UNBOSSED! The Legacy of Black Women in Executive Leadership

Unbossed the legacy of Black Women and Political-Executive Leadership

By: Ian L. Courts

An Opinion Piece.

lack Women Lead. Period. I could stop my discussion here and walk away feeling satisfied because as a Black man, raised by a Black man with significant influence from my black grandmother, I understand the innate and natural leadership abilities and social reality of black women in leadership! My grandmother was and is the glue of my family and the guiding influence and final voice of affirmation in my life. Moreover, my grandmother was the first of her siblings to attend college, notedly North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University (A&T), and impressed upon me the importance of collegiate education. I know personally the impact of the effectiveness of Black women leadership, however, my experience is not unique. Black women account for more than 64% of the Black bachelor degree recipients. Additionally, Black women make up 70% percent of Black Master’s degree recipients and 66% respectively of Black doctoral degree recipients. Moreover, among elected political officials Black women make up 22 out of the 47 women of color in the 2019 US Congressional class. Thus, when I say Black women lead, it’s not an anomaly or aspiration but it is a statistical fact!

What’s the purpose of this seemingly random discussion on Black women and leadership? I’m glad you asked, the purpose of this discussion is to highlight the work and history of Black women in executive-governmental leadership in US politics. This discussion of Black women in executive-governmental leadership is important and historically relevant because on August 19, 2020, United States Senator Kamala D. Harris was formally nominated as the 2020 Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate! WHOOP! WHOOP! This was a historic and monumental moment but was not an outlier, this moment has been in the works through the grape-vine of Black heritage, specifically the branch of Black women in executive-leadership. This discussion will focus on the work of Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun, Secretary Condoleezza Rice, and First Lady Michelle Obama. Additionally, I will discuss the role each of these women played in preparing the political way for Senator Kamala Harris’s historic nomination. Unbossed, the legacy of Black Women and Political-Executive Leadership.

1960 A Pioneering Woman in Executive-Branch Leadership: Patricia Roberts Harris

Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris during her Senate Confirmation hearing.

“You do not seem to understand who I am. I am a black woman, the daughter of a dining car waiter. . . .if my life has any meaning at all, it is that those who start out as outcasts may end up being part of the system.”The preceding quote was spoken by Patricia Roberts Harris during her confirmation hearing for Secretary of Urban Housing and Development. By the time, Secretary Harris spoke those words she had already achieved a barrier-breaking career in US politics. Secretary Harris’s first governmental job was working as an appellate attorney in the criminal division of the US Department of Justice in 1960. From there, Secretary Harris was appointed by President John F. Kennedy to co-chair the National Women’s Committee for Civil Rights. Secretary Harris went on to become a delegate for the District of Columbia to the 1964 Democratic Convention and was eventually appointed by President Lyndon Banes Johnson as Ambassador to Luxembourg in 1965. Secretary Harris was the first Black woman envoy for the United States. When asked about the significance of her ambassadorial appointment, Harris stated “I feel deeply proud and grateful this President chose me to knock down this barrier, but also a little sad about being the ‘first Negro woman’ because it implies we were not considered before.” Secretary Harris ended her Ambassadorship in 1967 and was appointed Dean of Howard Law School in 1969. After a brief stint as Dean, Secretary Harris was appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Secretary Harris became the first Black woman in the presidential line of succession. Secretary Harris’s executive leadership continued when she became the Secretary for Health and Human Services in 1979. During her life, Secretary Harris was the highest-ranking Black woman in the US government. Moreover, she was known to be very direct and effective in leadership. It’s hard to imagine another Harris being nominated to the Vice Presidency without a pioneer such as Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris leading the way. The first barrier to Black women in executive-department leadership was broken with Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris’s pioneering legacy.

1972 A Radical Presidential Candidacy: Shirley Chisholm

Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm addressing the 1972 Democratic National Convention.

