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Sisters in the StatehouseBlack Women and Legislative Decision Making$

Nadia E. Brown

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780199352432

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: April 2014

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199352432.001.0001

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Formative Experiences

Formative Experiences

Chapter:
(p.27) Chapter 2 Formative Experiences
Source:
Sisters in the Statehouse
Author(s):

Nadia E. Brown

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199352432.003.0002

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 2 provides detailed portraits of the Black women who are Maryland state legislators. It addresses identity formation and its impact on the political behaviors of Black women who are Maryland state legislators. This chapter serves as the foundation for explaining how identity influences legislative decision making, and uses feminist life histories to explicate how personal experiences, race, gender, class, and other identities determine how legislators behave.

Keywords:   identity formation, feminist life histories, personal experience

Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.

—Zora Neale Hurston

There’s always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself—whether it’s Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc.—because that’s the piece that they need to key in to. They want to dismiss everything else.

—Audre Lorde

The Black women in Maryland’s state legislature may come from diverse and complex personal backgrounds, but there are also many similarities between them, including generational commonalities (i.e., cohort), the circumstances of their upbringings, and their experiences with racial and gender roles. While legislators’ backgrounds are readily available via their campaign materials, legislative Web sites, and personal social-networking sites, scholars have yet to fully capture the relationship between who the legislators are and how they legislate. Aside from the brief introduction to a legislator’s personal background that he or she provides during campaign speeches, interviews with journalists, and comments made during legislative sessions, scholars know very little about political elites’ personal lives. In this chapter I examine the relationship between legislators’ formative experiences and their political behavior. Because they often lack access to legislators’ more personal experiences, scholars instead use race, gender, and class as heuristics for understanding how a Black woman legislator might vote on a particular piece of legislation. While these rubrics must be considered, I find that understanding a legislator’s formative experiences (p.28) and considering identity from an intersectional standpoint is essential to a well-rounded understanding of legislators’ decision-making processes.

Barry Burden calls legislators’ life experiences, interests, and expertise the “personal roots of representation” (2007, 5) and goes on to illustrate that personal factors can drive legislators’ positions on certain issues (9). However, political representation is influenced in myriad ways. Institutional factors—such as district concerns, partisanship, committee systems, party leadership, lobbyists, administration, interest groups, and campaign activists—influence the ways legislators respond to policy. Typical legislative studies use roll call voting patterns, committee assignments, agenda setting, and legislators’ behavior to draw conclusions about the influence of race or gender on legislators’ policy preferences (Bratton and Haynie 1999; Bratton, Haynie, and Reingold 2006; Haynie 2001; Reingold 2000; Swers 2002; Tate 1994). When an explanatory variable—such as race, gender, or the rarely investigated intersection of race and gender identity, which I refer to as race-gender identity—is a statistically significant predictor, the researcher deduces that racial, gender, or race-gender identity causes legislators’ behavior. While it has its merits, this method does not allow for rich or detailed portrayals of how legislators’ identities influence their actions and therefore fails to capture the nuance and dynamism of identity. Conducting interviews and life histories with the majority of the Black women state legislators helped ground my study in a broad historical and cultural framework. As a result, I am able to represent the inherent subjectivity of women’s experiences and to illuminate the meaning and significance of the policy preferences of Black women state legislators. Because my study examines the extent to which Black women’s experiences, identities, and worldviews shape their policy-making decisions, it is the first to reveal the importance of Black women’s personal identities in shaping their legislative decision-making processes.

To understand the role that race and gender have played in the legislators’ life journeys, I conducted feminist life histories with eighteen out of twenty Black women Maryland state legislators during the summer of 2011. A feminist life history interview is an interview in which the participant narrates the story of her life: her past, present, and what she sees in her own future. I designed the format for my feminist life history study in a way that would yield insights about the social and material contexts in which the legislators learned about and enacted their social identities. In the initial data analysis, I discerned that Black women state legislators routinely used storytelling techniques to expand on or illustrate their arguments, opinions, or beliefs, telling stories with themes that corresponded to the points that they were trying to make. When I studied these stories, I (p.29) observed patterns, namely, that the women in this sample had difficulty representing singular identities. In other words, no legislator spoke solely of being a woman or of being African American. Instead, the identities they incorporated into their narratives were overlapping, intersectional, and interconnected, and their experiences mediated by linked views of the salient parts of their identities.

