In her primary win speech on Tuesday night, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams expressed a bone-deep understanding of this political moment that so many Black women have shared—first in private conversations between one another and now, increasingly, with a political power structure that has struggled to see Black women as the capable, ready leaders they are.
“We were born for a time such as this,” Abrams said, quoting a verse from the Book of Esther, “and now is a time to defend our values and protect the vulnerable—to stand in the gap and lead the way.”
Black women have been leading in this country for centuries as abolitionists, voting-rights advocates, college founders, civil rights defenders, labor leaders, entrepreneurs and more—yet far too often, when they express political aspirations and turn to established institutions for support, they are met with resistance and told their brand of politics doesn’t have mass appeal.
Abrams’ win on Tuesday makes clear the possibilities that exist when Black women candidates are afforded support based on their track records, qualifications and policies—instead of their skin color. Fifty years after Shirley Chisholm’s historic run and win as the first Black woman elected to Congress, Abrams, who received 76 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, is now positioned to potentially become the first Black woman to serve as a U.S. governor.
Abrams’ distinctive achievement speaks volumes about the changing voter demographics and path to leadership that is emerging in this country. Even in red states, voters are becoming browner and less conservative. Abrams’ victory, as stunning as it may appear to some, was wholly predictable—and part of an emerging pattern of Black women who are seizing on this shift and delivering critical wins as organizers and voters in states like Virginia and Alabama and now as candidates in places like Georgia and Illinois.
Come November, Abrams won’t be alone in her bid to hold political office in places long believed off-limits to Black women. Lucy McBath, an activist who lost her son to racially motivated gun violence, will be on the ballot. She was the only woman and person of color among the six contenders who vied on Tuesday to become the Democratic Party candidate for Georgia’s sixth U.S. Congressional District. McBath came in first in a crowded field, but she will have to face a primary runoff in July. If she wins, she’ll be angling to represent a largely white district.
Lauren Underwood, who was a senior health-policy advisor during the Obama administration, similarly took home 57 percent of Illinois’ open primary vote in March, beating out six white, male candidates who also ran to represent the state’s largely white and affluent 14th U.S. Congressional District. Stephany Rose Spaulding, a Baptist pastor and faculty member at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, is aiming to unseat a six-term incumbent on the ballot for Colorado’s fifth U.S. Congressional District
In other place around the country, Black women who already hold office or have served as key political advisors are also poised to elevate their leadership into the realm of political firsts. In San Francisco, Board of Supervisors President London Breed, who has held the city’s second highest elected office since 2012, is a frontrunner in the city’s upcoming mayoral special election. New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, who holds the city’s second-highest elected office, and Leecia Eve, a former aide to Hillary Clinton and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, have both declared their plans to run for state attorney general—an office that was vacated when Eric Schneiderman resigned following accusation of sexual misconduct and abuse.
Each of these women has the kind of experience that makes for effective representation, and they are prepared, as Abrams said, to stand in the gap and lead the way—to implement policies and pass legislation that will address some of our country’s most intractable problems, including inadequate wages, unequal education, gun violence and healthcare disparities. These issues affect too many Americans—regardless of race, age and geographic location.
2018 is shaping up to be the year that Black women break through—and change the face of political leadership in this country. Black women have proven themselves at the polls, on the trail, in office and behind the scenes of democracy—now, they’re prepared to lead this country to higher heights.
Opinions expressed here are the author’s own. Ms. is published by Feminist Majority Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization, and does not endorse candidates.