Election 2018: Another Stop on the Chisholm Trail?

Shirley Chisholm

By Kelly Dittmar and Glynda Carr

Fifty years ago, Shirley Chisholm campaigned successfully to become the first Black woman in the U.S. Congress. Four years later, she became the first woman of color and the first African American to win delegate votes at a major party presidential convention. Throughout her presidential campaign, she attracted voters to the “Chisholm Trail” with her motto and reputation of being “unbought and unbossed.”

But Chisholm’s trailblazing didn’t end with her presidential defeat. She served in Congress for another decade and left a legacy with lasting effects to this day.

The 2018 elections will mark another stop on the Chisholm Trail, where Black women are poised to build on Chisholm’s legacy of leadership, determination, and desire to disrupt the status quo. Amidst reports of the “surge” of women running in 2018 are Black women candidates at every level, including some with the potential to make history. Perhaps most notably, 2018 could see the election of the first Black woman governor in the United States.

The potential to harness and expand Black women’s political power is not limited to candidates this year. Black women voted at the highest rates of any race and gender group in both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, and again in the 2017 special U.S. Senate election in Alabama. If that race is any guide, Black women voters appear mobilized to turn out in high numbers again in 2018.

But before we can measure progress for Black women in election 2018, we need to take stock of Black women’s current political power. That’s why the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) and the Higher Heights Leadership Fund teamed up again to release “The Chisholm Effect: Black Women in American Politics 2018.”

The report outlines the status of Black women in American politics today. Despite being 7.3% of the U.S. population, Black women are less than 5% of officeholders elected to statewide executive offices, Congress, and state legislatures. Black women are 5 of the mayors in the nation’s top 100 most populous cities.

Since Chisholm served as the sole Black woman in Congress, 38 Black women have served in Congress from 16 states, including 2 Black women senators. Over the same half-century, 12 Black women have been elected to statewide executive office. These numbers are small when considered within the a 50-year context, but the pace of advancement in recent years marks momentum to build upon.

Ten of the 12 Black women who have served in statewide elected executive office have held office in the past two decades. In 1990, just one Black woman served in Congress; 18 years later, that number is up to 19. In just the last 5 years, 8 Black women have been elected mayor in the 100 most populous cities in the U.S. And just this year, Sheila Oliver became the first Democratic Black woman lieutenant governor nationwide.

This momentum will only continue – and increase – with work. Black women are doing the work every day to engage their communities in the political process, to make their own voices heard, and to take their seats at the tables of governance. Organizations like Higher Heights are working to amplify those voices and hold political leaders accountable for inclusion. And, with Higher Heights, CAWP is continuing to conduct research and programs that both identify and tackle barriers to Black women’s political progress.

But the work doesn’t stop with us. Recognizing the imperative of Black women’s political inclusion is a responsibility we all share. When Chisholm was campaigning amidst war, social unrest, and crises of leadership, she argued, “At present, our country needs women’s idealism and determination, perhaps more in politics than anywhere else.”

Those words ring especially true today, as our country confronts significant challenges at home and abroad. In this moment, the opportunities for meeting this demand while increasing Black women’s political power, especially in elected office, are great. And we’ve got some guidance on how to do it in 2018: follow the Chisholm Trail.

Kelly Dittmar is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and CAWP Scholar, and Glynda Carr is co-founder of Higher Heights for America.

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