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Ideas | Julie Scelfo

Will black women save us . . . again?

Hanna Barczyk for the Boston Globe


ITH 20 CANDIDATES vying for the 2020 presidential nomination, including the freshly declared former Vice President Joe Biden, Democrats now need to determine which one can unseat the current White House occupant, who is still supported by members of his party despite damning conclusions in the Mueller Report. But if Democrats are hoping that one of these contenders will emerge as a singular hero capable of slaying right-wing populism, they’re looking in the wrong direction.

The people who will matter most in the next election won’t be the candidates, but rather the country’s 23 million black women. They are the heart and soul of the Democratic party and any politician of any complexion who ignores their power does so at his or her own peril.


While strategists have historically relegated black female voters to an afterthought (after the male political establishment, after wealthy white donors and the predominantly white-run news media), they’re now recognizing that black women are not only an important voting bloc, but the primary bulwark against a second unhinged, Twitter-addicted presidency. Black women may also reenergize the Democrats’ historically broad, robust, and populist agenda.

There’s nothing new about black women’s ability to mobilize and vote in winners; what’s changed is the widespread recognition of their power. Decades after Oprah established herself as the most influential TV star in American history, “black girl magic” now exudes not only from Hollywood but also from fashion magazines, Olympic stadiums, judicial benches, tennis courts, podcasts, NASA, and even Buckingham palace. Who’s currently the most admired woman in America? Michelle Obama, according to Gallup’s longtime annual survey.

And last year, in what was widely deemed not a blue wave but a blue tsunami, #blackgirlmagic translated to real political power. Women of color not only ran for an array of offices in record numbers but they, along with the candidates they supported, got elected. In November, black women helped send 44 women of color to Congress, raising their total numbers serving in the US Capitol to the highest point ever. Massachusetts elected its first black female Congresswoman, Ayanna Pressley (chosen over a 10-term, white male incumbent), as did Connecticut, which elected political newcomer Jahana Hayes. Earlier this month, Chicago voters elected their first-ever black female mayor, Lori Lightfoot, after a run-off election against another black woman candidate, Toni Preckwinkle, increasing the total number of black women mayors who lead major cities to 13.


THERE ARE COUNTLESS takeaways from all this winning. Among the most unexpected: the sexism that has held back so many white female candidates for so long does not seem to affect black women in exactly the same way. Whereas impassioned white women are routinely dismissed as unlikeable, shrill, or angry, black women are deemed effective. The former can be seen as selfish (why can’t she just stay home and let the men do the work?), while the latter is considered noble (she takes on the weight of the world, on top of her job, familial, and community obligations).

Assertive black women may also be more palatable as candidates because Americans (rather perversely) have grown accustomed to seeing black women fighting difficult battles, multitasking on a superhuman scale, and assuming strong roles in black society. Celinda Lake, a longtime DNC strategist, conducted research on perceptions of candidates and found that voters consider “strong” women who are black as more likable than their white counterparts. “It’s wild,” she said. “I was really stunned by this effect when I first found it.”


This distinction is new: Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, a management and organization scholar at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, discovered around 2012 that research on the so-called double-bind dilemma for women in leadership (that gender bias renders authoritative women less likable) lacked an intersectional analysis. She and her co-authors have since published multiple peer-reviewed papers on the topic. “In general, society has presumed that when women act dominant, it’s negative for them,” she says. “But that’s only for a subgroup of women, and that would be white women.”

Even so, black women continue to face discrimination aimed directly at them. It’s such a phenomenon that Moya Bailey, a scholar at Northeastern University, even has a word for anti-black racist misogyny: misogynoir. “To me,” she says, “the way people have talked about Maxine Waters, for example, has to do with the ways black women are targeted in ways other people are not.”

IN SPITE OF — or perhaps because of — their battle-hardened history, black women are expert influencers who boast impressive voter turnout rates, especially in primaries, and social media savvy. They also have significant economic power (in the US, African Americans spend an estimated $1.5 trillion annually, according to Nielsen).

