Standing at the Crossroads

By Smooth, Wendy G. | The Crisis, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Standing at the Crossroads

Smooth, Wendy G., The Crisis

It's time to offer real support to Black women candidates.

African American women as political actors stand at the crossroads of two politically marginalized groups - African Americans and women. Being situated at the intersection of these two groups has historically meant limited access to citizenship and exclusion from "we the people." However, African American women's access to both women's and African American communities may make them the future of Black political representation.

As slaves, African American women and men were regarded as only three-fifths of a human being at the writing of the U.S. Constitution. African American women would later move from this marginal recognition under the Constitution to complete exclusion from constitutional protections with regards to the right to vote, as political scientist Mamie Locke points out. Following the Civil War, the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870 extended the right to vote to Black men only. Nineteenth-century African American female activists, including Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell and Anna Julia Cooper, agitated for the inclusion of African American women's suffrage, to no avail. And later, when women earned the right to vote in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, large numbers of African American women remained restricted through literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and allWhite primaries. It was not until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that African American women secured the right to freely vote.

Despite the formidable barriers to their political participation as voters and candidates, African American women consistently engaged in politics, establishing a long tradition of civic engagement and community organizing. They have been central to every effort toward greater political empowerment for both African Americans and women. As historian Paula Giddings attests in her seminal book, Wlien and Wliere I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, African American women were the linchpin in struggles against racism and sexism because they understood that the fates of women's rights and Black rights were inextricably linked and that one would be meaningless without the other. Once they gained access to the voting booth, African American women quickly translated the skills they learned in protest politics to the formal politics arena, seeking political office from the presidency to the school board.

The Racism and Sexism of the "Non-viable" Label

It has now been 45 years since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and African American women have become critical participants in electoral politics at every level. At least six African American women have appeared on general election ballots for president. Beginning in 1968 with Charlene Mitchell running as the Communist Party's presidential candidate through former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney's 2008 presidential run as the Green Party's candidate. African American women have pushed beyond the boundaries of the two major political parties to challenge the status quo. Former New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm in 1972 and Carol Moseley Braun in 2004 pushed for political inclusion within the Democratic Party structure by running hard-fought campaigns for their party's presidential nomination.

African American women were labeled as "non-viable" candidates from the onset in all of these campaigns. Certainly for the majority who ran as third-party candidates, the non-viable label was due in part to their party affiliations. However, traditional understandings of politics as a man's game and presidential politics understood as a White man's game (until 2008) meant African American women had to struggle to be taken seriously as presidential candidates.

Though Chisholm's candidacy took place after the Civil Rights Movement and during the height of the second wave of the women's movement, she endured relentless racism and sexism throughout her campaign from voters and fellow political leaders. …

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