By Sofia Hay, Strategy & Policy Program Assistant
“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”– Rep. Shirley Chisholm
In 1968, Shirley Chisholm dragged her folding chair into the halls of Congress—as the first Black woman to ever sit and serve there.
This Black History Month, it’s important for us to not only celebrate the Black women like Chisholm who have made history, but also those who continue to change the course of it today.
“We are all collectively showing up because we’re so tired of waiting on people to do the right thing that we’re taking power into our own hands.”
– MN State Senator Zaynab Mohamed
Senators Zaynab Mohamed, Erin Maye Quade, and Clare Oumou Verbeten have taken power into their own hands as the first Black women to ever be elected to the Minnesota state Senate—with Senators Maye Quade and Oumou Verbeten also becoming the first LGBTQ+ women to serve there.
Together, these three women are already championing change in the legislature.
Alongside two other senators, they co-authored Minnesota’s recently passed CROWN Act, which bans racial discrimination based on hair style and texture. Senator Maye Quade was also an author of Minnesota’s brand-new PRO Act, which codifies protections for reproductive health care including abortion, contraception, fertility treatments, sterilization, and more.
California & Connecticut
Secretaries Shirley Weber of California and Stephanie Thomas of Connecticut will both go down in history as the first Black women to serve as secretary of state in their respective executive branches—and they’ve already proven their deep commitment to protecting our right to vote.
Although first appointed by the governor of California in 2020, voters reaffirmed Weber in the midterms after seeing her incredible campaign to expand voting rights. New to her state’s executive branch, Thomas’s priorities include implementing early voting in Connecticut—which has been shown to increase voter turnout among women—expanding access to the ballot, and supporting voter education.
“My hope is that everyday women and young people who look like me and see the incredible work of this office will feel less invisible, despairing, and lonely because there continues to be a shining example of what is possible.”
As the new attorney general for the state of Massachusetts—and the first Black woman to ever hold the role—Andrea Campbell is a shining example of what it looks like to defend and expand reproductive justice. And her other campaign promises aim to shine a light on what’s too often left invisible: discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people, workers’ rights, and the battle to access affordable health care.
After running a campaign while pregnant, Michigan’s newest Supreme Court Justice Kyra Harris Bolden is familiar with the feeling that anything is possible. The first Black woman appointed to Michigan’s highest court, Bolden brings unique perspectives as a former criminal defense attorney, the only former state lawmaker on the bench, and a new, working mom.
“We’re overqualified to bring our experiences to the table, to bring our perspectives to the table. In fact, those are the precise things that our government has been needing and longing for.”
Representative Summer Lee, the first Black woman from Pennsylvania elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, knows that navigating new spaces as the first in any role is a “very serious job.” Since assuming office, Lee has been vocal on her campaign promises, calling for more economic supports for families and solidarity with workers. She even invited a local union organizer and hospital worker to Biden’s State of the Union address as her guest.
Representative Rachel Talbot Ross is no stranger to being the first in her field. The first Black woman elected to Maine’s House of Representatives in 2016, Ross made history once again this year after becoming the state’s first Black speaker of the house. Ross has long been an advocate for civil rights, social justice, and criminal justice reform, and has vowed to work further toward a “just, healthy, and equitable society.”
While the number of Black women in elective office has increased over time, we still have a very long way to go.
In 1965, there were no sitting Black women governors or senators.
In 2023, there are no sitting Black women governors or senators.
Make no mistake: This lack of representation is a loss for our country.
“At present, our country needs women’s idealism and determination, perhaps more in politics than anywhere else.”
Shirley Chisholm’s words rang true then—and should be sounding an alarm today.
We are facing a reckoning around abortion rights, racial justice, and reproductive freedom. Issues that impact Black women directly and disproportionately. As we forge a more equitable way forward, Black women must have a seat at the table—and not just in a folding chair.