A Voice to be Heard: The Role of Women of Color in U.S. Elections

By Elizabeth Morehead, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

Throughout history, black women have played a large role in U.S. elections. From the women’s suffrage movement to the past election in 2016, black women have made their voices heard across the nation. The stories surrounding their historical imprint are twofold: one shines a light on discrimination, while another looks at their impact on important issues and voting outcomes. Regardless of their individual stories, women of color have studied, protested, gathered, and fought for the things they believed in for decades. They have worked hard to have their voices be heard and to have a chance to impact our nation. This post explores the historical role that women of color have played in U.S. elections, while honoring the voices and opinions of black women today.  

The Dark Ages (a.k.a) the 1900’s

Black women face a notion known as double jeopardy, a concept that Mary Church Terrell, the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, best described in 1904: “Not only are colored women…handicapped on account of their sex, but they are almost everywhere baffled and mocked because of their race”, Terrell proclaimed. Black women played a major role throughout the women’s suffrage movement, but despite their support, discrimination ran rampant during the first half of the 1900’s. Even with the passing of the 19th Amendment, black women still remained disenfranchised. It wasn’t until the 1960s and the Civil Rights movement that their rights begun to be recognized.

Fannie Lou Hamer was beaten and jailed for trying to register to vote in 1962, which led her to forming the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. This Party gave her a platform to speak out against these injustices at the Democratic National Convention in 1964. In fact, it wasn’t until 1965 that President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Acts Right, seeking to rid legal barriers that prevented African Americans from voting. Prior to this act, African American’s were subject to  literacy tests, poll taxes, and other barriers to voting which lead to few even being registered to vote. The Civil Rights Act gave all black women the right to finally have their voice heard in politics.

Progressing forward, women of color have continued to make their mark in political history. In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the country’s first black congresswoman, the first black woman to run for president, and later a co-founder of the Congressional Black Caucus. The CBC created a platform for African Americans to have a strong voice. Despite the growing influence of women and African Americans in Congress,  Congress in 2015 consisted of only 19.3% women, 18 of whom were black. Furthermore,  twelve states have never had a female member of Congress. Though there is, and always has been, an underrepresentation of women in politics, voting has provided another way for women of color to make their voices heard.   

Women Rock the Vote – The 2000’s

Throughout the early 2000’s black women have made their voices heard at the polls, mainly supporting  Democrats. In Georgia, for example, African American women have historically turned out higher than other demographic groups. During Mississippi’s primary in 2016, black women made up 47% of the entire Democratic electorate and, of these voters, 90% cast their ballots for Hillary  Clinton. In both the 2008 and 2012 elections, women of color voted at a higher rate than any other demographic group. In the 2012 election of Obama, black women voted overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party, with 96% casting votes for Obama nationwide. Following a similar pattern in 2016, Hillary received 92% of black women’s votes.

These voting trends shine a major light on the types of issues that are important to black women politically.  At the most recent Democratic National Convention, black women expressed a continued fight for issues that were important to them such as criminal justice, racial profiling, policing, for-profit prisons, and the effects of mandatory minimum sentences on the black community.

Despite a rocky past with the Clintons (keeping in mind Bill Clinton’s Crime Bill), these interviews display a variety of reasons why black women continuously vote for Democrats. Alencia Johnson, director of constituency communities for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund discussed the historical barriers for black women’s access to contraception, sex education, and breast cancer screenings. The ideals of overturning Supreme Court precedents like Roe v. Wade in this past election motivated her to gather a team to take to the DNC to gain supporters, exemplifying the fact that black women are still fighting for their equality as both women and African Americans. This brings us full circle to the idea of double jeopardy, the main reason why black women have and will continue to fight for political involvement and make their voices heard.

Women of Color SPEAK!

Historically, the voices of black women have always mattered, and today they do so more than ever. I end this piece with a collection of voices of my fellow women of color.  Posing the question “What do see as your role in this new Presidential Era?” I want to let women speak their truths and let their voices shine!

  • “My role is to resist—to resist the laws and mindsets that seek to silence our voices. I’m not sure what form this resistance will manifest as, but complacency is not an option.” – Toni, First Year MPA
  • “My goal more than ever is to create and uplift policies and programs that promote racial equity and inclusion. Too many young people with intersecting identities are feeling the weight and burden of policies not made for them or by them. Now is the time to put them in the forefront of our strategies for change as they will be the first forgotten with the incoming administration.” – Sophia, First Year MPP
  • “To be quite honest, I see my role in this new presidential administration as one of observation. Not necessarily quiet observation, but I plan to merely watch things play out. I think that black women have long been the voice of rational and common sense regarding the issues in society. We don’t often get credit for our hard fight, but this time, at least for this black young women, I’m tired. I feel as if a lot of white women voted for Trump and helped elect him and this administration, over a very intelligent and capable (though flawed) woman politician. I’ve heard dozens of reasons white women voted for Trump, but I’m not really buying any of it. I’ve been to enough rallies, and shouted enough slogans. The women’s march on Washington initially didn’t even include black women’s input until we complained. White women are going to have to fight this battle themselves.” – Hope, Pathways Intern
  • “As someone who grew up in a very politically active family, I understand my role in this new Presidential administration is to stand firm in the mission of progress. My sole purpose in coming to GWU to study Public Policy, more specifically Social Policy, was not with a President in mind, but with the progression of minorities in mind. As a black woman, raised and mentored by other strong black women, I understood early that when the odds are stacked, you prevail. It would be a disservice to them and the future black girls I hope to raise one day, if I abandoned that ideal. In short, though Donald Trump represents divisiveness, contention, and for many, fear, my role is to continue my personal journey of progress; a path that was paved long before the 306 electors cast ballots for him.” – Miranda, Director of Operations for a local non-profit
  • “As a black woman, it’s tough for me to accept our new president. This presidential era is a personification of the ugly truths of America, but every cloud has a silver lining. Now that we all have a common enemy, this is the opportune time to challenge the status quo. During this presidential era, my role is to have important conversations surrounding African-American and global issues to those of a different background. This way, we can begin to understand one another and to start working for the greater good.” – Kela,  Bachelor of Arts in Integrated Strategic Communications
  • “As a black woman, I believe my role is to ensure inclusivity in the movement for justice and equality. We need to broaden our definition of freedom to include those with multiple points of intersectionality. When Black Trans women are free, then we’re all free.” – Kathy, First Year MPP

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