The Barriers Black Women Face While Running for Public Office

The current political system not only enhances the barriers that stop us from accessing public office, but also hinders our ability to craft equitable policies once elected.

“While I am so proud to have achieved elected office, it’s without a doubt the most mentally and emotionally taxing job I’ve ever had,” writes Portland, ME city councilmember Victoria Pelletier. (Left: @councilorvictoria; Right: courtesy RepresentWomen)

I’ll never forget what another Black woman serving in elected office told me in the aftermath of a traumatic, racist experience I encountered almost one year ago. During a crying phone call, she said to me that when you’re a Black woman, you can never “just serve” in public office. There’s no such thing as simply campaigning, showing up, doing your job and going home. Why? Because every single barrier, racist or sexist experience you encounter stays with you. As the second Black woman elected in my city’s history, it’s a phrase I’ll never forget.

I was elected to the Portland, Maine City Council in Nov. 2022, in what I call the ‘new generation’ of Black leadership in public office. After the murder of George Floyd and the racial awakening this country experienced in 2020, we saw record-breaking numbers of Black women campaigning and being elected to public office.

Despite my excitement for more of us in elected positions, we are still severely underrepresented in government—and I believe this is by design. Our current system not only enhances the barriers that stop us from accessing public office but also hinders our ability to craft equitable policies once elected. 

I’m also reminded that as Black women, being part of a government body is to exist in an environment that wasn’t created for us. It is instead an environment designed to oppress us.

RepresentWomen’s 2024 Black Women in U.S. Politics brief speaks to my direct experience as a Black woman serving in public office, including the significant obstacles I faced that impacted my ability to become a policymaker. While I’m so proud to be elected, I remind myself that we still have a long way to go.

I’m also reminded that as Black women, being part of a government body is to exist in an environment that wasn’t created for us. It is instead an environment designed to oppress us. We need a systems change to amplify our voices and increase our presence in public office, and we can’t do it alone. The essential takeaways highlighted in the brief are the first step towards identifying obstacles that stop us from even considering running for office in the first place, with solutions that will help us work towards a democracy where we are adequately represented in government.

Pathways for Supporting More Black Women in Government

Remove Barriers to ‘Viability’

I was often told while campaigning that because I was a political newcomer, I just didn’t have the “experience” to run for office. In response, I would counter with the words access and opportunity. I’d explain that it was nearly impossible for me to receive an opportunity to gain the experience I needed without having access in the first place. I would also add that it was almost impossible for me to gain access due to the significant systemic barriers that still keep Black women vastly underrepresented in elected office to this day. The prerequisites that political parties require to deem a candidate as ‘viable’ are stacked negatively against Black women, who are already unable to get their foot in the door to obtain the experience that’s demanded of us.

Political parties must do their part as we continue to diversify as a country and speak about equity. Want us to gain more experience holding public office? Then, let’s hold political parties accountable and demand they work to set targeted recruitment goals and gender quotas so that Black women have the same opportunities as other candidates. 

Remove Barriers to Fundraising

Curious why Black women seem to constantly be underfunded in campaigns, giving us less opportunity and visibility for potential voters? Let’s dismantle racially inequitable funding between Black and white candidates by enacting gender and race-balanced funding measures and small-donor public financing programs. The brief highlights that “the majority of Black women candidates rely on small-dollar donations,” which was my experience in my race. My opponent significantly out-funded me, receiving many large dollar donations. Suppose we want to work towards eliminating this barrier. In that case, we have to remove the need for “big” giving in political races that continue to favor white and male candidates who have access to networks with deeper pockets. 

Remove Barriers to Voting for Black Women

Are you frustrated that you rarely see Black women on your ballot? Encourage your current elected officials, community members, and your organizations to eliminate plurality voting and instead study the benefits of ranked choice voting. This eliminates the need to vote strategically and allows you to rank your preferences without the concern of split votes. It’s a privilege to live in Maine, where RCV is used for statewide elections, and proportional ranked choice voting has led our Portland city council to be women-led for the first time in our city’s history. Six of nine members are women, and three out of six are women of color. 

Remove Barriers to Serving

Lastly, as someone who’s had a tumultuous experience in public office, let me also say it’s not enough just to elect us; there must be systems to support us while we’re in office. This job has psychological impacts on women and women of color, with a disproportionate effect on Black women. To go from surviving to serving, we must eliminate the existing barriers while campaigning and address the systemic harm in office. While I am so proud to have achieved elected office, it’s without a doubt the most mentally and emotionally taxing job I’ve ever had.

RepresentWomen co-hosted a Women Mayor’s reception in DC last month, and it was a pleasure to get to meet so many current and former mayors from various states. What was most evident were the many intimate moments I had with Black women mayors—all of these moments had similar undertones. The deep breaths, the knowing looks, the silent conversation that often happens between us felt all too familiar. The knowing that we’re all working so hard to make change in a country that continues to harm us.

A Message to Black Women Running for Office

So, to my fellow Black women reading this who are considering running for public office, let me say this:

Make sure you have a self-care plan. A plan for when your emotional, mental or physical health is at risk. Use it often if you have access to therapy or other support means. Have conversations with your family. Have conversations with your friends. Talk to other Black women currently serving in office and ask them about their experiences. Understand that many obstacles you face are intentional and have been curated over centuries to marginalize you further. While we’re not a monolith by any means, the experience of being a Black woman in public office is a unique bond we all share. 

While I am so proud to have achieved elected office, it’s without a doubt the most mentally and emotionally taxing job I’ve ever had.

And to all the supporters, allies, and colleagues of Black women in office—please understand the immense pressure this country puts on us, especially regarding our democracy. Please remember how we are consistently asked to save, organize, fix and then lead. And please remember that time and time again, we show up and fight, just like those who came before us. 

So, while we show up to care for you, please consider who is taking care of us. Who’s addressing the systemic challenges? Who’s advocating for our safety? Who’s shielding us from the barrage of racial slurs and sexist comments that are repeatedly sent our way?

Support Black women in office. Show up for us like you would show up for yourself. Protect us in ways even from dangers we cannot see because of the harrowing journey. Remember that every day, we’re fighting back against a system that’s designed to oppress us. 

And to the Black women who are currently serving in public office all over the country, I’m sending you love, strength and a heart full of gratitude. You deserve it.

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About

Victoria Pelletier is the national partnerships manager for RepresentWomen. She serves on the city council in Portland, Maine, where she is the second Black woman elected to the seat.