12 Black Women In Politics Who Helped Pave The Way For Vice President Kamala Harris
You may not know them all, but you should.
January 20, 2021 at 4:54 pm
Kamala Harris is now officially the Vice President of the United States, the first woman and first Black American to ever hold this position.
Her historic accomplishment is in many ways the culmination of the work of many groundbreaking Black women who broke barriers in politics and society while fighting for equality and justice in this country.
The following images of 12 iconic women who paved the way for Harris were compiled by Getty Images Research Editor Leslie Stauffer in celebration of Harris' historic feat.
"In 2020, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment," Stauffer said in a statement sent to Blavity. "History taught us it was a liberation, but we know that women struggled for their rights in the decades before and have toiled in the decades since. Women of color have had an even greater fight, in many instances, which makes Harris' inauguration as Vice President feel like an even more well-earned, hard-fought victory. You might not know all of these women — but you should."
Here are 12 women who blazed the trail for the new vice president and for Black women throughout this nation.
1. Mary McLeod Bethune
Mary McLeod Bethune was born in South Carolina during Reconstruction to formerly enslaved her parents. From these humble beginnings, she grew up to become a pioneer in education, social activism and politics. Having graduated from a boarding school in North Carolina, Bethune valued the empowerment of education. She became a teacher in South Carolina, and later founded her own boarding school in Florida, which evolved into Bethune-Cookman University.
American educator and civil rights activist, Mary McLeod Bethune (1875 – 1955), at Daytona Beach, Florida./Gordon Parks/Getty Images
She was also an activist for Black Americans, women and especially Black women. She founded the National Council of Negro Women and also led organizations like the National Association for Colored Women. After working on the presidential campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Roosevelt appointed her to a position in the National Youth Administration and relied on her as an advisor; she helped organize FDR’s Black advisors into the informal “Black Cabinet.”
Her work in education, activism and politics made her one of the most influential Black women in American history, gaining her the title “First Lady of Negro America.” One of her many enduring legacies is the United Negro College Fund, which she co-founded in 1943.
2. Crystal Bird Fauset
Crystal Bird Fauset is perhaps best known as the first Black woman in America to be elected as a state legislator, chosen in 1938 to represent the majority-white 18th district of Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania legislature. This was only one among many ways in which Fauset made a political impact in her long career. In the 1920s, she gave hundreds of lectures and speeches on race relations through the American Friends Service Committee, an organization of the Quakers religious group.
A group of the prominent speakers who attended the Women's Centennial Congress at the Hotel Commodore. Crystal Bird Fauset pictured at top left/Bettmann/Getty Images
After a year in the Pennsylvania state legislature, she served as an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, part of his “Black Cabinet.” She also befriended First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who tapped her to formally advise on race relations through the Office of Civil Defense. Despite her close relationship with the Roosevelts, Fauset went on to join the Republican National Committee’s division of Negro Affairs.
3. Constance Baker Motley
Constance Baker Motley, a graduate of Columbia Law School, had a stellar two-decade career working for the NAACP, where she initially worked for future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. As a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, she argued ten cases before the Supreme Court and won nine of them. After leaving the NAACP, Motley enjoyed a stellar political and legal career that included a number of “firsts.”
New York….Close-ups of Mrs. Constance Baker Motley, former Manhattan Borough president, who was recently named by President Johnson to fill a vacancy on the Federal District Court in New York City./Bettmann/Getty Images
She was the first Black woman in the New York State Senate; the first woman and first Black person named Manhattan Borough President; and finally, the first Black woman appointed as a federal judge. One of the cases she decided as a federal judge affirmed the right of female reporters to enter male locker rooms just like their male peers. Motley’s legacy continues to be impactful to this day. Just this week, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund announced that an anonymous $40 million donation was being used to launch a scholarship program for civil rights lawyers; the new scholarship is named the Marshall-Motley Scholars Program, after Judge Motley and her mentor, Justice Marshall.
4. Coretta Scott King
Coretta Scott King is of course remembered as the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whom she met on a blind date in Boston where she was attending the New England Conservatory of Music and he was engaged in doctoral studies at Boston University. By the time she met her future husband, she had already joined the NAACP, and she would remain politically active throughout her life.