“I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the woman’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that. I am not the candidate or any political bosses or fat cats or special interests. I am the candidate of the people of America.” These words were declared by a political outsider with little name recognition in 1972. This outsider proclaimed her presidential bid during a time when partisan tensions were simmering, an unfavorable Republican was in office and the race for the top seat was heating up. This outsider was Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm of New York’s 12th Congressional district and at that moment she challenged the status quo in the Democratic party and American politics as a whole. Chisholm’s candidacy was the first time a Black woman was making her presence, power, and might known in national presidential politics. The Democratic party had a complex and often disturbing history with Black people. The Democratic party was the party of slavery and the horrors of the Reconstruction and Jim Crow. The fact that a Black woman was seeking the top office within the Democratic party was an ironic twist in history. Moreover, Congresswoman Chisholm was determined to be taken seriously and to bring light to issues that affected lower-income Americans, women, and youth. “I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts. That’s how I’d like to be remembered.” Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Congresswoman Chisholm was articulate, vocal, and direct in her rhetoric and approach and believed that part of her appeal was her brass nature and distinct voice. “My greatest political asset, which professional politicians fear, is my mouth, out of which come all kinds of things one shouldn’t always discuss for reasons of political expediency.” Congresswoman Chisholm.

Chisholm’s campaign was largely underfunded and did not receive much support. However, she became a national figure of Black womanhood and Black womanist resistance though she did not like this designation. “When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men…They think I am trying to take power from them. The black man must step forward, but that doesn’t mean the black woman must step back.” Congresswoman Chisholm. Despite this, Congresswoman Chisholm received 152 delegate votes for her Democratic nomination. Following her presidential run, Chisholm continued her activism in Congress until her retirement in 1983. Since Congresswoman Chisholm’s pioneering campaign, only one other woman of color ran for the Democratic nomination, Senator Carol Moseley Braun in 2004. Braun was the first Black woman elected to the US Senate. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine us celebrating the nomination of the first Black woman vice-presidential candidate without the radical guts it took for Congresswoman Chisholm to launch her historic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The 1992 Year of the Woman: Senator Carol Moseley Braun

Senator Carol M. Brown before the US Senate during her confirmation hearing for the US Ambassadorship to New Zealand.

Ambassador Carol M. Braun is an interesting political character with a complex political history. Braun began her political career in the statehouse of Illinois after serving as a United States Attorney. Ambassador Braun quickly moved up the Democratic party ladder and became assistant majority leader of the Illinois statehouse. Ambassador Braun challenged the incumbent senator — a white male — with the help of a coalition of Black and Hispanic voters won. On November 3, 1992, Braun became the first Black woman elected to the US Senate. Braun entered the Senate under the wave of the “Year Of the Woman” in which many first-time women became senators and congresswomen throughout the country. Ambassador Braun began her tenure in the US Senate “unbossed and ready to fight” she was one of the newly elected women senators who opposed the Senate ban on women wearing pants on the Senate floor. Braun’s advocacy was critical in the Senate Judiciary Committee’s decision to not renew the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s patent. Ambassador Braun served one term as Senator. On October 8, 1999, President Clinton nominated Braun to the US Ambassadorship of New Zealand. In 2003, Ambassador Braun announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the US Presidency. However, she received little support from the Black community and had trouble raising money and gaining national attention. Braun conceded in January of 2004. Ambassador Braun’s historic Senate victory was another link in the chain of barrier-breaking Black women in executive leadership.

2005 A Woman of State: Condolezza Rice

Secretary Rice speaking during a press conference.

It’s hard to reflect on women in executive leadership without discussing the highest-ranking Black woman in the history of the US government, yes, I’m talking about Condolezza Rice. Secretary Rice dominated the first decade of 21st-century politics under the George W. Bush-era. On November 16, 2004, President George W. Bush in an effort to raise support among Black voters, appointed Condolezza Rice as the first Black woman Secretary of State of the United States of America. By the time of her appointment, Secretary Rice had already established herself as an accomplished educator and expert in national security and foreign diplomacy. Secretary Rice’s appointment was widely celebrated among African Americans because of her accomplished background and civil rights experiences. Secretary Rice was a daughter of the civil rights struggle and defied odds by rising to the top of American foreign policy. Arguably, Secretary Rice has yielded the greatest amount of political power as a Black woman in American politics. Secretary Rice was one of President Bush’s most trusted advisers and was instrumental in crafting the “Transformational Diplomacy” doctrine of President Bush’s foreign policy. Despite, her many accolades and achievements, not everyone in Black America praised Secretary Rice’s work. Many within the Black community chided Rice as being “anti-Black” and “forsaking her Black heritage.” In response to her critics, Rice retorted “[w]hy would I worry about something like that [Black criticism]? … The fact of the matter is I’ve been black all my life. Nobody needs to tell me how to be black.” However, despite the criticism, Secretary Rice became the closest Black woman, regardless of political party, to the Presidency in the history of US politics. Moreover, Secretary Rice expanded the avenue for Black women in executive leadership and made the way clearer for a potential Black woman Vice President and President.

