America Says It Values Black Women Leaders. It’s Time to Show It.

Society must not only elevate Black women leaders—it must level up the investment in our leadership.


Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) backstage before her U.S. Senate campaign launch rally at Laney College in Oakland, Calif., on Feb. 25, 2023. (Melina Mara / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

If U.S. Rep Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) makes history to become the third Black woman U.S. senator ever, she will serve there alone. Currently, there are no Black women in the Senate. However, the climb to this role is up a cliff, and that is for a nationally known political figure with 25 years of experience in Congress. Why? Money.

Black women across the country are making history winning elected office and leading political organizations, in greater numbers and at higher levels than ever before. Yet, we are still being asked to do more with less because of a massive gap in funding.

As it stands, Black women candidates only raise one-third of the money as white women. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, data shows that the 113 Black women running at every level raised only $81 million in the first three quarters of 2020, compared to the nearly $811 million pulled in by their 379 white women counterparts across party lines.

An Open Secrets study from the same period confirmed, “Black women tend to have the lowest totals in every category—particularly in overall fundraising and in the amount raised from large individual donors.”
This data mirrors candidates’ lived experiences.

When Malia Cohen ran for California state controller to run the world’s fourth biggest economy, it wasn’t her first campaign. She had five opponents in the primary election who collectively spent around $9 million trying to defeat her, while she spent around $1.8 million. Cohen won the primary by building strong coalitions of advocates and groups across the state who propelled her to victory.

In the general election, her opponent outraised her $5.9 million to $4.5 million, and collectively, PACs and Republicans spent around $5 million trying to defeat her, outspending her nearly 5 to 1—and yet, she still won. 

Oftentimes the evidence is more opaque than fundraising totals. For example, when U.S. Rep. Emilia Sykes (D) was Ohio’s House Minority Leader, she was constantly stopped by security asking her what she was doing there, even while wearing her legislators’ pin. They just couldn’t believe that a young Black woman could be an elected representative.

When you are confronted with racism and sexism from gatekeepers at work who see you everyday, imagine what it’s like to cold call to ask for money?

Later, while fundraising for her race for Ohio’s 13th Congressional District, she would often hear, “You’ll be fine, I’m going to give my money over here,” from donors. Sykes went on to outraise her opponent by over $300,000 and win the race by five points—but imagine what she could have done if she didn’t have to spend extra time on the phone explaining the stakes?

While having to do more with less is a feature of existing systems, not a bug, we cannot sit by and let rising generations of Black women inherit these challenges. Society must not only elevate Black women leaders, it must level up the investment in our leadership.

This doesn’t just impact political candidates. It impacts political organizations. Even before I started leading Emerge, which recruits and trains Democratic women candidates at all levels nationwide, I heard from other Black women-led organizations that they were not getting the same funding as white women-led organizations. And even when they did get donations, they were saddled with extra reporting requirements.

When I became president, I was clear-eyed about the need to educate people about this gap—forcing Black women to do twice the work with half the funding—and find solutions. While this is a widespread issue, it often only gets addressed in spaces for Black women. At a recent Power Rising gathering for Black women political and nonprofit executives, fundraising and growing their budgets was at the top of the agenda. This can no longer only be discussed behind closed doors.

Even with the significant headwinds Black women face, people are choosing us to lead during one of the most tumultuous periods in recent history. That’s not an accident. Americans know we have the solutions these times require.

We elected the first Black woman as vice president in 2020. There are now 27 Black women in Congress, 10 in statewide office, 368 in state legislatures, and nine leading as mayors of large cities. In fact, Emerge has 201 Black women alums in office at every level. But that’s not nearly enough, and we can’t do this work alone.

Nearly three years ago, Americans of all races marched in the streets, crying out for justice for George Floyd and victims of police violence. Donors across the country took a hard look in the mirror. For the first time, many assessed their giving through a racial justice lens.

Now I’m asking you to double down: What are you going to do to show that you value Black women leaders?