In addition to the legislative decision-making processes that the women outlined, their feminist life histories enabled me to make connections that were invisible to previous scholars, who used race, gender, or class as proxies for identity. I was able to move past the fixed and static accounts of identity and conduct instead an intersectional analysis of how identity affects the legislative process within a broader context that included sexual orientation, religion, motherhood status, and marital status. Gathering feminist life histories enabled me to glean information about the Black women of the Maryland state legislature to incorporate in a more holistic picture of these women and how they came to be who they are as legislators.

I started by asking the legislators to share their memories about childhood and young adulthood. To move the conversation toward contemporary issues, I then asked about their legislative work and their current personal lives (see the appendix for information on my methods). Their answers helped me see how these women’s experiences have shaped their identity. I culled their responses into eight broad themes: messages about race, experiences during segregation, direct experiences with discrimination, religious upbringing, socioeconomic background, community activism and interest in politics instilled by parents, gender roles, and current family life. Table 2.1 provides a concise overview of the women in this study. I readily acknowledge that these themes are overlapping; none exists in a vacuum. True to intersectionality theory, Black women’s life stories, although shaped by the confluences of race, gender, and class, are also peppered with other interconnecting identities. In the process of their highlighting significant moments in their lives, the Black women in this study illustrate that identity is varied and fluid, in turn making it irresponsible for scholars to view Black women as a monolithic political group.

Table 2.1. African American Women Maryland State Legislators 2009 and 2011

Name

Age Cohort

Class Background

Region of Origin/Childhood Home

Relationship Status

Motherhood Status

Occupation

Legislative Tenure (years)

Olivia Jenkins

50–55

Middle class

Baltimore

Divorced

Two children

County government  program director

10 or more

Cassandra Ross

70–75

Middle class

Jamaica

Divorced

Three children; five grandchildren

Nurse; Entrepreneur

10 or more

Tanisha Harold

55–60

Middle class

DC/Prince  George’s County

Divorced

Two children

College coordinator

6–10

Fatima Coleman

30–35

Working class

DC/Prince  George’s County

Married

One child

Lawyer

5 or less

Abigail Watson

70–75

———

Florida

Married

Three children

Educator

10 or more

Julissa Moore

30–35

Middle class

DC/Prince George’s County

Single

None

Lawyer

5 or less

Keira Miller

45–50

Working class

Montana

Divorced

Two children

Social worker

10 or more

Justine Anderson

60–65

Working class

DC/Prince  George’s County

Married

Four children; four grandchildren

Union leader

6–10

Angela James

70–75

Lower class

Alabama

Widowed

Four children

Author;  Entrepreneur

5 or less

Naomi Young

40–45

Middle class

Baltimore

Single

None

Lawyer

6–10

Leila Baker

40–45

Middle class

Pennsylvania

Married

None

Professor,  nonprofit director

5 or less

Ingrid Jefferson

50–55

Working class

Baltimore

Married

Five children; eight grandchildren

Consultant;  Union leader

5 or less

Bella Campbell

80–85

Working class

North Carolina/ Baltimore

Widowed

Educator

10 or more

Yasmin Wood

45–50

Middle class

DC/Prince  George’s County

Married

Five children

Freelance writer;  Media relations

5 or less

Yvonne Scott

70–75

Middle class

Western  Maryland

Widowed

None

Educator

10 or more

Brenda Perry

60–65

Working class

Virginia

Married

One child; two grandchildren

Government  employee

10 or more

Bailey Smith

45–50

Middle class

Baltimore

Single

None

Lawyer

10 or more

Pamela Price

55–60

Middle class

Baltimore

Married

None

Entrepreneur

10 or more

Imani Hayes

75–80

———

Virginia

Married

Three children

Professor

10 or more

Raquel Simmons

60–65

Working class

Pennsylvania

Single

None

Entrepreneur

10 or more

Kenya Barnes

40–45

———

Illinois

———

———

Lobbyist, attorney

5 or less

Estrella Henderson

75–80

———

Baltimore

———

Six children

Teacher’s aid

10 or more

Some information is supplemented for the legislator’s biographies on the Maryland State Legislature Web site.Tenure is calculated based on the 2011 legislative session.Class status reflects the legislators’ self-report on the class background of their family of origin.