As Dr. King’s wife, she not only supported her husband at home but also dealt with powerful political figures, especially during the times her husband was detained for his activism. In 1960, she convinced then presidential candidate John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert to intervene when her husband was jailed under dangerous conditions in Atlanta. Five years later, when Dr. King was again jailed, this time in Selma, Alabama, Mrs. King had a cordial meeting with Malcolm X, with whom her husband had had an uneasy relationship.
Mrs. Coretta King, widow of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., acknowledges applause, as she prepares antiwar rally on the Ellipse across from the White House/Bettmann/Getty Images
After Dr. King’s assassination, Coretta continued the cause of Black freedom and became an activist for several other movements as well. She founded the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change and worked for years to get a federal holiday in honor of her late husband. Her activism branched out in many directions. In 1969, she led one of the largest protest marches in American history to oppose the Vietnam War. She was an outspoken opponent of South African apartheid; she and two of her and Kings’ children were arrested in 1985 for protesting outside the South African embassy.
She also publicly advocated for LGBTQ+ rights as early as the 1980s. She continued to express her anti-war stance, calling for an end to the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Despite her sometimes controversial stances, Scott King remained incredibly well-respected and maintained friendships with powerful figures – four U.S. Presidents and many surviving Civil Rights Movement leaders attended her funeral in 2006.
5. Fannie Lou Hamer
Growing up in segregated Mississippi, Fannie Lou Hamer, endured horrible racism throughout the earlier years of her life. As an adult, Hamer became involved in civil rights activism. In her forties, she became an activist for the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee and fought hard to register Black people – including herself – in Mississippi and across the South so that they could vote.
Mrs. Fannie Hamer, member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, was one of the exciting highlights of the National Democratic Convention./Bettmann/Getty Images
Hamer gained national prominence and made a significant historical splash in the year 1964. In that year alone, she co-founded the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the all-white Democratic Party of the state, which was later integrated; spoke at the Democratic National Convention; helped to organize the Freedom Summer, through which college students registered Black voters throughout the Deep South; and attempted to run for the Mississippi state legislature. Before dying in 1977, Hamer spent her later years working for the political and economic empowerment of Black people; she founded and operated the Freedom Farms Cooperative for Black farmers, sharecroppers and laborers.
6. Shirley Chisholm
Brooklynite Shirley Chisholm began her career as an educator before becoming active in New York Democratic political campaigns. She successfully ran for office herself in 1964, winning a seat in the New York state assembly. Four years later, she became the first Black woman elected to Congress after winning election in 1968; “fighting Shirley” became a strong advocate for women, racial justice, and ending the war in Vietnam.
Miami Beach, Florida. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, after losing her bid for Democratic presidential nomination, endorses Senator George McGovern as she speaks from podium at Democratic National Convention./Bettmann/Getty Images
In 1972, Chisholm entered the presidential race, becoming the first Black person to seek the presidential nomination from a major party. Her groundbreaking campaign, in the face of vicious racism and sexism aimed her way, set the stage for future runs by women and Black people.
7. Barbara Jordan
After graduating from Texas Southern University and Boston University School of Law, Texas native Barbara Jordan entered politics. In 1968, she became the first Black woman elected to the Texas Senate. From there, she won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1972, the first Black woman to represent a southern state in the U.S. Congress.
American congresswoman Barbara Jordan (1936 – 1996) from Texas, on the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing on the impeachment of President Richard Nixon, Washington D.C., July 1974./Keystone/Getty Images
In the House, she gave an impassioned speech in favor of impeaching Richard Nixon; the remarks are often regarded as among the great political speeches in U.S. history, and her words helped convince President Nixon to resign. After leaving Congress, Jordan championed immigration reform. President Bill Clinton awarded Jordan the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994, two years before her death.
8. Dr. Lenora Fulani
Dr. Lenora Fulani, a psychotherapist by training, is also a political pioneer who has been active in third party politics and organizing. She has run for president twice as an independent candidate for the New Alliance party; during her first run in 1988 she became the first woman and first Black person to appear on the ballot in all 50 states.
Dr. Lenora Fulani, co-founder of the All Stars Project, smiles March 31, 2003 at the All Star's Project Lincoln Center Gala: A New Generation of Leaders in New York City./Steven Henry/Getty Images
She has since supported a number of independent candidates and parties and remains politically active.
