Although Black women got the right to vote with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920, it wasn’t until the Civil Rights Act of 1965 that many Black women felt it was safe to vote. With their newfound power, Black women also felt it was time that they represent their own in national politics.
In 1968, Shirley Chisolm (D-NY) became the first Black women elected to Congress. It would take until 1992 for Carol Mosely Braun (D-IL) to be the first Black woman to be elected to the Senate. Although, to date, there have only been 11 Black senators (9 of them elected since the 1965 Voting Rights Act), Braun and Vice-President Kamala Harris have been the only two Black women senators. (But consider this, of the 11 Black senators, one became President and another Vice President—that’s an impressive record!)
In 1972, Chisolm also became the first African American to run for a major party's nomination (Democrat) for President of the United States and the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party’s nomination. Although she didn’t win, in her presidential announcement, Chisholm described herself thusly: "I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people and my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history."
When Kamala Harris addressed the nation in her Vice-Presidential victory speech, she took the time to honor Black women, calling them “the backbone of our democracy.” For the five past presidential elections, Black women have shown up at higher rates than any other group.
55 years after Shirley Chisolm was elected to Congress, the 118th Congress has the highest number of Black Congresswomen in history (27). Black women are 4.9% of all members of Congress, 9.7% of all Democrats in Congress, 18.1% of all women in Congress, and 43.3% of all Black members of Congress.
During Black History month, let us celebrate the trailblazing Black women who have and are making national political history. While acknowledging the great strides made, there is still a long way to go when it comes to Black women’s equal representation in elected office (both at the national and more local levels). About 14% of the nation identifies itself as Black (47 million individuals) and therefore about 7% of the nation is composed of Black women. Representation matters because what you see helps you dream as to what you can be. Let us celebrate these women not just as reliable voters and organizers but also as the powerful leaders they are.