The special election of Democrat Reggie Thomas to the Kentucky Senate may have had little political consequence last December, but it did make history.
Voters made Thomas just the eighth black Kentuckian currently serving in the state legislature.
It’s a record high heading into the 2014 legislative session. But when state lawmakers reconvene in Frankfort this week it won’t include any black women.
That’s a startling discovery given African-American women are the majority of Kentucky’s black population and when you take into account the number of women in the 138-member General Assembly is the most it’s ever been.
Women in higher office has been grabbing more coverage as of late. It is a theme in Kentucky’s U.S. Senate, where Alison Lundergan Grimes—the leading Democratic candidate—has frequently mentioned being the first female senator from Kentucky, if elected.
But it’s a conversation that black female voters, candidates and lawmakers often feel left out of.
“We should be talking about African-American women as well as other women of color. But unfortunately what it looks like is that we’re talking mostly about white women in service,” says Louisville Councilwoman Attica Scott, who has considered a run for state House in the near future.
Historically, race and gender are a tough intersection in politics for black women. Many groups dedicated to grooming female candidates or lobbying for women’s issues lack racial diversity. And Scott says sexism remains an issue in black organizations where women are relegated to service roles such as secretaries or child care.
The first black female lawmaker in Kentucky was Amelia Tucker, a minister and civil rights leaders who was elected in 1961. Seven years later, two of the more famous members—Mae Street Kidd and Georgia Davis Powers—served in the House and Senate respectively.
Less than a handful have gone on to the legislature since then and the last was Eleanor Jordan, who left office in 2000.
University of Louisville political science professor Sherri Wallace says black women are pushed to the background whether their political upbringing is through African-American or women’s groups.
“Oftentimes black women find it very difficult to get elected because of this need for women to acquiesce to men so they are seen as powerful in the African-American community,” she says. “And then white women often tend to deal with their own particular issues. They don’t really see black women for leadership as they try to build it amongst themselves.”
A timeline of African-Americans in the Kentucky General Assembly
Kentucky is among 10 states without a single African-American woman in their legislature. Only Arkansas has a higher percentage of African-American residents without a black female state lawmaker.
Political newcomer Ashley Miller is hoping to get the commonwealth off that list in the coming election.
The 30-year-old Democrat is the reigning Ms. Kentucky USA and is vying for the 32nd District House seat being left open by a Republican incumbent.
Miller is aware what her candidacy represents in the fall election, and she is troubled by the lack of diversity in the halls of Frankfort. But running in a predominately white district, Miller doesn’t want to make this campaign about her being the only black women in the General Assembly.
“I’m very connected to them because in essence, if elected, I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. These are women who paved the way for me to be in this position,” she says.
“I am very passionate about race and rights, civil rights is absolutely huge, obviously without that we aren’t in the position we are in today. But also acknowledging that as a candidate and as a woman I am so much more. So I don’t know if I can put myself on that spectrum.”
Part of the reason for the lack of black women in office Miller points to are choices that they are forced to make regarding family versus career goals.
There are also fewer mentors and role models for prospective candidates to look up to. Rutgers University’s Center for Women and Politics finds that of the approximately 1,800 female state legislators serving nationwide, just 242 are African American.
Another factor experts argue cannot be overlooked is gerrymandering. Black voters are often concentrated in majority-minority districts where those handful of seats often go to men.
“So many black women are just not in the circles of power in the political parties, and if they’re active it’s more of a community organization,” Wallace says. “They’re really kind of the mules of the operation, but not really propelled to leadership. I believe that’s changing with programs like Black Girls Rock and other local efforts to show the benefits of leadership, however.
“You have younger black girls who have something to aspire, but oftentimes we’re dealing with a patriarchal view that if someone has to lead it must be a black male in order for the black community to be unified.”
Nationally, there are signs for women of color breaking out of those traditional roles more and gaining ground in elected office.
There is a record high of women in Congress that includes 13 African-American women, nine Latinas, and six Asian/Pacific Islander Americans. Scholars have also pointed to the growing rate of women who are driving minority participation and victories in elections over the past three decades.
There are women’s groups dedicated to training candidates such as Emerge America, but few are focused on training women of color to exclusively. One such initiative out of Rutgers University called Ready to Run has a diversity component, which helps recruit female candidates from minority communities with seminars teaching them to craft campaign messages and develop financial networks.
Despite those national trends and developments, there remains a skepticism among black female candidates that that could work in Kentucky, where prospects of advancing remain dim.
“I don’t know if Kentucky as a state is ready to meet the challenge of having a black woman in a position of let’s say secretary of state,” says Louisville attorney Nichole Compton, who is making a second run for district judge this year.
The culprit is clear in Compton’s view: a double standard makes it easier for voters to accept white women in positions of power compared to their black counterparts.
“I know with me personally when I’m assertive and I’m prepared and I know my stuff and I’m on it, I get labeled as the ‘ball-buster.’ And I’ve had guys say that, but when a man does it they’re high-fiving and everything’s great,” she says. “When a woman steps out, especially an African-American, you have that pressure of you’re out of line.”
If that’s the case, it doesn’t appear to effect how the few black women who do hold power in Kentucky handle their position.
During a typical day in court, Jefferson County District Judge Erica Lee Williams helps defendants without legal counsel get through their proceedings. But she is firm in her introduction with attorneys and others who appear before her on how they must address the bench.
“What you’re not going to do is speak to me as if you could have your very own reality show on MTV or TLC,” Williams said to defendants during an afternoon court session.
Williams is the only black woman on the district court bench, and one of just three black female judges in the state along with Circuit Court Judge Pam Goodwine and Appeals Court Jude Denise Clayton.
In a telephone interview with WFPL, she acknowledges the pitfalls black women face seeking office deal with, but running a courtroom every day comes before dealing with those perceptions.
“I grew up in a military family so respect is a big thing for me. It’s huge. And you’re in a courtroom, so you’re not going to talk to me a certain kind of way,” she says. “And I have to admonish people on that because they will come up chewing gum and we’re not going to play that game.”
First appointed by the governor in 2009, Williams defeated a well-funded opponent four years ago and has mounted a considerable re-election war chest if another challenge files.
She argues stereotypes about race and gender shouldn’t deter potential candidates and she is urging other black women to ignore unreasonable expectations.
“People have done it to me, saying ‘you can’t win’ because ‘you’re too young’ and ‘you’re too black.’ Remove all of those labels. Take those off and replace them with positive labels,” she says. “Come talk to me, because I always want to talk to black women that are interested in running for anything because I know how it feels when someone is talking to you and giving you good advice by telling you you can’t do something.”