In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the tradition of assessing the first 100 days of new leadership when, during a speech, he offered it up as a good point for reflecting on the status of the newly implemented New Deal. The series of laws, which were quickly passed under his new administration, aimed to end the Great Depression and get the country back on its feet.
There is a parallel between the desperate mood of the country 88 years ago when Roosevelt took the reins and when President Joe Biden took leadership this past January in the midst of an ongoing pandemic, a worsening economy and rising racial tensions. One major difference, however, is that there is now a long-overdue focus on the role of Black women in righting the ship.
Black women voters and political activists were on the front line of the effort to elect President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris — candidates who overcame long-held biases about age, gender and race to win their offices. As we assess the work of this historic leadership team at its 100 days mark, it’s also a good time to take a look at how — in light of their growing political influence and visibility — Black women are faring in our efforts to break glass ceilings, increase their presence among the ranks of political and civic leadership, and effect policy.
If recent political history has reminded us of any truth it’s that progress towards equity and justice doesn’t travel in a straight line. Black women’s efforts to diversify elected leadership have encountered significant resistance, and their achievements in one legislative branch have sometimes resulted in giving up ground in another. For example, Stacey Abrams’ nearly successful bid for Georgia governor and Black women’s increased representation in Congress during the 2018 election triggered a rash of voter suppression bills. This year, following Black women’s historic gains as mayors, in the U.S. House and on the presidential ticket, legislative bodies in 47 states have introduced 361 bills aimed at curtailing the voter access measures that are frequently used by Black communities to cast their ballot. And while Black women crashed through a glass ceiling when Harris was sworn in as vice president this January, they are consequently now devoid of representation in the U.S. Senate.
Despite these challenges, Black women have made unprecedented gains in occupying elected positions and governmental appointments during the first 100 day of the new leadership that their votes helped to usher in. In addition to Harris’ historic breakthrough, Black women have again increased their numbers in the U.S. House of Representatives, eight Black women are currently serving as mayors of large cities, including Atlanta, Boston, St. Louis, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., the most Black women ever are serving as Cabinet and senior staff members in the presidential/vice presidential administration, and Biden has nominated three Black women to serve on the federal courts of appeals.
Assessing how Black women have fared in the first 100 days isn’t simply a matter of determining whether they’ve had increased opportunity to step into leadership roles. It’s also about whether they’ve been able to steady the ship during critical moments as well as advance policies and solutions that are reflective of what voters and communities want and need.
For years, Black women and their allies have argued that greater diversity in government brings not only representational parity but also more effective solutions. Today, we can see multiple ways that Black women’s increased political power is allowing them to show up in important ways. As vice president, Harris has advanced her quest to end disparities in Black women’s maternal health outcomes. She also has cast more early-term tie-breaking votes in the Senate than any other vice president, facilitating passage of bills to support the country’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and the confirmation of a defense-policy Cabinet member. Now, she has been tasked with finding solutions to the nation’s border crisis, an issue that she previously took on as California Attorney General.
Black women’s leadership is showing up in other areas of government as well. In the wake of former police officer Derek Chauvin’s murder of another unarmed Black person, Rep. Karen Bass is leading the national effort to end police brutality through her sponsorship of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Bill H.R.7120 – 116th Congress (2019-2020): George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020. New York Attorney General Leticia James and Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis are pursuing their investigations into the Trump administration’s likely financial and election abuses despite a waning interest in the difficult work of holding the former president accountable. In New York City, newly appointed School Chancellor Meisha Porter is taking on the challenging job of dismantling intractable desegregation of the city’s public school system.
These recent gains are the result of years of work to make space for Black women’s voices and leadership. Still, some areas of leadership have remained elusive. No Black woman has served on the U.S. Supreme Court and their absence in the Senate means Black women and the issues they champion lack deeply informed representation in two of the federal government’s three branches. Additionally, no Black woman has ever served as governor. There are opportunities on the horizon to close these gaps, however, including a gubernatorial race in Virginia in 2021 and a possible run in 2022 by Stacey Abrams for Georgia governor. Black women are also eyeing possible Senate runs in Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, and Biden has committed to nominating a Black woman to the Supreme Court should the opportunity present itself.
While the first 100 days have offered a promising hint of how Black women’s increased participation at all levels of government can benefit the country, the push to finally and permanently remove barriers to their leadership in all areas of government must continue far beyond these early days.
Carr is president and CEO of Higher Heights, a national organization providing Black women with a political home exclusively dedicated to expanding Black women’s elected representation and voting participation and advancing progressive policies.