As Representative Barbara Lee hits the campaign trail for a Senate seat in California, significant hurdles await her. The race is expected to be one of the most competitive, and expensive, in the country. Even more daunting, she will face one of the strongest glass ceilings in American politics.
When Ms. Lee, 76, was first elected to Congress in 1998, the House had 11 Black women in office, and only one Black woman served in the Senate. With the swearing-in of Jennifer McClellan as the first Black woman to represent Virginia on Tuesday, the House now has 28 Black women in its ranks, a new high-water mark, but the Senate has none.
“It blows my mind that in 2023, I am a first,” Ms. McClellan said in an interview Tuesday. “Frankly, it is this imagination gap that people have had for a very long time — that because they haven’t seen a Black woman in these offices, they can’t imagine it.”
Over the past decade, Black women have made tremendous gains: Kamala Harris broke barriers as the nation’s first Black, Asian American and female vice president. More Black women are leading major cities, and many more have sought Senate seats and governorships.
But winning those offices still poses familiar and enduring challenges for women of color, and Black women in particular. Many confront both blatant racism and sexism, along with subtler forms of racial and gender bias that, candidates and political advocates said, make it more difficult for them to raise money to pay for the costly work of hiring staff and buying advertising in expensive markets.
The numbers are stark: Only two Black women have served in the Senate in its 233-year history — Ms. Harris, who was elected in 2016 in California, and Carol Moseley Braun, the Illinois Democrat who served one term in the 1990s.
Out of 64 Black women who have run for the Senate since 2010, only eight have secured major-party nominations. No Black woman has ever been elected governor and, out of the 22 who have run for the position since 2010, only four have become major-party nominees, according to data compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. All of the nominees have been Democrats.
“It is absolutely shameful that we do not have a Black woman in the Senate, especially given the contributions of Black women to this country,” said Stefanie Brown James, a co-founder and senior adviser at the Collective PAC, which works to elect Black candidates.
Interviewed before her swearing-in, Ms. McClellan said her run for Congress after nearly two decades as a state lawmaker was much easier than her first, when she was 32 and had never held public office but had been highly involved in Democratic politics. But she said her trajectory showed the higher standards Black women must meet.
“We have to prove ourselves at another level that others are not required to,” she said. “I just want to emphasize that because someone’s experience may be different, it doesn’t mean it is less valuable.”
Black leaders and advocates working to increase women’s representation in politics still see signs for optimism. The dearth of Black women in government has encouraged more to seek higher office. And much like the generation of Black female politicians in the mold of Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress, in 1968, this next wave of leaders has high-profile role models. They include Ms. Harris; Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman on the Supreme Court; and Stacey Abrams, whose first campaign for governor in Georgia in 2018 propelled her to prominence as a political tactician, even if her second run exposed her limitations.
“The possibilities of the electoral map for Black women’s leadership has expanded over the last 10 years, and the numbers of Black women running and winning — and running and losing — are all rich data points to be able to build the blueprint forward,” said Glynda C. Carr, president and co-founder of Higher Heights for America, which is dedicated to helping Black women win elected office.
The void in the Senate in particular has served as a motivator, said A’shanti F. Gholar, president of Emerge, which recruits and trains Democratic women to run for office. “So many bills impact Black women, and we don’t have a voice in implementing them at all,” she said, citing legislation on abortion rights and the high mortality rate among Black mothers.
But for Black women, the hurdles to higher office begin even before they decide to run. In races for governor, most voters still tend to picture men in the job, and they require women to provide far more evidence about qualifications, according to research by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a nonpartisan group working to increase the ranks of women in politics whose namesake is a Massachusetts philanthropist with no relation to the congresswoman.
“Men can release their résumé, and it is taken at face value,” said Amanda Hunter, the foundation’s executive director. “Women have to show what they have accomplished in each position.”
An increasingly toxic and divisive political environment that often turns Black female candidates and politicians into targets on social media has only added to the burden of entry, former candidates and campaign officials said. A prime example is Ms. Harris, who faced an onslaught of racist and sexist online attacks on her gender, identity and appearance during and after the 2020 campaign.
Racism and sexism are common enough on the campaign trail, and women running for office, Black or white, are peppered with concerns about their electability. The question is pointed: Can she win?
Black women often come up against another question: “Can she win enough white voters?” said Kelly Dittmar, the research director and a scholar at the Rutgers center.
In fact, the number of Black women serving the House from majority-white congressional districts jumped to five in 2020 from two in 2018. But Nadia E. Brown, the chairwoman of the women’s and gender studies program at Georgetown University, said Black female candidates still have greater difficulty winning in statewide races in part because media coverage — both reflecting and reinforcing the biases of voters in general — tends to treat Black female candidates “as experts only in issues that Black women disproportionately deal with,” minimizing the scope of their experience.
“They are not seen as the go-to people on tax policy or the go-to people on immigration reform,” she said.
Despite the obstacles, the support networks have grown, and in recent election cycles Black women have made headway in hard-to-win places. In 2020, Marquita Bradshaw, a Tennessee Democrat and environmental activist, was the only Black woman to secure a major-party nomination for Senate.
Last cycle, all four Black women nominated for Senate came from Southern states.
In Florida, Representative Val Demings raised about $81 million, the third-highest fund-raising amount of any Senate candidate, to take on Senator Marco Rubio. He raised nearly $51 million — and won.
In the Senate race in North Carolina, Cheri Beasley, a Democrat and former chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court, raised more than double what her Republican opponent, Representative Ted Budd, pulled in, but was outmatched in outside spending by Republicans. That plus Mr. Budd’s endorsement by former President Donald J. Trump seemed to tip the scales in an otherwise sleepy race.
The two other Black women who won nominations for Senate races last cycle — Krystle Matthews, a former state lawmaker from South Carolina, and Natalie James, a first-time candidate in Arkansas — never raised anywhere near the several million dollars required to mount competitive campaigns in those deep-red states, each bringing in only around $100,000.
Ms. James, a real estate agent and political activist from Little Rock, helped organize mass protests after the murder of George Floyd. She has been considering running again, she said, as she has watched Ms. Lee roll out her campaign.
In the California race to succeed Senator Dianne Feinstein, Ms. Lee, the highest-ranking Black woman in the House, has several advantages. She serves on powerful House appropriations and budget committees and has gained national recognition as a leading antiwar voice in Congress. But she started behind her competitors in fund-raising, and her rivals, Representatives Adam Schiff and Katie Porter, built national profiles and donor networks during the Trump administration.
Ms. Lee, whose announcement video underscored the racism she has confronted, said she was first inspired to run by Ms. Chisholm, who took her on as an organizer and director during her historic 1972 presidential bid and, Ms. Lee said, taught her to dismantle unjust rules.
But Ms. Lee had been challenging the status quo long before. As a high school student, she successfully challenged cheerleader tryouts that were overseen by a small committee and excluded women of color. The rule changes she helped usher in allowed the entire student body to pick its squad members, and Ms. Lee became the school’s first Black cheerleader.
As she now runs for the Senate, she said, a common refrain she hears from white voters and potential donors is: “We love you, Barbara. We think you would make a great senator. But Adam Schiff, he just looks like a senator.”
“It is the same situation as years ago, when I did not look like what a cheerleader should look like,” she said. “But all of this is positive because I am challenging that.”