On June 18, 2012, we will publish Black Women & Politics in New York City by Julie A. Gallagher, assistant professor of history at Pennsylvania State University, Brandywine. Professor Gallagher took time recently to answer our questions about her new book.
Q: What is the timeframe of your study?
Gallagher: My study begins in the 1910s and concludes in the 1970s. The timeframe covers the period from the final push for women’s suffrage and the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the North, through Shirley Chisholm’s historic run for the U.S. presidency in 1972.
Q: Why did you focus on New York City?
Gallagher: New York City is more than a backdrop in this story—it was a way of life, a vibrant arena of activism, and a place where important connections were forged. I
focused on New York City for three reasons. First, it was a significant destination for African Americans moving out of the South starting in the 1910s; by the 1920s, Harlem had become known as the “Negro Mecca.” As the African American population grew, major institutions in black life and in the national culture were founded in New York City including the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Harlem YWCA and YMCA, and the Schomburg Center. The networks women like Dorothy Height, Pauli Murray, Ella Baker, Constance Baker Motley, Anna Arnold Hedgeman, and Shirley Chisholm forged in New York City and the skills they developed in the city’s organizations shaped their thinking and the ways they engaged in political activism as they moved into national prominence. Second, despite Tammany Hall’s dominance in New York City through the 1940s, a broad array of political parties vied for, and sometimes achieved power, including Communists, Socialists, American Labor Party, the Liberal Party, and Republicans. African American women ran for office on all of those party ballots which demonstrated the diversity of political opinion and the richness of political life that thrived in New York City until the McCarthy era. Third, I am a native New Yorker and remember Shirley Chisholm as an exciting, local politician. I wanted to write about how she came to office and what she accomplished when she got there. What I realized, as I dived into the archives, was that there was a wonderfully rich history of women who had engaged in formal politics before Chisholm and I felt their story was important to tell as well.
Q: What does participation in New York City politics reveal about larger trends of African American female participation in national politics?
Gallagher: Although African American women ran for office on a number of political parties’ tickets, they had most success when they forged their way into the Democratic Party and won on that ticket. The New York City story portends the national political dynamics, especially after 1960, and underscores the centrality of the Democratic Party for African American women.
Q: How did female activists appeal to the larger population for support?
Gallagher: Female activists appealed to the larger population by focusing on their past experience with community-level activism and their dedication to struggles for social justice and racial equality. A number of black female candidates, including Sara Speaks, Ada Jackson, Bessie Buchanan, and Shirley Chisholm also appealed directly to African American female voters by referring to the need for black women to have their voice heard in politics. Oftentimes, it should be noted, the community asked women to run for office; it was the political party bosses that needed convincing.
Q: How do the views of these activists reflect the communities they represent?
Gallagher: These activists were dedicated to racial equality and social justice. Their commitments to eradicating racial discrimination in job hiring and housing, their efforts to get better schools and safer streets, and their determination to secure African American political leadership for predominantly black communities were reflective of their own
values, but also of their communities’ priorities.
Q: Do you feel that the work of these female African American political activists has made in an impact in current politics? If so, how?
Gallagher: I feel that these female African American political activists have made an impact in current politics in some important ways which need to be acknowledged.
Their impact is felt in the issues that were introduced into the national discourse and the legislation that was secured starting in the 1960s, including more focus on poverty, gender discrimination, racial inequality, and child care. Moreover, since Shirley Chisholm’s historic election to the House of Representatives in 1968, there have been a small but growing number of African American women in Congress, and a notable number of African American women in state-level offices and municipal government. These women make substantial contributions to policy debates at all levels. And at the same time, just as the generations I write about in Black Women and Politics in New York City did, these current African American female legislators serve as mentors and as inspiration to a new generation of young women and men who are now only dreaming about their future.
Q: What do you believe needs to be done to make Shirley Chisholm’s “someday” possible?
Gallagher: To a larger extent than Americans like to believe, at the national level politics is still very much dominated by men – often white men. Currently women comprise 17% of the U.S. Congress; African American women make up 3% of the members of Congress. There has only been one African American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate in its entire history (Carol Moseley Braun.) There have been no African American female governors. The conventional pipelines to the presidency – governors’ offices and the U.S. Senate – have no black women in them. For Shirley Chisholm’s “someday” to become possible, African American women need to be in these political pipelines. And, the levels of racial and gender discrimination that African American women face as a combined dynamic in this country need to diminish – significantly. Despite the fact that African American women have generally achieved educational parity with white women, pernicious stereotypes still linger in the national imagination (variations of the “welfare queen” epithet have persisted since Ronald Reagan gave it life in the 1980s). It needs to be much more common for people around the entire nation, not just in pockets of it, to associate concepts of national and presidential leadership with women as well as men generally, and with African American women as well as African American men in particular. I fear that “someday” is still a long way off, but I would love to be proved wrong.