Record number of Black women elected to Congress in 2020

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A record number of Black women have won election to Congress this year, building upon the historic strides seen during the midterm election two years ago.

Results from last week’s elections show at least 26 Black women won election or reelection to Congress, an incremental jump from the record previously set during 2018, when 25 Black women were elected to serve on Capitol Hill. 

The new figure includes 25 representatives who were elected to a full term. Washington, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton (D) also won reelection; and unofficial results show Virgin Islands Del. Stacey Plaskett (D) with a sizable lead over her opponent, Shekema George (I).

All the women in question are Democrats, helping the party retain its majority in the House for the 117th Congress.

The new record adds to a growing list of historic gains made by Black women running for office this year. 

{mosads}More than 120 Black women filed to run for Congress in 2020, according to figures released during the summer by the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University, which tracks female political participation. That figure was the highest for the demographic in history.

Another high-water mark also came into view last month when CAWP found that more than 60 Black women won their primary races.

One of those candidates was Rep.-elect Marilyn Strickland (D-Wash.), who was previously the first African American woman to serve as mayor of Tacoma, Wash., and, last week, was elected representative of the state’s 10th District. Strickland is both the first African American to represent Washington in Congress and the first Korean American woman to be elected to Congress.   

Strickland had served as mayor for two terms before she said she was forced out by term limits at the end of 2017, after which time she began working at the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. Strickland said that she didn’t expect to run for office again, but that changed after Rep. Denny Heck (D-Wash.) announced last year that he was retiring. 

She said in an interview with The Hill that she felt she had a duty to run to push ahead “for all the work that came before me and the people whose shoulders I stand on.”

“I remind folks of my family story where my father, a young African American man, joined the Army,” Strickland said. “The Army was segregated at the time that he joined it. He fought in two wars. He loved a country that didn’t always love him back, and so I think about the struggles that he has had and just the people who came before me — the trailblazers who served in office when it was very unusual to see African Americans in office and really paved the way.”

Strickland said she thinks the gains show the electorate in the U.S. is changing, pointing to both congressional races and the nomination of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, a senator from California, as the first Black woman on a major-party ticket.

“The social political and economic systems in which we operate have not always welcomed us into positions of power and influence and that is starting to change,” Strickland said. 

“I think people are more open-minded to it,” she continued. “But it’s still a lot of work and for a lot of people, there’s still cognitive dissonance when they imagine us in the halls of Congress and sometimes can think that local government is as far as we can go.” 

According to the 2019 Black Women in American Politics report by CAWP and the Higher Heights Leadership Fund, a 501(c)(3) organization that works to expand support for Black women’s political leadership in the country, Black women remain underrepresented in elected office around the country. 

The report found that Black women make up less than 5 percent of candidates elected to statewide executive offices, Congress and state legislatures in the country, despite making up roughly 7.6 percent of the U.S. population.

Glynda Carr, founder and CEO of Higher Heights for America, a 501(c)(4) and sister organization of the Higher Heights Leadership Fund, told The Hill that the record gains seen this year underscore the growing political participation of Black women as both voters and candidates in the country.

But she also tied the historic strides, which come about half a century after former Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) became the first Black women elected to Congress, to research from her organization and CAWP highlighting what she referred to as the “role-modeling effect.”

Carr said more Black women are inspired to run for office when they “see more Black women running, winning and leading.”

This year’s gains in particular, Carr said, showed the “role-modeling effect” of the election of “the Freshman Five” in 2018 — when Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) and Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.) were first elected during the midterms — as well as Stacey Abrams’s historic gubernatorial campaign in Georgia that same year.

Strickland spoke to a similar point in her interview, saying “every time something happens you build upon the success.”

“So, in 2018, you had a record number of women then, and it made a lot of other women say in 2020, ‘You know what, I could actually do this,’ ” she said, adding: “I think that seeing yourself represented when you look back on 2018 gives you confidence.”

“At the end of the day,” Carr said, “Black women believe that they have the lived experiences and qualifications to lead in this moment.”

It’s those unique experiences that Rep.-elect Nikema Williams, the Georgia state senator who was selected by the state’s Democratic Party earlier this year to run for late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis’s (D) seat, which she won last week, said she plans to take to Congress.

