Some of the most notable gains for women in this year’s election will come from Black women. All three non-incumbent Black women candidates favored to win on Election Day—Jahana Hayes (D-CT), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA)—will be not only the first Black women, but the first women of color, to represent their states in Congress. Omar will break another barrier in joining Rashida Tlaib as the first Muslim congresswomen, and Pressley’s win against a ten-term incumbent reflects how political success is not constrained to those who wait their turn.
Pressley’s victory—there is no Republican challenging her—and the anticipated wins of Hayes and Omar, demonstrate another thing: the electoral viability of Black women in political contexts where they are too often counted out. For Pressley, the doubts among political and party insiders have been great, meaning the investment in her primary candidacy was minimal to zero among those typically perceived as key influencers in U.S. elections. Jahana Hayes won the Democratic primary in Connecticut despite running without her party’s endorsement. Hayes and Omar also won nominations in majority-white districts, an important counter to those who have doubted the ability of Black women to be successful outside of majority-minority districts or states.
But Black women’s political success did not just begin this year. Six of the seven Black women currently serving as mayors of the top 100 most populous cities in the United States have been sworn in since Election Day 2016. And while women’s and Black men’s state legislative representation has plateaued in recent decades, Black women have seen a steady—albeit slow—increase in representation in state legislatures nationwide. In Congress, while gains for women have been slow and incremental, the racial and ethnic diversity among women, particularly Democratic women, has grown in the past decade. In fact, nine of the 14 new women elected to the 115th Congress (2017-2019) were women of color.
Political scientist Wendy Smooth puts these successes for Black women into context, writing, “African-American women appear to be overrepresented in elective office while simultaneously holding the characteristics that would make them least likely to be politically engaged,” such as lower levels of income and educational access. This “paradox of participation,” as she terms it, is also notable when the underinvestment in Black women as candidates is taken into account. What’s more, research from a Center for American Women and Politics survey of state legislators found that Black women officeholders were more likely than their white counterparts to report being discouraged from running for office in the first place.
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These findings—and this year’s wins for Black women—should lead us all to consider what gains could be made if we truly invested in and saw the full political potential of Black women as candidates and officeholders, as well as the incredible value of Black women’s representation in policy debates and decisions that will shape our country’s future. Imagine if political influencers’ perceptions of viability were not endogenous measures of who has won in the past, but they instead thought more creatively about diverse paths to political success in the future, and the role they play in building of those paths. Those influencers, who can end a potential candidate’s run before it even starts, might instead help to cultivate a more diverse pool of political candidates by actively recruiting, supporting—politically, financially, and even personally—and advocating for Black women in ways that foster the very viability that has concerned them in the past.
While our organizations will celebrate important victories for Black women candidates in 2018, this work to reduce barriers and enhance investment in Black women’s political success is needed well beyond this election year.
Today, Black women are just 4 percent of all members of the U.S. House, despite making up about 7 percent of the U.S. population. And while the 41 Black woman House candidates selected this year is a number higher than in any other year from 2000 to 2016, they remain underrepresented (5 percent ) among all nominees. Just one Black woman currently serves in the U.S. Senate—the second Black woman Senator ever—and that will not change next year; no Black women won U.S. Senate nominations in 2018.
Finally, only 3 Black women hold statewide elected executive offices in 2018, less than 1 percent of the 312 positions nationwide. Black women nominees have the potential to break barriers this year; for example, Tish James (D) could become the first Black woman elected statewide as New York’s attorney general, and Deidre DeJear (D) would be the first woman of color elected statewide in Iowa if successful in her bid to become secretary of state. Even if all 16 Black women nominees won their general election contests for these offices in November, which is unlikely, they would still represent just 5 percent of all statewide elected executives.
And while Stacey Abrams’ potential victory as the first Black woman governor in the United States would be monumental, she is the only Black woman nominee for governor this year and the first Black woman to ever win a major-party nomination for governor.
This data reminds us that there are many opportunities for increasing Black women’s political representation. Taking advantage of those opportunities requires real investment by parties, funders, and voters into Black women candidates. This year has shown that the return on that investment—measured in terms of both electoral victory and disruption of the conventional wisdom and norms of campaigns—is positive, and research on the impact of Black women in office shows those returns—including responsiveness to and representation of diverse constituencies in policymaking—continue well after Election Day.