For Educators: Women of the Congressional Black Caucus

African-American Women in Congress

Throughout American history African-American women have played a major role advocating for freedom and justice for forgotten or underserved Americans. There is not a moment in our country's history that an African-American woman did not touch to inspire and create greatness for all its citizens. To advocate for a more democratic society for women, children, and other underserved minorities, African-American women understood that changes needed to happen at the top levels of our government – federal and state. Unfortunately, it would take 181 years after the ratification of our Constitution in 1787, before we had the first African-American woman elected to Congress.

The first woman to ever be elected to Congress was Jeannette Rankin of Montana in 1916. Rankin was elected four years prior to women in the United States gaining the right to vote in national elections. Some western states like Montana and Wyoming had already given women the right to vote in local and state elections. The 19th Amendment was passed in 1920 giving all women the right to vote in local, state, and national elections. White and African-American women worked hard advocating for the passing of this amendment. The amendment helped to open the door for women to participate more aggressively in pushing for legislative social and political changes in Congress. However, African American women continued to face obstacles despite this amendment and others in the past that addressed civil rights and justice. By the 1960s legislative action was still needed to remove obstacles and state and local government tactics that prevented women and minorities from voting or being elected to Congress. Since Rankin's election, followed by rapid major social and political changes, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, a total of 276 women in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the U.S. Senate.

The first African-American woman to serve in Congress was Shirley Chisholm of New York, who was elected in 1968. Three more African American women soon joined her in 1972: Yvonne Burke of California, Cardiss Collins of Illinois, and Barbara Jordan of Texas. These women legislated during an era of upheaval in America. Overlapping social and political movements during this period—the civil rights movement, protest against American intervention in the Vietnam War, the women's liberation movement, the Watergate Scandal and efforts to reform Congress—provided valuable political experience as civil rights advocates. Though each had her own style of advocacy and her own public persona, the thread of modern feminism—assertively pursuing their agendas—connected these women.

Realizing the strength of numbers to move legislature through Congress, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm helped to form the Congressional Black Caucus for greater influence in Congress. The caucus quickly became a powerful platform for these women to advocate their causes.

Since 1969, thirty African-American Congresswomen have been elected to serve in Congress. Today African-American Congresswomen play a major role on a broad range of domestic and international issues including Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Education, Healthcare, Homeland Security and the current engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. These women have made enormous contributions to the advancement of healthcare.

As a result of their hard work and dedication over the past four decades, some of these women have gained enough seniority to chair committees and subcommittees that allocate federal money, as well as serve among the Democratic Party and Congressional Black Caucus leadership.

Source: Avoice Online exhibit, Women of the Congressional Black Caucus and publication, Women in Congress by the U.S. House of Representatives Office of the Historian

Additional recommended readings for teachers and students:

Downing, David. Apartheid in South Africa (Witness to History). Heinemann: Chicago, 2004. (Non-Fiction)

Connolly, Sean. Apartheid in South Africa (Troubled World). Heinemann Library: Chicago, 2001. (Non-Fiction)

additional information and links.