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Black women see progress but still face challenges in being elected to office

Kelly Dittmar wrote a report analyzing the number of black women elected to public office, and found that few are elected in comparison to other demographics. – Photo by Kelly Dittmar

Voting and being voted into office are fundamental in a democracy, but for one demographic, benefitting from this process has taken some time.

More black women have run for office in the last several years than have traditionally, while the number of white women in Congress has stagnated recently, Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Rutgers—Camden, told The Washington Post.

Dittmar authored a report funded by the Politics for Higher Heights Leadership Fund that found that while women of color are elected into more public offices than in years past, they are not being elected into “statewide executive offices.”

“Increasing black women’s representation is not only a matter of democratic fairness, but essential to engaging new constituencies, elevating policy dialogue and promoting policy priorities, perspectives and solutions that may be lost if black women’s votes, voices and leadership are absent from American politics,” she said in the report.

Over the last several years, more black women have voted than men, and at times have outnumbered all other voting blocs, becoming “the most reliable democratic voters in the past two presidential elections,” according to the report.

Despite their high voting numbers, few black women are elected into office.

“Historically, only 35 black women from 15 states have ever served in the U.S. Congress, only 10 black women from nine states have ever served in statewide elected executive offices, and three states have still never elected a black woman to their state legislature,” according to the report.

Most of these women were elected after 1993, and they were largely responsible for the jump in black legislators overall.

While these numbers are low, they do indicate progress.

“Black women represent one-fifth of new democrats, nearly one-third of new women, and five of six new black members — including delegates — elected to the 114th Congress in Nov. 2014,” Dittmar said in the report.

This progress is not seen in statewide office, according to the Post. To date, only six black women have been elected to a state office, with two being appointed and two more running as lieutenants to white candidates.

It is possible this is because black women do not have the support other candidates do, according to the Post.

“Black women are less likely to be encouraged to run for office, and are more likely to be discouraged from running, than black men and white women,” Dittmar said in the report.

Nearly half of all Americans believe white women have greater opportunities “in work life, and politics” than black women and women of color in general, according to the report.

Another aspect of these elections are the voter demographics in districts black women are elected from, according to the report. Districts with a white majority elect white candidates, while districts that have a greater number of minorities are more likely to elect black candidates.

Gender and race stereotypes also play a role, according to the report.

“Women are ... evaluated differently than male candidates by voters and treated differently than men by media,” Dittmar said in the report. “Those challenges on the campaign trail are often exacerbated for women of color who face gender and race-based stereotypes.”

Black women still hold a large amount of power in elections, and future candidates will need to respect that to win their race, she said in the report.

“Increasing the numbers of women of color in office is not just a matter of democratic fairness and descriptive representation, but also has substantive effects on legislative policy and citizens’ political engagement,” she said.

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