On November 7th, Kamala Harris stood before an enthusiastic crowd of cheering supporters, speaking the words that millions of us have been waiting — and needing — to hear. Not only have these past four years been a total exhaustion ball for many, but there are also so many folks in our country who have been aching for positive visible representation of Black Americans and POC that has barely arrived for them. But this year welcomed a long overdue and justifiably celebratory change to the white patriarchal status quo. And this truth has most certainly not been lost on Harris.
As she spoke right into the hearts of so many girls and women, we couldn’t help but feel the hope that’s been forced into the most distant corners of our minds as we’ve watched a sea of white men take the highest positions of leadership in our nation since the presidential office has been established — 231 years, to be exact.
“While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last,” Harris said in her November 7th speech. “Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities. And to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you, simply because they’ve never seen it before.”
We hear you loud and clear, Kamala, and we are all so here for it.
Only a handful of Black women have ever successfully campaigned for president, much less had the full freedom and protections to easily do so. Add to that the abhorrent voter suppression Black women and WOC faced until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, and you’ve got an overwhelming amount of people understandably joyful over Harris’s iconic victory. Our phenomenal VP-Elect is the first Black, the first Indian-American, and the very first female candidate to ever win on a presidential campaign ticket. And this was already after her historic run for commander-in-chief earlier this year.
In her DNC speech this year, Harris reflected on the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment being passed. She wanted to give credit where credit has always been due — the Black women who worked tirelessly to ensure that they and every WOC had the guaranteed right to vote alongside the white women who are famously linked to the suffragette movement. Despite the passage 19th amendment, these Black heroines encountered challenges in voting left and right, and so they fought for a more just world.
“Without fanfare or recognition, they organized, testified, rallied, marched, and fought— not just for their vote, but for a seat at the table,” Harris says. “These women and the generations that followed worked to make democracy and opportunity real in the lives of all of us who followed. They paved the way for the trailblazing leadership of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. And these women inspired us to pick up the torch, and fight on. Women like Mary Church Terrell and Mary McLeod Bethune. Fannie Lou Hamer and Diane Nash. Constance Baker Motley and Shirley Chisholm. We’re not often taught their stories. But as Americans, we all stand on their shoulders.”
It is not enough to merely celebrate this incredible moment in history. We must re-tell that history to generously include these courageous Black women that Harris spoke about, and we can do that by utilizing one of the greatest tools we have as human beings — storytelling. Our VP-Elect has generously shared her personal experience through words in her memoir The Truths We Hold and her children’s book Superheroes Are Everywhere. And her story is just one of many whose voices have been long overdue for attention and celebration.
Below are some of the Black women and WOC who are the political trailblazers who have been paving the way for a Kamala Harris win in profound ways. There are the extraordinary individuals Harris mentioned in her August 19th speech, a few that changed the course of politics long before Harris was even born, and a handful who are making history as we speak. This list is far from complete, but it’s a decent start for those who may not recognize many of the unsung political heroes shared here. We have got to read their books, watch their documentaries and interviews, share their stories with our children, and make ample room for a their collective narrative — a narrative which has long deserved its rightful place in our country’s past, present, and future.
Abrams, who served in the Georgia House of Representatives from 2007 to 2017, is also a lawyer and voting rights activist who founded Fair Fight, an organization created in 2018 that’s dedicated to addressing voter suppression.
Shirley Chisholm – Unbought and Unbossed
Not only was Chisholm the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, she made history in 1972 when she became the first Black person and first woman to ever run for a major political party’s presidential ticket.
One of the first Black women to ever earn a college degree, Terrell became a national civil rights activist who championed women’s voting rights. In 1896, she was the first African-American woman in the United States to be appointed to the school board of a major city and was a charter member of the NAACP and the Colored Women’s League. She also helped found the National Association of Colored Women in 1896 and served as its first national president.
Ocasio-Cortez — or AOC, which she is affectionately called — is the youngest woman ever to serve in the U.S. congress. She’s also a part of this little group you might know called The Squad. Before she joined the ranks of cong
ress, AOC worked as a bartender and waitress, which I personally find so damn inspiring.
A true inspiration for Kamala Harris’s historic win, Bass was a seasoned journalist who became the first Black woman to run for vice president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1952.
Ilhan Omar – This Is What America Looks Like
Another amazing member of The Squad, Omar was elected in 2016 as a Minnesota House Representative, making her the highest-elected Somali-American public official in the United States and the first Somali-American State Legislator.
Sojourner Truth – Ain’t I A Woman?
Born into slavery, Sojourner Truth escaped to freedom with her infant daughter in 1826. Two years later, she became the first Black woman to win a court case against a white man when she fought to reunite with her son. Having never learned to read or write, Truth dictated her 1850 autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, with the help of an editor. Her work during the Civil War earned her an invitation to meet President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. She’s best known as an American abolitionist and women’s rights activist, and she’s also the first Black woman to have a statue in the Capitol Building.
A fierce labor and civil rights activist, Mitchell paved the way for Shirley Chisholm when she became the first Black woman to ever run for president in 1968, which she did as a Communist Party candidate.
Pressley has been serving as the U.S. Representative for Massachusetts’s 7th congressional district since 2019 and is the first Black woman to hold a congressional seat in this state. She’s also the first Black woman to ever be elected to the Boston City Council, and she’s a proud member of The Squad. We also know and love Pressley for her authenticity in sharing her story of being both a sexual assault survivor and someone living with alopecia.
Born as one of 17 children to former slaves, Bethune was considered the most influential Black Americans of her time. She had a dream to open up her own school and made it a reality in 1905 when she founded what would become Bethune-Cookman University. While working on her school, Bethune also organized the group to fight against school segregation and inadequate healthcare for black children and served as president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and founded the National Council of Negro Women. Later on, she became an advisor on minority affairs in the Roosevelt Administration, organizing two national conferences about the inequities and inequalities that Black Americans were facing.
A Black suffragist who took the civil rights movement by storm, Fannie Lou Hamer was the co-founder and vice-chair of the Freedom Democratic Party, which she represented at the 1964 Democratic National Convention. Hamer also co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, an organization that mentored and uplifted WOC who had political ambitions.
Featured in the PBS documentary And She Could Be Next, Tlaib made history in 2008 by becoming the first Muslim woman to ever serve in the Michigan Legislature. She also happens to be the fourth kick-ass member of The Squad.
Nash is a pioneer of the Civil Rights Movement whose work helped to ensure the Congressional passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. She was deeply involved with the implementation of lunch counter sit-ins to fight segregation, the Freedom Riders, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Selma Voting Rights campaign.
Deb Haaland and Sharice Davids
These two made history – on the same exact day! – when they were both sworn into the 116th Congress on January 3, 2019 as the first two Native American women to ever be elected to Congress. Davids represents Kansas’s 3rd congressional district and is the first openly gay person from Kansas to be elected to Congress. Haaland serves as the U.S. rep from New Mexico’s 1st congressional district and was appointed as a co-chair for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign this year.
Waters is a long-serving congresswoman was elected in November 2018 to her fifteenth term in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 43rd Congressional District of California, and she made history as the first woman and first Black Chair of the House Financial Services Committee.
Constance Baker Motley — Equal Justice Under Law: An Autobiography
The first Black woman to be appointed to the federal judiciary, Motley was a civil rights activist, lawyer, judge, and state senator. She was also an assistant attorney to Thurgood Marshall, helping to argue the historical case of Brown v. Board of Education.
While we’re celebrating Kamala Harris’s exhilarating victory, we can’t forget the tireless work of the women who showed up — and continue to show up — in the face of adversity to pave the way.