In Illinois, 31-year-old Democrat Lauren Underwood pulled off a victory in a predominantly white and solidly Republican district, becoming one of the youngest black candidates elected to Congress. Ayanna Pressley, who defeated 10-term Democratic incumbent Rep. Michael Capuano in September and ran unopposed on Tuesday, will become Massachusetts’s first black woman to join Congress.
Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar will be America’s first Somali-American woman in Congress and along with Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress. Lucy McBath, a gun control advocate whose son was murdered in 2012, won in Georgia’s Sixth District, flipping a seat that had been in Republican hands for nearly four decades. And Jahana Hayes, a 2016 National Teacher of the Year, will be the first black woman to represent Connecticut in Congress.
These women’s victories in the 2018 midterm elections will make them part of the largest female congressional class in history next January — overall, more than 100 women will become members of Congress. And almost exactly 50 years to the day that Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) became the first black woman elected to Congress, the results of Election Day 2018 meant that the number of black women in Congress will climb above 20 for the first time in its history.
It’s a historic development, coming after a record number of black women ran for office. According to the crowdsourced Black Women in Politics database, at least 468 black women ran for political office in 2018. Higher Heights for America, a group that works to increase the number of black women running for office, notes that 40 black women were on congressional ballots in the midterm elections. Seventeen black women were candidates for statewide office.
This wave comes as Democrats, in particular, have been criticized for failing to treat black women as viable political candidates, and for failing to center the issues of black women voters, a crucial bloc in several recent elections.
“The electability question is no longer out there for black women candidates,” Higher Heights co-founder Kimberly Peeler-Allen said. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen so many competitive races in a midterm election, for Congress, for statewide office, in our nation’s history with black women as the leading candidates.”
It’s part of a bigger shift happening for black women, who have helped deliver victories to Democratic politicians in recent contests in Virginia, New Jersey, and Alabama. For much of 2018, and for years before that, black political candidates and strategists have stressed the need for black women, a group that has played a significant role in elections, to be better represented in political office. The number of black women who won in 2018, and the even greater number of black women who ran, shows that with the support of voters, black women are converting electoral power into political power.
The number of black women political offices across the country increased after the 2018 election
At the beginning of 2018, black women held just 3.7 percent of state legislative seats, 0.96 percent of statewide elected executive positions, and just five mayorships (six after the election of London Breed in San Francisco) in the US’s 100 largest cities. That’s according to an analysis from Higher Heights and the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Less than 20 seats in the House of Representatives were held by black women, while a single black woman, Kamala Harris (D-CA), serves in the Senate. Collectively, black women made up just 3.6 percent of Congress.
In the 2018 election cycle, a wave of women ran to change these numbers. According to Higher Heights, seven black women ran for Senate, although none won. When it comes to statewide elected offices seven black women ran for open seats, while another 10 challenged incumbents. Higher Heights notes that just three black women held statewide elected positions prior to the election and just 12 black women have ever held these positions in history.
Black women also made gains in these areas on Tuesday. Letitia “Tish” James became the first black woman, first woman, and first African American elected to the position of New York attorney general. Illinois House of Representatives member Juliana Stratton was elected lieutenant governor of Illinois. At the local level, a group of 19 black women dubbed the “Houston 19” all won election to judgeships in Harris County, Texas. Rachael Rollins became Massachusetts’s first black district attorney.
In Georgia, Democrat Stacey Abrams, perhaps the highest profile black woman running for office this year, competed to become the first black woman governor in the US. Abrams’s opponent Brian Kemp is narrowly leading Abrams in the still-undecided race, but Abrams has promised to stay in it, hoping that uncounted ballots can force the race into a runoff.
While Abrams’s campaign did not result in an outright victory on Election Day, her candidacy is historic, marking the first time that a black woman has been a major party’s gubernatorial nominee. Georgia in particular unleashed a wave of organizing among black women, many of whom have said that Abrams’s campaign has broken a barrier for black women interested in statewide office.
Black women candidates did not shy away from race and racial justice in their campaigns
The black women who won and ran in 2018 are significant not only for who they are, but also for how they ran their campaigns. At the congressional level, many of the black women on the ballot this year spoke about expanding access to health care and improving public education, but didn’t shy away from frank discussions of race.
By doing so, they were responding to the needs and concerns of black voters. Earlier this year, polls of black voters showed that the group is dealing with high levels of racial anxiety, and that they are looking for politicians capable of emphasizing issues like health care and the economy as well as racial justice.
Several of Tuesday’s victors emphasized this in their campaigns. Pressley, for example, told Jezebel in August that she was focusing on “economic inequality, the wealth and wage gap, structural racism, and gun violence,” while also criticizing her opponent for voting for a “Blue Lives Matter” bill. McBath, whose son Jordan Davis was shot and killed by a white man who fired into a car of teenagers after complaining about their music, made her fight for justice after her son’s death a central pillar of her campaign while also discussing the importance of health care.
Peeler-Allen of Higher Heights points to the successes of McBath and Underwood in Illinois as particularly significant wins, because these women campaigned in districts that were predominantly white but did not avoid discussions of race and racism. She says that their wins further dispel belief in political circles that black women aren’t viable candidates, or that their campaigns can only succeed when they run to represent nonwhite voters.
That reality could change how black women candidates are addressed by political parties, with women gaining more access to funding and campaign support in the earlier stages of their campaigns. And for black women witnessing the victories of 2018, Peeler-Allen says it will inspire more women to run for office in the future.
“After the energy around the races [in 2018] we will see many more black women stepping off the sidelines to run,” Peeler-Allen says. “They see that it is possible, it is doable, and that our representation matters.”