The State of African-American Women in Politics

Women, especially women of color, have a history in the United States for being significantly underrepresented politically. In fact, despite women as a whole being given the right to vote in 1920, African American women along with all women of color struggled to exercise their rights as American citizens until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed discriminatory acts that prevented people from voting. However, even now women of color face discrimination on two fronts: one for their race, and the other for being female.

Even with more progressive standards in place, women of color are still significantly underrepresented in our nation’s elected officials. As of 2015, twelve out of fifty states still had yet to elect a woman (one of color or otherwise) to serve as one of their congressional delegates. According to a recent report by Rutgers University, which takes into account all of the nation-wide elections that happen each November, the statistics are as follows:

  • There is currently 1 women of color serving in the US Senate.
  • Women of color make up 6.4% of the US House of Representatives with black women, specifically, accounting for approximately half of that percentage.
  • Women of color make up 2.9% of all currently held statewide elected offices in the US. Black women, in particular, hold 2 out of 312 positions.
  • Women of color make up 5.4% of all currently held state legislator offices in the US with black women once again accounting for roughly half of that percentage.
  • Of our nation’s 100 largest cities, only 6 have a mayor that is a woman of color.

Activists for the women of color community are, however, hopeful.

“Interpreted differently, these data exemplify the opportunity for Black women to identify, expand, and capitalize upon electoral opportunities.” – Huffington Post

Which is a good point. Although the percentage of women in political office has flat-lined over the last few decades, the percentage of women of color in political office has steadily increased, allowing for history to be made. As recently as 2015 Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-New Jersey) and Mia Love (R-Utah) have become the first African American women to ever represent their states in Congress. Love also made history as the first Republican African-American woman to be elected to Congress as well.

In addition, as recent the 2016 election, Lisa Blunt Rochester (D-Delaware) became the first African American women elected to represent the state of Delaware in Congress. This same year, Val Demings (D-Florida), Orlando’s first female African-American Police Chief, was also elected to represent her state in the US Congress.

“Black Americans are joining state legislatures in higher numbers than ever, and that’s entirely thanks to black women, who have increased their presence in those bodies by nearly 50 percent since 1994.” – Washington Post

The only place they have staggered, however, is in elected statewide offices.

Although they vary from state to state, statewide elected officials generally fall under one of these titles: governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, treasurer, auditor, some type of state constitutional officer, and house representatives. As of the last election season (November 2016), only 10 black women from 9 different states have ever served as a statewide elected official with none yet having served as Governor. This makes any win at the state or local level a huge milestone for the black American woman.

Whether it be as California’s Attorney General like Kamala Harris, or Broward County’s Mayor like Barbara Sharief, every step forward makes history and finds paths for the political advancement of black women in America.