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A'Shanti F. Gholar


In 2019, women across the country watched with immense pride as, for the first time in history, six women stepped into the ring and made their case for why they should be the next president of the United States. As we watched women candidates tout their legislative accomplishments, display a rare camaraderie not seen in previous presidential contests and tell voters how their approach to leadership would be different from the male candidates, many women shared a common hope that 2020 – coincidentally the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment that granted women the right to vote – might finally be the year a woman is elected president.

With the exit of U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren – the last viable woman candidate to drop out of a promising and historic primary – in March, that hope was suddenly dashed. It seemed our nation would never be ready to accept a woman leader in its highest political office. For many of us, the pain of realizing that a woman would not become president in 2020 was both saddening and frustrating.

But this week, America got some news that should make us more hopeful than ever about the prospect of a woman in the highest office. Former Vice President Joe Biden announced that he has selected California Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate. Senator Harris’s story is a uniquely American one. The daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, she first ran for San Francisco District Attorney then quickly climbed up the political pipeline to be elected California’s Attorney General, becoming the first Black person and woman to serve in that position. In 2017, she was elected as just the second Black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Much like many of the women we recruit at Emerge, where we train Democratic women to run for political office, Harris’s story is the story of so many women who answer the call to serve their communities. Biden’s selection of Harris as his running mate is historic. This country has never had a woman vice president or a Black, brown or Indigenous person serve in that office. Harris is the first woman of color to ever appear on a major party presidential ticket; and with her nomination, becomes a glimmer of hope that a woman attaining the highest office in the land is well within our reach.

Over the past few election cycles, women have been on an upward political trajectory. Since 2016, their political engagement has grown exponentially; and women, especially Black women, have become more involved as voters, activists and candidates. At Emerge we received 57.5% more applications than in the previous year from women who were angry that former Secretary Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election. Fueled by this anger, these women decided it was time for new voices to be heard on our shared political landscape.

In 2017, while Harris was in the Senate, Black women like Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy also stepped up—and made their own history. In Virginia, where elections were held for the state legislature, she was one of many women responsible for flipping an unprecedented 11 out of 15 seats from red to blue. They wasted no time passing key legislation like Medicaid expansion to help thousands of families, and their victory in organizing and marshalling their fellow citizens into political action and participation was just the beginning.

The 2018 midterm election would prove to be an even bigger turning point for women in government. For the first time, more than 100 women were elected to Congress, including a historic 22 Black women. That group of trailblazers included Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of the first two Muslim American women elected to Congress; Rep. Lauren Underwood, the youngest Black woman ever elected; and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, the first Black woman to serve in Congress from Massachusetts.

A joint report from the Center on American Women in Politics and Higher Heights found that in 2018, Black women also saw their greatest gains in representation at the state level since 1994. In states like Alabama, where Black women were instrumental in electing the first Democrat to the U.S. Senate in more than two decades, we converted our power as voters into our own candidacies with a record-high 70 women putting their names on the ballot.

Now that many of us are in office, we’ve exceeded expectations and demonstrated that we are more than equal to the task of political leadership, leading through good times—and national crisis. Black women leaders, many of them Emerge alumnae, have stepped up and tackled the problems brought on by the coronavirus and the ongoing struggle for racial justice in this country. They have worked to implement forward-thinking and holistic policies that address the varying needs of their constituents:

  • San Francisco Mayor London Breed is the first Black woman (and only the second woman) to serve as mayor of San Francisco. Under her stewardship, the city recently announced that police will no longer respond to non-criminal calls and will be replaced with unarmed and trained professionals.
  • Colorado State Rep. Leslie Herod worked alongside her colleagues in the legislature to pass an expansive police reform bill that would increase accountability.
  • Suffolk County Massachusetts District Attorney Rachael Rollins called attention to the danger that stay-at-home orders posed for victims of domestic violence and granted emergency protective orders.
  • Virginia Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy, who is running to become the first Black woman governor in Virginia and in the United States, has called for a vote-by-mail election in November to help voters safely cast their ballots

These Black women embody the thoughtful governance our communities need in perilous times.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Biden considered – and has now chosen – a Black woman as his running mate. Harris, who hails from the largest progressive state in the nation, has long been a rising political star in the Democratic Party. She is a staunch and visible advocate for justice and equality and is now well-positioned to become the 47th president of the United States.

A key part of our mission at Emerge is to build a robust pipeline of women leaders who can fill federal, local and state seats. To change the face of politics and ensure that elected officials who represent our communities look like us, we must do the back end work of preparing women and supporting their campaigns. This process is no different for the White House. By investing in Black women early, and often, we give them the launching pads they need to run for and win higher office.

We have been laying the foundation for a woman president for years; and today, we are closer than ever to realizing our dashed hopes. I am confident that one day soon we will be able to tell the Black women and girls in our lives that they can be anything they want to be—including the occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue—and mean it.

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