Geraldine Ferraro was the first female vice-presidential candidate on a major party ticket, in 1984. In 2008, Alaska’s then-governor Sarah Palin was Republican John McCain’s running mate.
Before Harris was picked as Biden’s running mate, she was his competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination. She is one of many Black American women who have aimed for the highest office in the land despite great odds.
Hands that once picked cotton
African Americans have endured many hurdles to political power in the United States, among them slavery, Jim Crow and disenfranchisement.
As a political science professor, I address issues like these in my government and minority politics classes. But I also teach my students that Black women have a history of political ambition and achievement. As the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. said in 1984 about the progress Black voters made last century, “Hands that once picked cotton will now pick a president.”
Harris is also of Indian descent, making her place on the ticket a meaningful first for two communities of color.
‘Unsuitable’ for the job?
Kamala Harris is a registered Democrat who served as California’s attorney general and later one of the state’s U.S. senators. But, historically, most Black female presidential candidates have run as independents.
In 1968, 38-year-old Charlene Mitchell of Ohio became the first Black woman to run for president, as a communist. Like many other African Americans born in the 1930s, Mitchell joined the Communist Party because of its emphasis on racial and gender equality. Black female communists fought Jim Crow, lynchings and unfair labor practices for men and women of all races.
Other independent Black female presidential candidates have been community organizer Margaret Wright, who ran on the People’s Party ticket in 1976; Isabell Masters, a teacher who created her own third party, called Looking Back and ran in 1984, 1992 and 2004; and teacher Monica Moorehead of the Workers World Party ticket, who ran in 1996, 2000 and 2016.
Only one Black woman has ever pursued the Republican nomination: Angel Joy Charvis, a religious conservative from Florida, who wanted to use her 1999 candidacy to “to recruit a new breed of Republican.”
Unbought and unbossed
These Black female presidential candidates were little known. But as the first Black female member of Congress, Shirley Chisholm had years of experience in public office and a national reputation when she became the first Black American and the first woman to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972. Chisholm’s campaign slogan: “Unbought and Unbossed.”
She became the target of vehement sexism. One New York Times article from June 1972 described her appearance as, “[Not] beautiful. Her face is bony and angular, her nose wide and flat, her eyes small almost to beadiness, her neck and limbs scrawny. Her protruding teeth probably account in part for her noticeable lisp.”
As a vice president for two terms who had a major role in governing under Barack Obama, Joe Biden knows what the office entails. He has now selected a woman who he believes can not only help him win the election but also to govern if he is elected. It is a watershed moment for African Americans, Asian Americans and women who’ve so long been excluded from so many aspects of politics.
Mayors are elected to govern their cities, serve and protect citizens, maintain law and order and bring about economic prosperity. Those are tall orders today, as American cities are wracked by COVID-19 and anti-racism protests.
In the decades that followed, just a handful more cities – among them Hartford, Little Rock, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C. – elected Black women mayors.
Then came 2017, when five African American women held that office simultaneously in Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Baltimore, Toledo and Washington, D.C.
Huffington Post dubbed it the “Year of the Black Woman Mayor.” Among those elected were Vi Lyles in Charlotte and Keisha Lance Bottoms in Atlanta, both still in charge today.
The Black female mayors covered in my book range in age from their 30s to their 70s and represent cities both large and small. They have many things in common.
All but one are Democrats – Acquanetta Warren of Fontana, California, is the lone Republican – and all are very well educated. Twenty-two of the 24 have a doctorate, medical degree, law degree or master’s degree.
Most also worked in a traditional “feeder” occupation for political service like law, business, education or community activism before pursuing politics. All had held another political office before running for mayor, with most serving on the local city council or in the state legislature.
Fifteen of the 24 are members of a historically Black female sorority, primarily Delta Sigma Theta, but also Alpha Kappa Alpha and Zeta Phi Beta. These three sororities prepare Black women for politics with their emphasis on public service – other famous members include Sen. Kamala Harris, singer Aretha Franklin, and authors Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston.
Some Black female American mayors won close elections and others won by large margins, but regardless of margin most won open seats, either because the sitting mayor was term limited or chose not to run for reelection. That removed the added challenge of competing against an incumbent. Only seven of the 24 mayors defeated incumbents.
Where she leads
Most Black women govern Southern cities that have a Democratic majority, though the regional exceptions – Tacoma, Pontiac and Rochester – are notable. And unlike many of the country’s first Black male mayors, who were primarily elected in poor cities, Black female mayors lead a socioeconomically and demographically diverse array of communities, including super-wealthy enclaves like San Francisco.
That means they had to attract votes from all kinds of people to win. Perhaps as a result, my research finds, Black women mayors don’t necessarily discuss race as often as America’s first Black male mayors did, campaigning instead on economic development. That’s been a winning stance for Mayor Acquanetta Warren, under whose financial stewardship, Fontana has thrived economically.
Nonetheless, the women I studied in researching my book say they’ve faced both racism and sexism in their political careers – and that racism is a more complex problem. In a recent interview, San Francisco Mayor London Breed said, “The things that African Americans have endured in this country for far too long are things that I sadly have had to endure throughout my entire life.”
In so many of the cities these women lead – from Atlanta and Ferguson to Washington, D.C. and Chicago – Black residents have struggled to achieve political and economic power despite their large population. And, as demonstrated over and over again, they have strained relations with law enforcement.
Add a pandemic to the poverty and police violence that has long plagued African American communities, and today’s Black female mayors are facing crises with little historic precedent.