Theoretical Framework

Black women who are political elites and activists, both historically and in the present day, have demonstrated a connectedness to both gender and racial identities. Black women’s political socialization and orientation have been shaped by the unique history and experiences of Black women in (p.30) (p.31) (p.32) America. The African American women in the Maryland state legislature have a strong sense of racial identity that is closely linked to Black political identity—a heuristic understanding of how Black cultural, historical, and political identities are fused to produce a seemingly monolithic Black political agenda. Nevertheless, this strong cultural and racial identity shows in the high likelihood that Black women Maryland state legislators will choose to serve as advocates for the needs of African Americans.

The Black women in the Maryland state legislature display a gender consciousness that stems from their experiences as women rather than from any commitment to feminism; none of them self-identify as feminists consistent with the majority of African American women who do not use this label (Anderson, Kanner, and Elsayegh 2009). It is unsurprising that members of racial and ethnic groups are less likely to identify as feminists; these groups often perceive feminism as reflecting only the concerns of and solutions for middle-class White American women. “Many black women view feminism as a movement that at best, is exclusively for women and, at worst, dedicated to attacking or eliminating men” (Collins 2000, 11). Black women have historically had an uneasy relationship with White women, feminist organizations, Black men, and Black Nationalist organizations. In fact, history details the tribulations of Black women such as Harriet Tubman, Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Barrier Williams, Elaine Brown, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer and other Black women activists who suffered within the civil rights movement, Black power movement, and the women’s movement (Giddings 1984; Higginbotham 1992).

Alice Walker (1983) famously noted that feminism does not fully include the perspectives of African American women. Black women practice a form of feminism that is clearly distinct from what is typically understood to be feminism and in the process disavow neither their status as women nor their race. Undeniably, the work of Black feminism is always conducted from the intersectional vantage point of being both Black and women and is a generally recognized phenomenon that derives from the experiences of African American women. Indeed, Black feminism grew from the “othering” that Black women perceived as coming from Black men and White women. Black women have not had the luxury of fighting oppression on just one front; therefore, Black feminism grew out Black “women’s historical experiences, social positions, and indigenous efforts to build multiple movements within the Black community and between the Black community and many other communities” (Dawson 2001, 140). Alice Walker also coined the term womanism, which describes a phenomenon similar to Black feminism. Womanism recognizes that both the racist and classist aspects of (White) feminism and opposes separatist ideologies, (p.33) viewing Black men as integral parts of Black women’s lives—as their lovers, children, and family members. Both Black feminism and womanism describe the perspectives and experiences of Black women in a way that diverges from the White feminist movement.

However, Black feminism remains an important element in Black political theory (Dawson 2001; Simien 2006). It supports the struggle for Black liberation by pursuing social justice on all fronts, rather than dividing members into factions to fight economic exploitation, racial discrimination, gender discrimination, and heterosexism. Patricia Hill Collins (2001) asserts that modern Black feminism grew out of Black women’s growing dissatisfaction with the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Given the history of U.S. racial segregation, many Black feminist activities also grew out of Black Nationalist projects. “Thus, Black women’s path to ‘feminist consciousness’ often occurs within the context of antiracist social justice projects, many of them influenced by Black nationalist ideologies. . . . To look for Black Feminism by searching for U.S. Black women who self-identify as ‘Black Feminists’ misses the complexity of how Black feminist practices actually operate” (Collins 1993, 31).

In this study I challenge the existing belief that Black women choose a racially constructed identity that strongly affects their political attitudes rather than one based on gender (Gay and Tate 1998). Instead, I posit that Black women use an intersectional framework of identity that accounts for concealed inequalities or those excluded from conceptions of the model of identity found in traditional linked-fate methodological approaches (Dawson 1994), which are typically used to study Black women (e.g., Simien 2006).

