In 1968, feminist titan Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress. Representing New York’s 12th Congressional District for seven terms, she inspired women everywhere to pursue front seats in politics, even when those seats were not readily offered. More than simply a Congresswoman, on January 25, 1972, she became the first major party black candidate for President of the United States and the first woman, ever, to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Before Jesse Jackson and Hillary Clinton, there was Shirley Chisholm, a black woman born to immigrant parents and the most unlikely of candidates to challenge the face of politics.
Almost four decades later, the reality of a black female president feels rather distant than near. In 1992, Carol Moseley Braun was the first and to date only black woman elected to the United States Senate, and the first and to date only female Senator from Illinois. While she made a bid for the Democratic nomination during the 2004 U.S. presidential election, she dropped out shortly after due to a lack in campaign funds, endorsing Democratic candidate Howard Dean. Since Braun’s retirement in 1999, there hasn’t been a black woman serving in the Senate for over a decade. Call it coincidental or evidence of the United States’ race relations, but black women are barely present at the top levels of American politics.
But there is hope as California celebrated the election of Attorney General Kamala Harris in 2010. Like President Obama, Harris stems from a bi-racial background, born of an Indian mother and Jamaican American father. Harris is the first female, African-American, and Asian-American elected to be Attorney General in California; she is the first Indian-American to be Attorney General in the United States. While Harris claims the various facets of her racial heritage, black women have embraced her as representative of our power and potential. A member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, graduate of Howard University, and young at 46, Harris has a great shot at pursuing a career in the Senate, House of Representatives, or higher levels of California’s state government, which hopefully will lead her to compete for candidacy within the Democratic Party for the U.S. presidential nomination.
Years ago, Shirley Chisholm said of her campaign to run for president, “I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people, and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history.”
While it is the expectation that Harris or any other black woman achieving the office of President of the United States will have to rule fairly and represent all Americans, there is something powerful in the story of someone non-white and female sitting in the highest office of one of the leading countries in the world. It speaks to the United States’ promise of equal opportunity that struggles to reach fulfillment, and provides hope to a generation of young brown women aspiring to a career in American politics.