Will 2016 be the Year #BlackWomenLead on the Ballot?

By Glynda Carr and Kimberly Peeler-Allen
Co-Founders, Higher Heights

As America ponders if we are “ready” for a woman president, 2016 provides a unique opportunity to harness women’s political and economic power to elevate women’s voices in important debates and impact this election in a significant way, including supporting and electing more women.

Hillary Clinton’s candidacies represent the possibilities that exist for women’s leadership as she seeks to crack the ultimate glass ceiling. What remains to be seen, though, is whether or not her historic race will help to create the momentum needed to elect more women in down ballot races across the country.

According to Center for American Women and Politics’ 2016 Women Candidates List, four Black women running for open U.S. Senate seats, including Maryland Rep. Donna Edwards, California Attorney General Kamala Harris, Pam Keith in Florida, and Andrea Zopp who lost her bid in Illinois’ March 15th primary[1].

Although the 114th Congress has the largest number of Black women serving ever in the U.S. House of Representatives, there are ZERO Black women in the U.S. Senate. Carol Moseley Braun made history in 1992 when she was elected the first and only Black woman to ever serve in the Senate until she left office in 1999.

That year, Braun was elected to the U.S. Senate with three other women, and 24 women were elected to the U.S. House. That Class of 1992 represents the largest one-cycle gain for women in Congress to date, a cycle acknowledged by most as the “year of the women.” Twenty-one years later, women hit another milestone on the road to reaching parity when a record 20 women served in the U.S. Senate.

Black women’s congressional representation tripled in 1992 (from 3 to 9 members). Moreover, the increase in Black women candidates and elected officials is a relatively recent phenomenon, with much of the gains occurring over the past four decades. In fact, the largest number of Black women ran for public office at the statewide and federal levels in 2014. In addition to the gains in Congress – where four new Black women representatives were elected, there are a total of 259 Black women state legislators in 2016, up from 242 at the end of 2014.

blackwomencongress-1024x311.jpg

Although the recent gains are encouraging, Black women are still seriously underrepresented in American politics and even in the pipeline towards elected office. The number of Black women elected to statewide office – only three – did not expand this past November, and Black women are still only 4.1% of all members of the House in 2015 (up from 3.2% in 2014), despite being nearly 7% of the population. Still, the 2014 midterm elections provided a glimpse of Black women’s political imprint and their potential.

With the increase of women running for office, particularly Black women, 2016 is shaping up to be a record-breaking, history-making election cycle at all levels. One could even argue that the women running for U.S. Senate and other down ballot races across the country could provide the momentum to catapult a woman into the White House.

*A version of this article was originally posted on May 7, 2015 at Presidential Gender Watch 2016