Intertwined with race and gender, class is another component of Black women’s identity. Social class refers to the degree of access one has to resources and to power (Lerner 1997). Class determines one’s access to education, political power, land acquisition, technology, and important social networks (Bell and Nkomo 2003). Class is multilayered, relational, and interdependent with other social identities. Economic success and social privilege are on a continuum that positions society’s members in culturally specific ways. While William Julius Wilson (1978) and Michael Dawson (1994) disagree on the economic status of African Americans, as readily seen in their glass “half empty, half full” debate, it is poignantly clear that there are two Black Americas—one middle class and the other lower class. Whereas it is important to note the differences in social strata, gender, sexual orientation, multiracialism, and deracialization among Blacks, African American women’s identities are fundamentally constructed via race, class, and gender. Hall explains, “Race and gender are the modalities through (p.34) which class is lived; disentangling them is impossible” (1989, 68). An intersectional approach helps me to capture the complex factors that shape the lives and legislative priorities of Black women and examine the influence of race-gender identities on Black women’s policy priorities in the Maryland state legislature. Utilizing the legislators’ personal narratives to create case studies of distinct public policies allows me to delve into the complexity of the relationships that define their social networks. From this perspective, intersectionality enables scholars to consider the full range of dimensions in a single-group analysis.

Factors that Shaped the Legislators’ Identities

The majority of the Black women state legislators grew up in the neighborhoods that they represent. Only eight out of the eighteen legislators interviewed were raised outside of their district. These eight grew up in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Montana, Jamaica, or western Maryland. While the communities they grew up in differ, the legislators share some similarities in background. In particular, there are cohorts of legislators who attended segregated schools, grew up in middle-class neighborhoods, or lived in working-class communities during their formative years. These physical spaces shaped legislators’ senses of identity and influenced their worldviews.

Messages about Race

All of the women in this sample report receiving positive messages from their parents about being Black. Psychology literature demonstrates that ethnic and racial minority parents help their children understand race or ethnicity within the larger sociopolitical structure, thereby ensuring their children’s adaptive functioning. These methods include: “(a) cultural socialization (i.e., promoting cultural customs, values, and traditions); (b) minority socialization (i.e., promoting awareness of and preparation to cope with minority status); and (c) mainstream socialization (i.e., promoting goals and values of the dominate culture)” (Hughes and Chen 1997). Parents’ messages to their children about race vary widely. For example, some parents may encourage their children to value their history and culture, others may emphasize racial barriers, and others may highlight cultural pluralism. Children’s racial socialization influences how they think (p.35) about group identity. For example, the African American children of mothers who believed that it was important to teach children about race are more likely to demonstrate preferences for African Americans when forced to choose between Blacks and Whites in specific racial group tasks (Spencer 1983). Conversely, children whose parents overemphasized racial barriers and discrimination were more likely to display maladaptive behaviors, such as distrust and anger toward mainstream institutions (Marshall 1995). Finally, parents’ own experiences with racial socialization and race-related experiences also influenced their children’s racial socialization (Belsky 1984; Ogbu 1985). While the way in which each woman was taught about her Blackness differs, each readily reported that she was proud to be African American.

When asked what messages they received, if any, about being Black in America, ten women responded that Blacks have to work harder than Whites to achieve the same things. Linda Williams contends that the old “adage that Black parents often tell their children, ‘You’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as far,’ seems to partially explain the puzzle of Black women’s success in winning public office” (2001, 314). The legislators that grew up in predominately Black communities do not recall receiving special messages from their parents about what it meant to be Black. For these thirteen women, the diversity within their communities provided walking examples of Blackness. Three younger legislators who grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, detailed that there were Black professionals in the community alongside unemployed and blue-collar Blacks. The range of African Americans in their communities made it difficult for these women to articulate what “Blackness” meant to them. Similarly, Delegate Yasmin Wood describes her race-related socialization growing up in Washington, DC, “I had an Afrocentric education in the DC public schools. So I had the opposite experience of those who did not learn Black culture in school. Instead, I didn’t think that White people ever did anything special because I learned so much about Black people. Plus, my dad and stepmom were very educated. They made sure that I was educated. They didn’t tolerate any ‘ghetto stuff’” (Personal interview, July 6, 2011).

