“More Black Women Run for Office, but Prospects Fade the Higher They Go”


As Representative Barbara Lee hits the campaign trail for a Senate seat in California, significant hurdles await her. The race is expected to be one of the most competitive, and expensive, in the country. Even more daunting, she will face one of the strongest glass ceilings in American politics.

When Ms. Lee, 76, was first elected to Congress in 1998, the House had 11 Black women in office, and only one Black woman served in the Senate. With the swearing-in of Jennifer McClellan as the first Black woman to represent Virginia on Tuesday, the House now has 28 Black women in its ranks, a new high-water mark, but the Senate has none.

“It blows my mind that in 2023, I am a first,” Ms. McClellan said in an interview Tuesday. “Frankly, it is this imagination gap that people have had for a very long time — that because they haven’t seen a Black woman in these offices, they can’t imagine it.”

Over the past decade, Black women have made tremendous gains: Kamala Harris broke barriers as the nation’s first Black, Asian American and female vice president. More Black women are leading major cities, and many more have sought Senate seats and governorships.

But winning those offices still poses familiar and enduring challenges for women of color, and Black women in particular. Many confront both blatant racism and sexism, along with subtler forms of racial and gender bias that, candidates and political advocates said, make it more difficult for them to raise money to pay for the costly work of hiring staff and buying advertising in expensive markets.

The numbers are stark: Only two Black women have served in the Senate in its 233-year history — Ms. Harris, who was elected in 2016 in California, and Carol Moseley Braun, the Illinois Democrat who served one term in the 1990s.

Out of 64 Black women who have run for the Senate since 2010, only eight have secured major-party nominations. No Black woman has ever been elected governor and, out of the 22 who have run for the position since 2010, only four have become major-party nominees, according to data compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. All of the nominees have been Democrats.

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