2008 The Leading Lady: Michelle Obama

First Lady Obama speaking to the public at the White House.

2008 was a year of hope for change in America. The culmination of this hope for change was the election of the first Black President, Barack Obama, and the elevation of his wife Michelle Obama, as First Lady of the United States. History was made! Now before, someone objects to Mrs. Obama’s inclusion in this list because the role of “First Lady” is not that of an executive, let me explain. Mrs. Obama revolutionized the role of the First Lady. Mrs. Obama became a trusted adviser to President Obama and engaged in policy initiatives that garnered her praise and push-back. Moreover, it has been argued that absent Mrs. Obama’s presence, there would not have been a Barack Obama, the first Black President. Mrs. Obama’s policy initiatives focused on health, wellness, education, and nutrition. Mrs. Obama took the role of the First Lady to the streets and actively engaged celebrities, common folk, designers, and influencers in her policies and initiatives. As a result, Mrs. Obama became an icon and representative of Black women’s leadership and influence. Despite, never serving in an official cabinet, legislative or judicial role, Mrs. Obama exercised an influence that rivaled many of the women in this article and including her own husband’s institutional power. Mrs. Obama has become the standard by which Black women in politics would be compared. This respect and infatuation led Mrs. Obama to be considered a potential frontrunner in the 2020 Democratic Presidential primary and subsequently as a leading potential running mate for Joe Biden, the 2020 Democratic Presidential Nominee. Mrs. Obama’s impact and influence have made it easier for subsequent Black women to exercise influence and brand power in American politics. Moreover, Mrs. Obama’s barrier-breaking iconism has cemented her place in history and made her one of the leading executive women in American politics and culture.

2019 An Avant-Garde Campaign: Kamala Harris’s Presidential Bid

Senator Kamala Harris’s Jan. 2019 Campaign Launch Rally in Oakland, California.

After Senator Braun’s run, no major Black woman candidate for president cast her bid until January 21, 2019. On MLK Day, a daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother, Senator Kamala Harris of California announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination.

Senator Harris’s announcement was met with mixed enthusiasm, many in a jubilee of the potential female Obama-like figure while others disinterested because of her prosecutor-cop history. However, Senator Harris’s political identity is much more nuanced and unique. Senator Harris, a noted history-maker, was the first Black district attorney of San Francisco. Moreover, Senator Harris became the first Black attorney general of California and is currently California’s first Black senator and the second Black woman elected to the US Senate. Senator Harris presented an interesting dichotomy to Black consciousness and political identity. Harris was a career prosecutor with a very cautious prosecutorial record intermixing traditional law and order stances with progressive impulses. Defining Senator Harris was difficult; she is definitively liberal, however, with moderate appeal and incremental policy fixtures. Senator Harris invokes admiration and indifference from Leftists. In particular, her dichotomy is highlighted by reactions among African Americans to her presidential announcement. Many were excited about her prospects, others worried about her chances, some angry about her white husband and others untrusting of her prosecutorial past. Senator Harris fought a losing battle and she ultimately, like Congresswoman Chisholm, and Ambassador Braun before her ended her presidential campaign.

2020 A Trailblazing Nomination: Vice-Presidential Nominee Kamala Harris

Senator Kamala Harris accepting the 2020 DNC Vice-Presidential Nomination at the 2020 Democratic National Convention.

On Tuesday, August 11, 2020, the 2020 Democratic Presidential Nominee presumptive, Vice President Joseph Biden, the second-in-command to the first Black president, Barack Obama, announced his rival, Senator Kamala Harris, as his running mate. Feelings of excitement, jubilee, and shock flooded many people’s emotions. A Black woman was finally selected as the Vice Presidential nominee for a major party ticket. Moreover, Senator Harris, the second Black woman to be elected to the United States Senate, and the third Black woman to seek the Democratic presidential nomination, was selected to be the party’s vice presidential nominee. Vice-Presidential Nominee Harris has reached heights no Black woman before her has attained. Moreover, she has a chance to become the highest-ranked and most powerful Black woman in the United States and the world — literally one-heartbeat away from being the leader of the free world. It can be easy to think that Harris’s historical nomination was inevitable for the country after electing the first Black President, and having the first woman lead a presidential ticket. Similarly, it can be easy to assume that Senator Harris is unique compared to her predecessors, however, neither of those reasons are sufficient in themselves. Vice Presidential Nominee Harris stands on the shoulders of Secretary Harris, Congresswoman Chisholm, Ambassador Braun, Secretary Rice, and Mrs. Obama it is because of their legacy that the reality of a Black Woman Vice Presidential Nominee is a reality. “The litmus test for America is how we are treating Black women.” Vice-Presidential Nominee Harris’s preceding quote highlights the importance of Black women in this country more specifically the realization that the Democratic party must not take advantage of the legacy of Black women activists and leaders.