Williams, who was the first Black woman to chair the state’s Democratic Party and was one of more than 130 people who applied to be the nominee earlier this year, said she had “every intention” of going back to the Georgia state Legislature after winning the primary for her seat in June.

But when the opportunity arose to run to represent Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, Williams, who also said she shared a close relationship with the late congressman, said she began to look at the issues she had been fighting for on the state level, particularly health care and voting rights, and how they could be addressed on a national level. 

“We have some changes that we need to make across the board to make sure that our government works for all of us and having more women of color at the table, making sure that our voices are heard, is very critical,” she said.

Williams also said she’s encouraged by the large Black voter turnout Georgia has seen this year and that she thinks heightened racial tensions following nationwide protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans have had an impact on this election cycle.

“We are at a time when we can actually show up to vote at the same time that people are in the streets protesting, and so it wasn’t like this opportunity for people to sweep it under the rug and go away because the height of the protests in this country started like right at the height of our presidential election,” she said. “So, it’s the perfect opportunity where policy meets protest.”

“We’re living in some of the most politically toxic and racially divisive times and that is certainly fueling Black women in our communities to want to be the change they would want to see,” Carr added.

Carr said “the environment for us to have a record number of Black women to win on Tuesday night is fueled by the priorities of voters” and that Americans are voting to elect leaders “that can help us survive and thrive past COVID-19” and help lead the country’s “nationwide racial awakening.”

Carr pointed to Black, female candidates such as Cori Bush, a progressive Black Lives Matter activist who garnered national attention earlier this year when she defeated longtime Rep. Wm. Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) in a primary. 

Underwood, who is near the end of her first term in Congress and was declared winner of the election for Illinois’s 14th Congressional District after a tight race, said that, in a representative democracy like the U.S., citizens “need our representatives to have the lived experience of the American people.” 

She cited the Black Maternal Health Caucus, which she co-founded with Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) within months of being sworn into Congress last year, as well as legislation she introduced with Adams and Harris earlier this year that aimed to address the country’s Black maternal health crisis as examples of “when having excellent black women leaders matters.”

The legislative package included nine bills geared toward improving what the lawmakers called the “worst maternal death rates in the developed world,” and in particular racial disparities, pointing to data that showed Black women are “three to four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications.”

In her interview with The Hill, which took place ahead of the election, Underwood said she “didn’t have to explain to Representative Adams or Senator Harris that Black moms are dying.” 

“I didn’t have to convince them that this issue was worth their time and energy. They already knew,” she said. “They lived it and they fight fiercely because of it.”

Underwood said the caucus, which is bipartisan, has since grown to more than 100 members.

“With Robin Kelly, we passed the first Medicaid expansion since the ACA [Affordable Care Act], which passed a bipartisan vote and passed unanimously out the House in September,” she said, referring to the passage of Rep. Robin Kelly’s (D-Ill.) Helping MOMS Act, which aims to tackle the country’s maternal mortality crisis and was endorsed by the Black Mamas Matter Alliance and the Black Women’s Health Imperative, among other groups.

“I mean, this is like unheard of progress on an issue that hadn’t been getting attention because we’re here,” Underwood said, adding that she believes “when there are Black women and other people of color in a room, we see things differently.”

“We recognize different problems. We come up with different solutions. We form different coalitions. And I think that it takes all of us, our unique and diverse perspectives, to create the structural change that we need of the country,” she said.

Pressed about how the country can build upon the growing trend of Black women being elected to Congress ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, Underwood said that “as we look at winnable seats, we need to be supporting the best candidate in those communities.”

“It’s not always about money. Sometimes, it’s about help, getting them great staff, making sure they have an excellent campaign infrastructure, that you’re building that infrastructure early enough in the cycle so that you can get them momentum come the fall so they can actually win,” she said.

So many candidates, Underwood said, were “just hitting their stride” recently “and if the election were in two months, they would win, but they didn’t have the infrastructure in place early enough.” 

Tags 2020 2020 campaign 2020 election Alma Adams Ayanna Pressley Black women Century of the Woman Cori Bush Denny Heck Eleanor Holmes Norton Glynda Carr Ilhan Omar Jahana Hayes John Lewis Kamala Harris Lacy Clay Lauren Underwood Lucy McBath Marilyn Strickland Nikema Williams Randy Hultgren Robin Kelly Stacey Abrams Stacey Plaskett

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