When Ayanna Pressley heads to Congress in January, the newly elected Massachusetts representative will work from the same office that Shirley Chisholm once occupied decades ago. The symbolism is powerful: Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress 50 years ago, while Pressley is part of the incoming class of Black women who made history of their own in 2018.
The November midterm elections saw five new Black women nab seats in the House, according to Higher Heights for America and the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University. In 2019, that cohort will join the 20 Black women already in office including Representatives, non-voting Delegates, and a U.S. Senator. The Congressional Black Caucus will have 50 members, the largest number to date.
“It will be the largest group of Black women officials in Congress,” said Glynda Carr, who co-founded Higher Heights with Kimberly-Peeler Allen to help elect Black women nationwide. “It’s a pivotal moment.”
Others agreed. “Election night 2018 was definitely a historic night for women of color, with groundbreaking gains for African American women,” said Tonya J. Williams, director of strategic communications at EMILY’s List.
The organization, which works to elect pro-choice, Democratic women nationwide, endorsed Pressley, Jahana Hayes of Connecticut; Lucy McBath of Georgia and Lauren Underwood of Illinois, among many others. All became the first women of color to represent their respective states’ or Congressional districts.
Black women, Williams noted, also prevailed on the state and local level.
Juliana Stratton became the first African-American woman elected to serve as Lieutenant Governor in Illinois. Melanie Levesque is the first African American to be elected to the New Hampshire State Senate. Andrea Stewart-Cousins will lead the New York State Senate, the first African-American to do so. And Tish James will be the first African American attorney general in New York.
“Folks need to remember, if you want to win, follow Black women,” said Melanie Campbell, President/ CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation (NCBCP) and convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable (BWR). “We’re the secret sauce.”
Campbell recently welcomed Black women activists and organizers from around the country to the nation’s capital, to share election insight with members of the media.
Besides being a key, consistent voting bloc, Campbell touted the roles African American women played as power brokers, sometimes behind the scenes.
“Black women led highly successful national and state-based campaigns, raised money for Black voting campaigns, and recruited and trained Black women candidates that were a key part of shifting power in many congressional races and much more,” she said.
National organizations such as Democracy in Color, Color of Change PAC, The Collective PAC, and Black Voters Matter Fund, to name a few—utilized the leadership skills of African-American women this election cycle. So did churches, organized labor, civil rights groups, Black sororities, civic and social groups.
Black female celebrities were also election influencers. Oprah Winfrey door-knocked in Georgia for gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams. Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s “When We All Vote” initiative traveled the country. Stars like Janelle Monae, Yara Shahidi, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Kerry Washington used their social media platforms to rock the vote.
Did it work? According to the NAACP—which launched a civic engagement campaign called “The Demonstration Project,” there was record midterm election turnout among Black voters.
Early voting numbers among people of color showed a 77 percent increase among African American voters.
“2018 showed the power of a deeply engaged Black electorate,” said Adrianne Shropshire, Executive Director of BlackPAC, which works to harness Black political power.
BlackPac conducted post-election polling with revealing findings. Of the Black voters who surged to the polls this year, many were new to the process.
The poll showed 40 percent of Black midterm voters who cast ballots in 2018, did not vote in 2014. Moreover, Black voters accounted for as much as 27 percent of the Democratic electorate in some states this year.
Black voters surveyed highlighted their top issues: voting rights (79 percent); racism (70 percent); hate crimes (72 percent), and government corruption (77 percent), distinguishing them from White voters. All groups cited healthcare, Social Security/Medicare, and the economy as major issues.
Campbell said its team queried voters, too. The Unity ’18 Campaign 2018 Election Day Exit Poll received feedback from more than 1,800 voters, 79 percent of them, Black women.
Key issues included: affordable health care, criminal justice/policing reform, equal rights and fair pay, along with hate crimes/racism, jobs, and voting rights.
Protecting Medicare, Social Security, and the Affordable Care Act, also emerged as top policy priorities those surveyed want the 116th Congress and President Donald Trump to address.
“Black women are very pragmatic, systematic political decision-makers,” said Janice Mathis, Esq., Executive Director, National Council of Negro Women, who was part of the D.C. event.
While engagement ran high this election cycle, it wasn’t all good news for Black voters.
The NAACP, LDF, the Lawyers’ Committee and other groups filed lawsuits over alleged voter suppression tactics in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and other states. Complaints ran the gamut from long lines and excessive wait times to broken machines and names being purged en masse from voter rolls.
Abrams, a native Southerner who aimed to shatter glass ceilings as the first African-American woman governor in the nation, received millions of votes. Still, her Republican opponent is now in the governor’s mansion.
In a statement to ESSENCE, the lawyer and former Minority Leader described the election as “abject mismanagement” and “intentional erasure,” but praised Black women for standing with her.
“Their leadership both out in the community and within the campaign transformed the electorate, and they continue to power our fight for fair elections,” Abrams said. “Black women understand the pain of disenfranchisement and invisibility. …I will continue to honor their investment and build upon what we accomplished together.”
Sheila E. Isong, National Political Director of Civic Engagement at the NAACP, said there are lessons to take from the midterms.
“Cultivating Black women leadership is instrumental in creating a Black political infrastructure as Black women voters and elected officials have been historically ignored or erased,” she said. “Anyone who plans to compete for office in the next cycle will have to prioritize and invest in the power of the Black vote, with a special emphasis on Black women.”