps more in politics than anywhere else." As we celebrate Black History Month and Women's History Month from now through the end of March, let's all pay particular heed to the wisdom of Black political women like Chisholm who have made history already and together work to identify paths toward Black women's political advancement.