Yet the biggest factor contributing to black women’s rise may be the disruption of the old boy network that once determined political success. Thanks in no small part to social media, formerly marginalized issues — from #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo — as well as other issues women care about — unequal pay, healthcare, and criminal justice reform — have been pushed straight to the top of the national conversation. (Of course, social media has also elevated white supremacy, toxic nationalism, and international subterfuge, but more on that later.)


Further proof that old boy networks are losing influence, at least in the Democratic party, is the unprecedented number of women who ran for office, as outsiders, and won last year. Congresswomen like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Deb Haaland, and Lauren Underwood proved that scrappy candidates could come roaring in without much infrastructure or financial support, by deftly using online networks to build large, effective multiracial coalitions.

What’s more, black women benefit from strong real-life social and professional networks that African-Americans have steadily built up over the last century — from civil rights organizations to historically black colleges and universities; the “Divine Nine”; The Links, Incorporated; and Jack and Jill of America. (White people primer: the Divine Nine refers to Pan-Hellenic black fraternities and sororities; The Links is a 73 year-old national professional women’s group; and Jack and Jill, founded during the Great Depression to allow black children to connect in predominately-white suburbs, is like a black bougie cross between the Junior League and scouting. Together, they represent multi-millions of people.)

AS IF TO confirm the political threat of people of color, Republican leaders are scrambling to enact laws designed to keep black women and their communities from voting in November 2020. (For more, see Michael Cohen’s column on K2.) Republican lawmakers in Tennessee and Texas have introduced bills that would create new penalties for voter registration groups or individuals who submit incomplete or improperly filled out forms. GOP lawmakers in Arizona have proposed new voting rules that could make it more complicated to cast an early ballot.


Proponents defend these bills as efforts to keep the voting process “secure.” But as the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law makes clear, voter fraud is “vanishingly rare” and there is a long history of similar attempts to “guard the integrity of our elections” or increase “ballot security” that were ultimately deemed by courts as attempts to illegally discriminate and intimidate.

Republicans have watched with trepidation as women of color, unlike their white counterparts, get in formation when truly pernicious candidates look like they might win. Alabama Senator Doug Jones may not have been African-American women’s ideal choice, says Wendy Smooth, an expert on the impact of race and gender in electoral politics at The Ohio State University. But when faced with electing him or an accused child molester who had twice been removed from the bench, they turned out in droves, comprising 29 percent of the electorate in that election. “African-American women are very well-skilled in not having perfect, or ideal choices,” said Smooth. “Across election cycles we can see the demonstrated sophistication of black women voters as extraordinarily pragmatic.”

So what does all this mean for the crowded field of Democrat candidates?

Exhausted by years of choosing between bad and worse candidates, black women are leveraging their (now acknowledged) power to insure that their concerns land front and center this campaign season. They’re forcing presidential hopefuls to recognize that black women vote on issues that directly relate to lived experience. The wage gap? Higher rates of disease and death? More college debt? Lower income and savings? “These are the politics of a black woman’s identity,” Donna F. Edwards, a former Democratic congresswoman who was the first-ever African-American woman to represent Maryland, wrote recently in a Washington Post column. (Its title? “The 2020 election will be decided in my hair salon.”)

On Wednesday, eight presidential candidates traveled to Houston to address the first ever “She the People Presidential Forum,” an event engineered to sharpen national discourse on issues of racial, economic, gender, and social justice. Held in the same place where the historic National Women’s Conference convened in 1977 (and where the term “women of color” was coined), speakers included Senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Bernie Sanders, along with Representative Tulsi Gabbard, former Representative Beto O’Rourke, and former housing secretary Julián Castro.

While Senator Harris, as a woman of color, was greeted enthusiastically, only Senator Warren received a standing ovation for her remarks, impressing the audience with the care and detail of her responses and a heartfelt acknowledgment of how the issues connect personally to the audience.

