Black women are running for office – and it’s just what America needs
Over the course of three months, theGrio.com spoke with politicians, candidates, aspiring politicians and political strategists about the experiences and journeys of black women in politics.
From veterans like Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) who are leading the resistance against President Trump’s administration to newcomers like Tishaura Jones, whose viral editorial during her St. Louis mayoral campaign run challenged traditional media coverage, black women are increasingly entering the political ring.
With victories and losses come lessons learned. This is what they say it takes to earn —and keep— a seat at the table of American politics.
Waikinya Clanton came from Washington, D.C. to Connecticut to learn how to win votes.
“I never really questioned it or thought I can’t do this because I’m a woman,” Clanton told theGrio in a recent interview. “The reason why I’m interested in running for office is because there is a need.”
At the Women’s Campaign School at Yale University, she’s in good company.
This summer, the intensive one-week training program brought together 80 promising women leaders from all political backgrounds for 12-16 hours a day, teaching them necessary skills to run successful political campaigns. They practiced announcement speeches, tallied campaign budgets and learned how to conduct research polls.
“People are thirsting for something different and they’re thirsting for something more,” Clanton says intently. The 31-year-old political organizer dreams of becoming the mayor of her hometown in Canton, Mississippi. “And I want to be the person who’s able to actually do that.”
Although women comprise half of the United States’ population, women hold just 19 percent of seats (84 out of 435 seats) in the United States House of Representatives and 21 of 100 seats in the Senate.
For black women, the numbers are even smaller: Just 20 currently have seats in the House of Representatives.
On a local level, black women are still working to break ceilings – only recently becoming the ‘first black women’ mayors of cities like Rochester (Lovely Warren), San Antonio (Ivy Taylor) and Teaneck, NJ (Lizette Parker). In 2013, Aja Brown became the first female mayor and youngest mayor of Compton, CA, winning by a landslide.
In the nation’s 100 largest cities, there are three African American women mayors— Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., Paula Hicks-Hudson of Toledo, OH, and Catherine Pugh of Baltimore, preceded by Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who is also African-American.
“For the women that may be involved in the PTA and never thought about running, this is for her.”
Not one state has ever elected an African-American woman governor.
“If our government doesn’t look like the people it’s supposed to represent, that means there are a tons of voices, perspectives, issues, challenges that certain communities are facing that don’t have a voice,” says Jenn Addison, a staff member at She Should Run, a non-partisan, non-profit that aims to expand the pipeline of women who are considering a run.
“That is one reason why it is so crucial for women to run for office.”
Since the election of Donald Trump, these training groups say they have seen a surge in interest. The Sunday following his inauguration brought hundreds of thousands of women protesters to the forefront.
Emily’s List recently held a candidate training in Miami, announcing more than 15,000 women have reached out to them to run for office. Officials say that is a significant increase from last year.
This spring, She Should Run reported a 250 percent increase in collective social media growth, citing women signing up for things such as networking opportunities and online courses.
“There are a whole range of women who have never been encouraged to lead who should think about running for office,” Addison says. “Consider taking a step back and saying, ‘Hey look at all the ways I already lean in, in my community, at my child’s school, at work.’ For the woman that may be involved in the PTA and never thought about running, this is for her.”
Jasmine Sadat, 29, another Women’s Campaign School attendee who aspires to be the first black female mayor of Philadelphia, says the results of November’s presidential election only added fuel to her fire.
“[Hillary Clinton] lost on a national level twice,” Sadat says. “If she can do that and pick herself up…I can do that. We live in communities where black women are leading households, becoming more educated, so quite naturally you’re going to need a legislative body to reflect their constituency. You’ve got to put yourself out there. If not me then there will be somebody else.”
“You’ve got to put yourself out there. If not me then there will be somebody else.”
Despite the significant gender gap between men and women seriously considering a run for office, a new survey report by American University found that Donald Trump’s win has sparked a notable increase in political engagement among young Democrats like Sadat since November.
But American University’s findings and other research has shown women’s self-assessments of whether they’re qualified to run for office, often stop them from going for their political dreams.
Perhaps that’s why when Stacey Abrams announced her run for Governor of Georgia this month, the nation paid attention.
In 2007, Abrams became the first ever woman leader in the Georgia General Assembly and the first black person to lead in the Georgia House of Representatives.
If she wins next year, Abrams, a 43-year-old Spelman and Yale Law School graduate, would break another glass ceiling by becoming the first black woman governor in all of U.S. History.
Despite her credentials and previous wins, there were people who told her to hold off.
“I think for a number of women the issue is indeed feeling that you aren’t qualified to run until someone validates you and asks you to run,” Abrams told theGrio in an exclusive interview. “I will tell you that my issue is often the inverse.”
Abrams said people have discouraged her from running for office out of “concern” her race or gender would prevent her from winning.
“I think for women of color, it’s not only being ready to run but it’s also feeling the pressure not to run because we’re often told it’s not our turn,” Abrams adds. “That’s the issue [we] have to be most aware of and push back against the hardest.”
“We’re often told it’s not our turn. That’s the issue [we] have to be most aware of and push back against the hardest.”