2024? A Phoenix Rising: The Future of Black Women in Executive-Leadership

DNC Vice Presidential Nominee Kamala Harris at the first joint virtual event with Biden.

There are many notable similarities between Secretary Harris, Congresswoman Chisholm, Ambassador Braun, Secretary Rice, Mrs. Obama, and Senator Harris. Both Senator Harris and Congresswoman Chisholm are of Afro-Caribbean descent — Chisholm’s parents being from Barbados and Harris’s father from Jamaica. In contrast, Secretary Harris’s, Ambassador Braun’s, Secretary Rice’s, and Mrs. Obama’s parents were born here in the United States. Four of these executive women are members of historically Black sororities — Secretary Harris, Congresswoman Chisholm, and Ambassador Braun of Delta Sigma Theta and Senator Harris of Alpha Kappa Alpha. Conversely, Secretary Rice is a member of Alpha Chi Omega, a predominantly white-sorority organization, and Mrs. Obama is unaffiliated with a sorority-organization. Each of these distinguished Black women has served in an executive- leadership capacity — Secretary Harris and Secretary Rice in Cabinet-level positions, Ambassador Bruan, Congresswoman Chisholm, and Senator Harris as members of Congress, and Mrs. Obama as First Lady of the United States. Ambassador Braun, Secretay Harris, Senator Harris, and Mrs. Obama were attorneys, while, Secretary Rice and Congresswoman Chisholm were educators. Additionally, all these executive women because of their sex and race have been labeled as “vocal, outspoken and hysterical” but also “competent, smart and quick-witted.” Yet, they persisted!

Each of these women entered public service from a variety of executive backgrounds and life experiences. Secretary Harris and Congresswoman Chisholm are examples of the African American struggle of the 20th century, yet they overcame the harsh realities of their time. Chisholm an educator and teacher before entering politics, born and raised in New York. Secretary Harris an attorney and daughter of the midwest. Ambassador Braun, a Chicago native, became a part of a new generation and a nationwide wave of women challenging the status quo and flexing their political power. Moreover, Ambassador Braun began her career in the US attorney’s office as a prosecutor moving into the political arena of Illinois by way of the State House. Similarly, Mrs. Obama, a Chicago native as well, excelled academically graduating from Princeton and Harvard becoming a high-powered attorney and cultural influencer. Secretary Rice a daughter of the civil rights movement, rose to national prominence through academia becoming an expert in foreign diplomacy and national security. While, Senator Harris is a daughter of a mixed-race couple active in the social justice movement of the late 1960s and 70s in Oakland, California. Harris a career prosecutor got her start in the criminal justice system. Secretary Harris and Congresswoman Chisholm represent the traditional Black civil rights iconism, while Braun represents the 1990s wave of neoliberalism. Mrs. Obama uniquely represents Black-womanly achievement and cultural influence. Conversely, Rice is a conservative stateswoman and representative of Black exceptionalism. Moreover, Vice-Presidential Nominee Harris exemplifies the mixed-race dream and opportunities afforded by perceived progress in racial relations. These differences will come to even more light and careful examination by my community, the Black community, in our decision to support or not support Senator Harris as Vice President and possibly President in 2024.

Moreover, how Vice-Presidential Nominee Harris exemplifies her Blackness and her womanness will be one of the crucial facets of her future political success. Will she break through the stained-glass ceiling that blocked Congresswoman Chisholm? Will she rise to executive heights above that of Secretary Rice? Vice-Presidential Nominee Harris must define what people she is referencing in her campaign motto “Kamala Harris, For the People.” A balancing act Secretary Harris, Congresswoman Chisholm, Ambassador Braun, Secretary Rice and Mrs. Obama had to endure. One thing is certain, Senator Harris did not rise to the vice-presidential nomination alone, for she stands on the shoulders of giants. Unbossed, a legacy of Black women and executive-leadership.

Attorney, Young Black Voice, Law & Politics Observer.

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