And what would it mean, come election day, if the Democrats’ nominee fails to similarly address black women’s concerns? They are unlikely to defect, acknowledges Smooth. But many could stay home — the same decision that contributed to the Democrats’ presidential loss in 2016.

IN SPITE OF last year’s election wins, significant hurdles remain for female candidates, especially women of color. Democratic pollster Lake, who has been closely following elections since 1986, notes with annoyance that media bias continues. “We talk about a 37-year-old mayor of a city of 100,000 as if he’s just assumed to be viable. But we have a woman of color who is a senator and a former attorney general of a multi-million person state and she has to prove her viability?” Lake asks rhetorically, referring to Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend Indiana (who appeared on the cover of New York magazine this week), and California Senator Kamala Harris (who is still waiting for her glossy cover).

Contrasting Beto O’Rourke, who is featured on this month’s cover of Vanity Fair, with Senator Warren, who on Monday published a highly detailed proposal for universal free public college and cancellation of student loan debt, she says, “We have a guy who loses a Senate race in Texas and is automatically considered viable, and a woman who came from 17 points behind to 8 points ahead in Massachusetts and she has to prove her viability? There really is a stereotype here that’s getting fed.”

Ayanna Pressley celebrates her win in November.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Nate Silver, the statistician who runs FiveThirtyEight, said he, too, believes women candidates are more easily stereotyped by voters and the press, and that while there is “legitimate” negative coverage of female candidates, “it just does seem with women candidates in general that negative stories tend to stick a little bit more and make up a larger proportion of the coverage.”

Between imperfect media coverage, gerrymandering, and the infiltration of Russian bots on Facebook, achieving any type of fair election result is challenging. Says Northeastern’s Bailey, “I still have a lot of skepticism about what needs to happen to make it a truly democratic process.”

BUT HERE’S THE good news: By demanding that candidates address issues that they care about, black women are helping the Democratic Party rediscover its voice. Let’s review once again precisely what black women hold dear: equal pay, worker’s rights, education funding, and access to affordable healthcare.

In another era, these issues would have rallied a completely different demographic: white middle-class men. Once the core of the Democratic party, these men felt abandoned by the party’s centrist position and instead turned to the GOP’s anti-immigrant, anti-labor, misogynistic siren song.

By leaning in to black women’s concerns, Democrats are actually returning to their party’s pro-labor, pro-social safety net, pro-infrastructure roots.

And by addressing these issues, DNC leaders may help offset the longstanding racism and sexism of white women who, despite earning just 79 percent of what white men earn for full time work, despite being more likely to live and retire in poverty, and despite facing exhaustively documented gender-based violence and murder, have voted to support the Republican Party presidential candidate in every election since 1952, with just two exceptions, according to a data analysis by University of Southern California political scientist Jane Junn.

After all, the agenda dear to black women has never been about diminishing other groups, but advancing a democratic vision of opportunity. “Black women, as the most progressive voters in the country . . . have a justice agenda,” explains Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People. “They are broadly creating a country where everyone belongs and has opportunity.”

It’s also important to recognize that black women, like any group, are not monolithic. Young black women, for example, are keenly interested in criminal justic reform.

The black female savior narrative is old and heartbreakingly familiar. As Lisa Anderson, vice president for Embodied Justice Leadership at Auburn Seminary and founding director of The Sojourner Truth Leadership Circle has written, “It is neither liberating nor loving to characterize the Black women who do this work as ‘saviors,’ ‘fixers,’ or as endowed with some kind of exceptional spiritual power that makes them especially well suited for the hard and sometimes life-threatening work the struggle for justice requires.”

Ms. Anderson 100 percent right.

But for right now, that’s all we’ve got.

Julie Scelfo is a journalist who writes about human behavior and the author of The Women Who Made New York. She can be reached at

Due to a reporting error, a story in the Ideas section on Sunday about black female voters misstated the number of women of color elected to Congress in November. That number is 44.