Since the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 – the document that expresses the want, will, and hopes of the people – the country’s political system has reflected a disproportionately low number of women. Black females are even scarcer. However, some black women have been trailblazers in the political arena, shaping history and leaving a legacy that cannot be erased.
Patricia Roberts Harris
Patricia Roberts Harris broke several racial and gender barriers throughout her distinguished political career. In 1965, she became the first black female ambassador when President Lyndon Johnson appointed her as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. Two years later, she returned to her alma mater, Howard University, where she became the law school dean, making her the first black female law school dean in the country. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter appointed Harris to serve in his cabinet as secretary of housing and urban development. She was the first black female in a presidential cabinet.
Constance Baker Motley
Constance Baker Motley also accomplished a staggering number of “firsts.” In 1944, she was the first black woman to be accepted at Columbia Law School. In 1948, Motley joined the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. In 1954, she was the only female on the legal team that challenged Brown v. Board of Education, and in 1962, Motley was lead counsel in James Meredith’s battle to gain admission to the University of Mississippi. In 1964, she was the first black female elected to the New York State Senate. In 1966, Motley became the first black woman appointed to the federal bench when President Lyndon Johnson appointed her to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.
After serving four years in the New York State Assembly, Shirley Chisholm ran successfully for Congress in 1968, becoming the first black woman elected to Congress. Her campaign slogan was “unbought and unbossed.” In 1969, as a member of the House of Representatives, she was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. In 1972, Chisholm was the first black woman in a major party (Democratic) to run for President of the United States.
Susan Rice began her political career in 1988 as a foreign policy aide to Michael Dukakis during the presidential election. During the Clinton administration, she was appointed to the National Security Council in 1993, and also served as Director for International Organizations and Peacekeeping. In 1995, Rice became special assistant to the President and senior director for African Affairs. In 2009, President Obama appointed her the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Rice is the second youngest person and the first black woman to serve in this position.
In 1966, Barbara Jordan became the first black female member of congress from the Deep South and the first woman elected to the Texas Senate. She was also the first black woman to serve as president pro tem of the state senate. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson invited her to the White House for a preview of his civil rights speech. In 1972, Jordan served one day as the acting governor of Texas. In 1976, she gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. The speech is ranked 5th on the list of the “Top 100 American Speeches of the 20th Century.”
Carol Moseley Braun
In 1993, Carol Moseley Braun was elected as an Illinois senator. With this election, Braun accomplished a trifecta by becoming the first black woman elected to the senate, the first black senator elected as a Democrat, and the first woman from Illinois elected to the U.S. Senate. She was also the first woman to serve on the Judiciary Committee and the Senate Finance Committee. In 1999, President Bill Clinton appointed her as U.S. ambassador to New Zealand and Samoa.
In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed Condoleeza Rice to serve as the head of the National Security Council, making her the first woman to hold this position. In 2005, Bush appointed her secretary of state, the first black woman to serve in this capacity. In 1993, prior to Rice’s presidential appointments, she was the first woman and the first black to serve as a Stanford University provost.