9. Condoleezza Rice
Condoleezza Rice did not let growing up in segregated Alabama stop her from going to the University of Denver and Notre Dame, earning multiple degrees including a Ph.D. in political science. After interning in the State Department during the Carter administration, Rice rose through the ranks of the diplomatic and national security infrastructure, serving in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush; her expertise in Russian language and politics were valuable to the U.S. government as it navigated the end of the Cold War.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaks during a news conference at the Department of State January 12, 2009 in Washington, DC./Alex Wong/Getty Images
During the 1990s, Rice left government for academia, serving as Provost of Stanford University from 1993 to 1999. She returned to government to serve in the administration of George W. Bush; she served as the first woman to be National Security Advisor, and then the first Black woman to be Secretary of State, being one of the key leaders of the country's foreign policy after the attacks of September 11. After the Bush administration, Dr. Rice returned to Stanford, where she now leads the Hoover Institute.
10. Eleanor Holmes Norton
Washington, D.C. native Eleanor Holmes Norton is best known for spending the past twenty years representing the District of Columbia in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Eleanor Holmes Norton, District of Columbia delegate to the House of Representatives, speaks during a press conference to mark the anniversary of the House passage of the 19th Amendment and women's right to vote, on Capitol Hill May 21, 2020 in Washington, DC./Drew Angerer/ Getty Images
Despite D.C. not having Congressional voting rights due to its non-statehood, Norton has been an extremely effective representative of her home, gaining political power and billions of federal dollars to Washington D.C. and its residents; she even engineered the first vote on D.C. statehood to the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. In light of this month’s attack on the U.S. Capitol, Norton has introduced legislation to create a 9/11 Commission-style investigation into the insurrection. Outside of D.C., Norton attended Antioch College in Ohio and earned Law and Masters degrees from Yale. In 1963, she participated in Freedom Summer, traveling with other college students to the deep south to register Black voters.
11. Karen Bass
Congresswoman Karen Bass, the current Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, has represented Californians in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2011. Prior to that, she became the first Black woman to serve as Speaker of a state legislature when she was chosen for this role in the California State Assembly in 2008.
Rep. Bass’ political career has been particularly impressive for a woman who first won elected office at age 51. Before then, she was busy working as a progressive community organizer and advocate in California, where she founded the Community Coalition to fight gang violence and the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles, and even in Cuba, where she worked as a young construction volunteer.
U.S. Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) speaks during day two of the Democratic National Convention at Time Warner Cable Arena on September 5, 2012 in Charlotte, North Carolina./Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
As Chair of the CBC and one of the people to make the shortlists to be Joe Biden’s
running mate in 2020 and to replace Harris in the Senate in 2021, Bass is one of he most influential politicians in Washington. Even so, she has remained true to her social justice roots in Congress. Last year, Rep. Bass introduced the "George Floyd Justice in Policing Act," which passed the House and awaits reviving under the new Biden administration.
12. Michelle Obama
“He was great, too, but she was better.”
That’s what Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree said of Barack and Michelle Obama, both of whom he taught during their respective law school days. Indeed, if one looked at their respective track records, Michelle Obama emerged as the early star: after graduating from Princeton and then Harvard Law, she became an associate at the Chicago law firm Sidney & Austin, Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago, and then Vice President for Community and External Affairs for the University of Chicago Hospitals. Of course, Mrs. Obama is best known for her role as First Lady.
U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama speaks onstage during Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit – Day 2 at The Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard on October 13, 2015 in Washington, DC./Paul Morigi/Getty Images
As such, she led a number of campaigns during her time in the aforementioned role. The most famous was the “Let's Move!” campaign that encouraged exercise and healthy eating in order to fight childhood obesity. Other campaigns she led as First Lady include Let Girls Learn, which backed education for girls around the world; Reach Higher, promoting post-secondary training and education and Joining Forces, a program supporting military personnel and veterans.
In 2014, Obama posted a picture of herself holding a sign with the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag, becoming perhaps the most high-profile person to promote the campaign to rescue hundreds of schoolgirls who had been kidnapped by the radical group Boko Haram in Nigeria. Obama’s 2016 speech at the Democratic National Convention emerged as one of the defining moments of that year’s political campaign – “when they go low, we go high.”
She also remains the most admired woman in America for the past three years. First Lady Obama has stated that she will never run for public office herself, even though she is constantly approached about doing so. In the words of Prof. Ogletree, “she could easily be president, but I don’t think she will."
The aforementioned 12 women all worked to make the country more just and more equal for Black women and for all Americans. Their impacts are still felt in politics and society today. Vice President Harris will now carry on their legacy, breaking new barriers and paving new paths for Black women in this country to follow.