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Black Women and the CBC-

                                            Black Women and the CBC

By Reniqua Allen

Starting with the legendary Shirley Chisholm of New York, passionate, outspoken women have long been a part of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The only black woman in Congress when elected to the House in 1968, Chisholm a year later was one of 10 founding members of the caucus.  The Congresswoman brought a clear feminist sensibility to the group, proving she was an advocate not only for the black community but for women as well.

“There were Negro men in office here before I came in … but they didn’t deliver,” Chisholm said. “People came and asked me to do something…. I’m here because of the vacuum.”

During her 15-year tenure with the Congressional Black Caucus she set a high bar for her successors, while serving as part of the Democratic leadership in her later years. But Chisholm’s relationship with her peers in the caucus wasn’t always easy. She believed that was partially due to her gender.

She said after deciding to run for president, a first on many fronts, she was disheartened by a lack of support from male caucus members. “Black male politicians are no different from white male politicians,” she said. “This ‘woman thing’ is so deep. I’ve found it out in this campaign if I never knew it before.”

Despite her frustrations, she opened doors for other black women and was soon joined by three others in Congress in 1973: Yvonne Braithwaite Burke of California, Barbara Jordan of Texas and Cardiss Collins of Illinois.  All became members of the caucus.

Of the new women members, Jordan proved to be the most dynamic, but like Chisholm, she proved her independence from the black organization.  Before even setting foot in Congress, Jordan successfully asked fellow Texan, President Lyndon B. Johnson, to help her attain a seat on the Judiciary Committee.  Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, however, wanted her on the Armed Services Committee.

Burke, too, became a leader in her own right and was also a champion for women’s independence.  At age 40, she decided she wanted to raise a family, and, despite some criticism, became the first person in Congress to give birth and take maternity leave. Still, that year she received top marks for her performance. Soon after, in 1976, Burke became the first female leader of the black caucus, which had grown to 17 members.

Worried about the group’s looming debt, Burke created the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation to help raise money to support the efforts of the Congressional Black Caucus. The foundation continues today, providing scholarships and cultivating future African American leaders.

Burke also helped forge a strategic legislative agenda for the caucus, but according to African American Women in Congress, became sidetracked from her duties when she had to look into why the Department of Justice seemed to be harassing black legislators.

In 1979, Collins became the group’s second female chair.  Like Chisholm, she paid homage to her female constituents and successfully introduced the first bill to cover mammograms with Medicaid coverage.  She also pushed through legislation that required the Federal Communications Commission to give women and minorities access to jobs and ownership in television and radio.

As chair, she was tasked with unifying the caucus, which was heavily divided over support for President Jimmy Carter, whom many believed created economic policies disastrous for the black community. Rounding out her tenure as head of the caucus, she spearheaded the fight against an amendment to block school busing in desegregation cases, fought against apartheid in South Africa and monitored the 1980 redistricting process to make sure African Americans were fairly represented, while still going toe to toe with Carter, who won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1980.

After a decade of strong female leaders in Congress, only one black woman, Katie Hall of Indiana, was elected in the 1980s.  After she left in 1985, Collins remained the only black woman in Congress until 1991.

But redistricting in 1990 created new opportunities, and the number of black women in the House of Representatives exploded with the elections of Barbara-Rose Collins of Michigan, Maxine Waters of California, Eleanor Holmes-Norton of the District of Columbia, Corrine Brown of Florida, Eva Clayton of North Carolina, Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, Carrie Meek of Florida, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, Juanita Millender-McDonald of California, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick of Michigan, Julia Carson of Indiana, Donna Christian-Christensen of the U.S. Virgin Islands, Barbara Lee of California and Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio. All joined the Congressional Black Caucus.

Additionally, Carol Moseley-Braun of Illinois was the first black woman elected to the Senate and one of the most influential women in the caucus.

Women in the caucus now found themselves supported by male colleagues with seniority positions who could help them rise both in the Congressional Black Caucus and in Congress.  Eva Clayton and Sheila Jackson-Lee are both said to have been leaders of their freshman classes due to the advocacy of caucus members.

As in the past, women in the caucus dissented with their peers (such as Eddie Bernice Johnson’s outspoken views on the North American Free Trade Agreement), but unison was stronger than any division.  Women of the caucus in particular, stood together when challenged — they forced Congressman Henry Hyde to apologize for comments about black women during a debate over reproductive rights.

In the new millennium, the caucus has seen the number of women increase, adding, Diane Watson of California, Denise Majette of Georgia, Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, Yvette Clarke of New York, Laura Richardson of California, Marcia Fudge of Ohio, Donna Edwards of Maryland, Terri Sewell of Alabama, Frederica Wilson of Florida and Karen Bass of California.

Today, 15 black women are in the caucus.

Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, along with First Vice Chair Donna Christensen, is one of the two female leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus.  As secretary of the caucus, Clarke said the group advocates for the needs of black women in the tradition of their predecessors.

She highlighted a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation initiative, the Sojourner Truth Legacy Project, which was founded by Caroline Cheeks-Kilpatrick when she was a member of Congress.

“We have used the foundation project to really connect with other women …,” Clarke said, “to focus in on the very specific concerns, issues and desires of black women, so that there’s a specific voice that speaks to the unique position that black women find themselves in the 21st century, whether it’s women’s employment, women’s housing or women’s health and education.”

Unlike women in the past such as Chisholm, whose district she represents, Clarke believes women today have a multitude of support systems.

“She unfortunately was the only one for quite some time,” Clarke said. “We’re now 15 black women strong.  I think the ability to come together as women with a common affinity for the issues, common concerns in our constituencies, we’re able to draw strength from each other and support one another in each other’s endeavors. That’s something that the Honorable Shirley Chisholm didn’t have in terms of a support system of other women or black women more specifically.”