Abrams encourages black women to attend training programs like the Women’s Campaign School at Yale and learn by doing.
“Before I ran for office, I worked on other campaigns,” she says. “That’s important for two reasons: One it helps you see what you should do. And it also teaches you very up close and personal what you should never do.”
“Understand you have to have your affairs in order,” says Stefanie Brown James, Co-founder and Senior Advisor of The Collective PAC, a political action committee specifically targeting African-American candidates to run for office. “Understand rules. Because people get stuck when they don’t know election rules in our community.”
The group held its first “Black Campaign School” training at Howard University last month to help newcomers do just that. The kickoff event featured three black women headliners: Rep. Stacey Abrams, political strategist Donna Brazile and Shavonda Sumter of the New Jersey General Assembly.
Brown James, who also served as National African American Vote Director for the Obama for America Campaign, says while some challenges are unique to women, others are universal.
“The number one thing they need isn’t much different than men- and that’s the financial backing and support, which is why we are so focused on funding,” James says.
Money is a repeated theme that emerges in trainings and conversations with women candidates and politicians alike.
According to recent U.S. Census data, women earn roughly 80 cents for every dollar that men earn. For black women, the number is even lower – 63 cents.
It turns out that these numbers have political ramifications as well.
“One of the largest impediments for women running for office, particularly women of color is the ability to raise money,” Abrams says. “We don’t believe we can because we rarely see folks who do. But as I tell folks, especially women, you’re not asking for yourself.”
“Your job is to ask people to invest in your vision and your value,” she adds. “That’s why you’re raising money. And that’s why you should expect them to give it to you. “
“When men do it, it’s strong, ‘Look at that strong leader.’ But when a woman does it, it’s like, ‘Oh she needs a dose of humility.'”
But even when a black woman has conviction and training to run, the confidence to speak and the ability to bring in big donations, the realities of gender and race are still at the forefront.
Just ask Tishaura Jones, Treasurer of St. Louis, who lost her bid for Mayor by less than 888 votes.
She was part of a crowded primary race that included three other black male candidates- one of the reasons some speculated she lost.
Jones made national headlines after refusing to meet with her city newspaper’s editorial board, slamming them in her own editorial for critical coverage and “thinly veiled racism.” After she lost the mayoral race, the paper both praised her efforts and suggested next time she ran, she could benefit from a “dose of humility.”
Jones says her outspokenness wouldn’t have been perceived as arrogance if she were a man.
“When men do it, it’s strong, ‘Look at that strong leader.’ But when a woman does it, it’s like, ‘Oh she needs a dose of humility.’ And she’s the B-word,” Jones told theGrio.
“There’s an inherent double standard and I often think a triple standard when it comes to black women,” she adds. “So I’m going to continue to fight back against that narrative.”
Jones’ advice for any black woman looking to get in the race? Get your money and your mind right.
“Number one, make sure your budget can handle it,” she says. “Make sure your significant other is strong enough to handle it. Make sure your family is ready. Get as much information as you can about running a successful campaign. Be wary of consultants who want to take your money because they’re out here.”
Jones says in her first race to be St. Louis treasurer, she was outspent two to one and still won by 10 points.
During the mayoral race, Jones spent $430,000 compared to Democratic primary winner Lyda Crewson’s 1.25 million dollars – and was still within 888 votes of winning.
“Money isn’t everything,” Jones admits. “Make sure whatever money you make, you’re spending it in the right places. And get as much support as you can from these national organizations that want to see women succeed.”
Jones says despite the loss, she is focused on being St. Louis Treasurer and open to running for mayor again.
“I feel like God put me here for a reason and this is the work that God called me to do.”
For political veterans like Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the surge of interest in women wanting to run for office is exactly what she’s been hoping for.
“I’m so pleased to see the new spirit and the new involvement of young women who want to run for office and who want to be involved,” Congresswoman Waters told theGrio in an interview this spring.
Trainings like the ones being held today are similar to the kind that got Waters to run for office in the 1970s.
“It was the height of the women’s movement and I was one of the early ones who had the support of the women’s organized efforts,” Waters says. “And so I ran for the California State Assembly and I won, running against the establishment.”
“A lot of women work in the background and they should be the people making these decisions or at the table.”
Congresswoman Waters says that getting more women and millennials into office is what will propel her party forward.
“I want to be a catalyst to get these young people involved,” she says. “To get them inside basically the Democratic party and change it. And make it what they think it should be, representing all of the people and having a real place at the table.”
Now that the Women’s Campaign School at Yale has finished, both Waikinya Clanton and Jasmine Sadat say they’re more determined than ever to win their future races.
“Women leading isn’t a new concept,” Clanton says. “It is something we have been doing since the beginning of time.”
“A lot of women work in the background and they should be the people making these decisions or at the table. So it is no longer just me supporting the candidate, it is me now actually being the candidate.”
For Sadat, the training has only confirmed that politics is her calling.
“Having that support system there helps me become more confident,” Sadat says. “I have a sisterhood behind me. If they can do it, I can do it. If she can run, I can run.”
Natasha S. Alford is a journalist, host and producer based in New York City and Deputy Editor of theGrio.com. Follow her work via Twitter and Instagram at @natashasalford.