Black Women and Politics: Setting the Record Straight
When Philadelphian Gertrude E.H. Bustill (chapter 5, They Carried Us) published The Work of the Afro-American Woman in 1894,  she did so under the backdrop of what she viewed as systemic sexism and racism within the suffrage and abolition movements. And in authoring this work, she deliberately took aim at White women for publicizing their own achievements while excluding the contributions of Black women who worked tirelessly to achieve universal suffrage. Had she lived longer, Gertrude would have borne witness to — and no doubt written about — the whitewashing and tribulations of Black women in politics.
Though journalist and political activist Charlotta Bass was an early candidate (1952) for U.S. vice president, the fact that she launched a bid for executive office has until late been a well-kept secret —
one only broadly publicized after the recent nomination of Democratic Senator Kamala Harris for that same office. And while former Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm ran for president in 1972, only traces of her effort are sporadically mentioned in the press. These trailblazing Black women might well have turned over in their graves as mainstream media in general either did not report, or ignored the fact that they launched bids for executive office prior to former Secretary of State and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
To set the record straight, Clinton was the second white woman to run for president and the fifth woman who hoped to break the glass ceiling by winning election to the White House. Senator Margaret Chase Smith, who was white, sought the Republican nomination for president in 1964 and former Ambassador and Democratic Congresswoman Geraldine A. Ferraro, who was also white, ran for vice president in 1984. Bass was the first woman to run for vice president and Chisholm was the second to run for president.
Bass hoped for nomination through the fledging Progressive party and Chisholm was a long shot to secure the Democratic nomination. Exclusionary qualifiers such as race and gender were used to negate the chances of both of these Black women, and rendered them nearly invisible in important documentary spaces like school textbooks for example.
The past four years have seen a growing number of Black women elected to local office, including mayors’ Muriel Bowser (Washington, D.C.); Sharon Weston Broome (Baton Rouge, LA); Vi Alexander Lyles (Charlotte, NC); Keisha Lance Bottoms (Atlanta, GA); LaToya Cantrell (New Orleans, LA); London Breed (San Francisco, CA); Lori E. Lightfoot (Chicago, IL), and Yvonne Spicer (Framingham, MA). There are currently 313 U.S. Black female state legislators (6 of whom are Middle Eastern and North African), 6 lieutenant governor’s, 1 attorney general and 23 congresswomen (including Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian and North African). Former Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is a member of the nonvoting U.S. House of Delegates. Kamala Harris is the only multiracial female who identifies as a black member of the U.S. Senate.
In considering the myriad challenges that confront these and other Black women seeking political office, Kelly Dittmar of the Center for American Women in Politics wrote that, “It is important to confront not only sexist notions about who can be a leader, but also racist notions of who can and should lead." She added, "These women need a space to talk about the intersections of race and gender as a challenge or as an opportunity.”
The women in They Carried Us who ascended to local and state political offices also did so under the weightiness of racism and sexism. Elected in 1938 as the first Black female state legislator in the country, Crystal Byrd Fauset left the Democratic party 11 years later because of its refusal to embrace “an interracial approach to women” and racial diversity within its ranks. Pennsylvania Democratic Senator Roxanne Jones became the first Black woman in the state to hold this seat with her election in 1948. Her indefatigable efforts to hold the senate accountable for the health and well-being of poor mothers and children are believed to have contributed to a heart attack and her death in 1996.
But despite these challenges, both Crystal and Roxanne succeeded in drawing attention to important issues while also making inroads in support of Black Americans. Physician Ethel Allen also challenged the lethargy of the establishment when she ousted a long-term White male Democrat in 1971, to become the first Black female Republican in Philadelphia’s city council. She ran on a platform that confronted the incumbent’s unwillingness to improve social and economic barriers that limited the life-chances of low-income residents in her district.
And when Marian Tasco became the first black person and second female elected as city commissioner in 1983, she immediately collaborated with the school district to establish voter education and registration programs in local public high schools. Four years later, she was elected to city council. The accomplishments of these women should be known by all of us.
Finally, as Martha Jones of Johns Hopkins University said in referencing Harris’ bid for Democratic vice president, “Kamala Harris doesn’t just drop from the sky. She’s a political figure whose career is very much linked to a history. I don’t think you can understand how we got here in 2020 if you don’t appreciate the way in which Black women have built this moment.”
The women of They Carried Us are very much part of that history.