Although Kamala Harris made history as the first Black woman to be nominated as a vice presidential candidate on a major party ticket, she is part of an elite group of Black women who have worked towards the presidency, opposing society's usually confined expectations for women of their community.
Harris's swearing-in ceremony as vice president on January 20, 2021, placed her just a moment apart from the nation's most powerful office. Few women have come as close to obtaining such power within the American political realm, though many have tried. Her success follows in the footprints of other Black women who aspired for the presidency.
“Black women are alliance developers," says Glynda Carr, president and CEO of Higher Heights for America, a Black women's political advocacy group. "Frequently, you'll read in history about women or men or women of color who ran for office, and their candidacy may not have been viable, but they create a coalition of leaders, particularly women."
Since 1968, at least 11 Black Women have entered the running for the highest office in the nation. Here are five, who made a significant difference, fighting to evoke change on Capitol Hill.
Before Kamala Harris, there was Charlene Mitchell, who made history on July 4, 1968 when she was nominated as the presidential candidate by the Communist Party USA, becoming the first Black woman to be nominated for the country’s highest office by any political party. At just 38, Mitchell was nominated alongside Michael Zagarell, as her running mate.
Despite the party’s declining influence, Mitchell was a communist icon and respected organizer. Even though her campaign failed to beat the odds, her legacy remains, so that other women can.
With the slogan "unbought and unbossed," Chisholm ran for the presidency four years after Mitchell in 1972, becoming the the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for United States presidency from one of the two major political parties. She was already a history-maker, breaking barriers to become the first African American congresswoman in 1968, representing the 12th district of New York.
As a presidential candidate, Chisholm endeavored to support low-income families, women, and other marginalized groups. With a background in education, she further prioritized problems related to education and employment.
Although discrimination followed her on the campaign trail - she was blocked from participating in televised primary debates, and after taking legal action, was permitted to make just one speech - her campaign challenged the perspective America had on women in power, particularly Black women.
Chisholm's iconic presidential bid inspired neighborhood organizer and civil rights activist Margaret Wright to run as the People's Party candidate in 1976. With a background in factory work and education minister for the Black Panther Party, Wright was passionate about education reform, labor rights, and racial equality.
Her vice-presidential running mate, Benjamin Spock was a famous paediatrician, well known across the country, however, limited finances hampered their campaign efforts. They appeared in only six state ballots and received only 49,016 votes ( 0.06% of the total vote) on Election Day.
Educator Isabell Masters started ‘Looking Back’, her own political party, in order to run in the 1984, 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 presidential campaigns. Her five presidential campaigns are the most of any woman in US history. A woman of great tenacity, her final unsuccessful attempt in 2004 was at the age of 90.
Lenora Fulani is an American psychologist, psychotherapist and political activist. In the 1988 presidential election, she became the first woman and the first African American to appear on the ballot in all fifty states and received more votes for president in a U.S. general election than any other woman before her.
Considering the two-party system hostile to Black Americans, she became an independent candidate, stating: "My own involvement in third party politics was based on wanting to create a way out of being essentially held hostage to a two-party system that was not only hostile to [Black Americans] but hostile to the democratic participation of all the American people."
Following her unsuccessful bid, she helped launch an effort to create a multiracial, pro-reform, national political party. She has also been an advocate for structural political reform such as term limits, ballot access reform and same-day voter registration.
Although the stories of these Black women are not widely known, we have all felt and benefitted from their legacies. And despite their bids for the presidency being unsuccessful, they are among the many women presidential candidates who have “helped to put 18 million cracks” in “that highest, hardest glass ceiling.”
Their stories offer compelling evidence into the lives of Black women in the United States and how their encounters with racism, sexism, and economic inequality fundamentally shaped, and continues to shape politics.
Black women have been at the forefront of social justice movements in American history, utilizing politics as a medium of change. However, the knowledge of their impact and credit for evoking change is often overlooked in mainstream American history. The names of those before us must always be remembered as they paved the way for Kamala Harris and continue to blaze the trail for the generations of Black women to come.