Austin state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (7th) was the youngest African-American woman to be appointed to the Illinois Senate and says sexism was evident, but being intimidated by others now has disappeared.
“There has always been some general disrespect and resistance to treating me as an equal. I overcame most of this, but it has been a process of working hard to gain respect,” said Lightford, who is assistant majority leader in the state senate. “In focusing on my mission to improve education, I have felt some negative feedback, but I don’t see it as negative anymore. I see it as my job and I have grown in that way.”
Minorities and women have a hard time in general breaking into politics. But imagine serving your country while less than a quarter of your constituents look like you. That is the reality for African-American women in politics.
Women make up only 17 percent of all members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 16 percent of U.S. senators, 16 percent of all governors and 24 percent of state legislators, according to a 2008 Pew Research study.
Even with this reality, in 2012 nearly three quarters of African-American women say right now is a good time to be a black woman in America, according to a 2012 nationwide study from the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation.
And it is, as black women are excelling in education, with a higher degree attainment than black men according to Catalyst statistics, and the labor force with over one-third of black women in the management and professional roles according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As the minority of the political world, six women are speaking up: Lightford, State Rep. Kimberly du Buclet (D-Chicago), City of Chicago Treasurer Stephanie Neely, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), Ald. Lona Lane (18th), and Ald. Carrie Austin (34th)
They see the lack of women in office and are concerned that if continued, will cause the African-American female voice in politics to cease to exist.
“The fact is that it is almost like we are invisible,” said Hairston.
Politics is a realm that is dominated by men.
Of the 15 women on the city council, 10 are African-American. Those 15 women make up 30 percent of a council that according to census data represents a city with more than 51 percent of women.
So why are the numbers so low, if 69 percent of people surveyed in 2008 Pew Research study, said women and men equally make good leaders?
Austin, who started serving as alderman after her husband, former Ald. Lemuel Austin, died, said women are lacking in politics because of the mindset of not only themselves but also men.
She said men need to understand “we can do the job just as good without taking anything away from you.” She has proven that throughout her time in the 34th Ward.
“I believe that women as a whole can do the job well, but in order to break into politics, men have to say the same thing,” Austin said.
She said former Mayor Richard M. Daley and current Mayor Rahm Emmanuel believed in her abilities.
“At the time, Daley could have just picked a man to run the seat, but he saw potential in me and that was my loyalty,” Austin said. “I think with the new mayor, he saw my past record and said ‘she is a loyal citizen and she has done good for Chicago.'”
In contrast, the same Pew study said 6 percent of people think women make better political leaders. Hairston, who has served the 5th Ward since 1999, said that is evident if you look at the number of women with power in Illinois.
Carol Moseley Braun from Illinois is the first and only African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Stereotypes and racism are still barriers as these women push to be visible.
“When I was a child my mother said, you have to be twice as good to be considered equal,” Neely said.
In 2012 African American women still feel the pressures of being a double minority.
“I know people see me and they have a perception, and I have to work very hard to show them that I am well educated and that I am very capable because that is not the stereotype of black women, unfortunately.” Neely said.
Neely’s background speaks for itself: a South Side Chicago native, bachelor’s from Smith College, a MBA from the University of Chicago and a former vice president at Northern Trust Global Investments.
Her experiences help her manage a $7 billion portfolio for the city and help fight against financial literacy for people in the city.
According to the Post-Kaiser study, 85 percent of the women say they are satisfied with their lives, but one-fifth said they are treated with less respect than others.
Lane, the first African-American and the first female alderman of the 18th Ward, said she is satisfied but like Lightford, fought to gain respect.
“There are people that have tried to hold me back, such as executive directors, and people who worked with me that didn’t believe in me,” Lane said. “It is amazing how God has helped me through and has always had my back.”
Half of the women surveyed in the Post-Kaiser study say racism “is a big problem and nearly half worry about being discriminated against.” Hairston said she deals with that frequently, even when she is outside of city hall waving down a cab and has to ask a white man to get a driver’s attention.
“But there is racism everywhere. There is racism in city hall. There is racism in the public with my constituents,” Hairston said. “You recognize it and you move forward because that is ignorance.”
“Do I think I can run the world? Yes!” Austin said.
The number of women in politics is not as high as in the 1990s, but Austin, said “women have stepped up in every other way,” so lets do it in politics.
A 2008 Brookings Institute study of more than 2,000 professionals, including lawyers, educators and executives, said 56 percent of men compared to 42 percent of women have considered running for office but men are nearly 35 percent more likely to think of themselves as potential political candidates.
“Many women have a heart to serve, and we need them to show it,” Lightford said. “We need more women determined to run for office without necessarily being invited.
“I think that if women in politics like myself were to act as role models, it might make the path much easier for those interested in public service,” du Buclet said.
She said her father, whom came from Mississippi with less than a 10th grade education to become an owner of several Shell oil gas stations in Chicago, is her inspiration as she serves her first year in Springfield.
“So what I learned from growing up that I think will help me be a successful politician is the flight of working class individuals, working hard, working paycheck-to-paycheck and trying to support your family,” said du Buclet.
Hairston, who has a law degree from Loyola University, said without education “how can you create and interpret laws?”
According to the Pew study, women make up 57 percent of all college students and more than four-in-ten master students earn a degree in business.
All the women said that a top priority is serving their community and Lane said that by living in the place you govern, “Why wouldn’t you want people to love it as much as you do?”
“I have always had a passion for helping those who do not have a voice and those who are underprivileged,” said du Buclet about why she decided to be a politics.
Austin said she hopes to see a female president one day but for those that are looking to be in her world, obstacles will come but overall you have to be able to guide your community, state or country to a prosperous future.
“If I can help someone along the way, then my living won’t be in vein.” Austin said.