Although they grew up with positive Black examples around them, these legislators also received messages from their parents specifically about what it meant to be Black. Delegate Keira Miller received raced, classed, and gendered explanations of how she was supposed to carry herself as a Black woman. She stated, “My mother used to tell me to be a lady. I was taught etiquette. She also told me ‘Don’t let White people see you acting nigger-ish’” (Personal interview, July 29, 2011). Senator Raquel Simmons was told by her parents that being Black meant “a sense of entitlement; me (p.36) and my siblings were expected to be a certain way, respectful” (Personal interview, June 16, 2011). In many ways, these legislators’ quotes indicate the interconnectedness of race and class in American society. Discussions of Blackness carried messages both implicitly and explicitly laced with ideas about middle-class respectability.

One younger delegate grew up in Prince George’s County in middle-class Black neighborhoods. Delegate Fatima Coleman attended elementary school in Seat Pleasant, Maryland, and then high school in Capitol Heights, Maryland, in the 1980s. She now considers her experience in Prince George’s an anomaly. “Growing up in PG is different because there are a lot of professional Blacks. The schools I attended were predominately Black. The majority of my teachers were Black. So growing up in PG, I didn’t realize that there were racial tensions because the majority of the people I encountered were Black. I didn’t experience racial tension until I attended the University of Maryland for undergrad” (Personal interview, July 29, 2011). The delegate grew up in Prince George’s County during a time when Blacks and other racial and ethnic minorities were settling into the suburbs surrounding Washington, DC (Frasure-Yokley, forthcoming). As a result, she had a plethora of Black role models. This delegate vividly remembers the 1986 election of Vivian M. Dodson as the first Black mayor of Capitol Heights. Delegate Coleman and her mother had paid close attention to this election. Although her mother would remind her that “Blacks have to strive harder than others to be treated equally,” she remembers Prince George’s County as a supportive place for African Americans, with little racial discrimination.

Indeed, Blackness is interpreted broadly by these women and their families. It is notable that, despite the fact that they all come from different regions, economic backgrounds, and generations, all interpret Blackness through middle-class norms. These middle-class norms are filtered through a phenomenon that is closely linked to African American womanhood: the politics of respectability, which also informs Black political identity in a guiding way. Manners and morality were means by which African Americans redefined themselves outside of the dominant racist discourses. And while the politics of respectability was used—particularly by African American women—as a form of resistance, it also implied full acceptance of mainstream social values (Higginbotham 1993). Gaining the respect of Whites was intertwined with racial uplift, and Blacks attempted to debunk White supremacist rhetoric by adhering to strict moral codes, attempting to personify White Victorian middle-class ideals vis-à-vis the politics of respectability. The Black “female talented tenth” and the upper crust of Black society were critical of members of their own race who they did not believe (p.37) were upholding middle-class ideals (Higginbotham 1993). Thus, pointing to a complicated and polemical relationship that further illustrates the problematic nature of the idea of linked fate, Black Women’s Club Movement participants were at odds with lower status African Americans (Giddings 1984).

Racial uplift initiatives were often led by educated, middle-class Blacks who sought to advance the social, economic, moral, and physical conditions of lower-income African Americans. Women such as Mary McCleod Bethune and Nannie Helen Burroughs were among the Black women who led and promoted middle-class Black women’s involvement in racial uplift in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Perhaps racial justice promotes class injustice, however. Respectability politics excluded legions of Blacks who could not (or chose not to) conform to gender roles, economic activities, and public behaviors that were viewed as legitimate by Black elites. While Jim Crow and White supremacy prevented African Americans from achieving full citizenship, the Black bourgeoisie claimed moral superiority and special recognition within the nation’s hierarchical racist structure by distancing themselves from the masses of unrespectable Blacks (Ferguson 2002). While early Black reformers conflated race and class in their pursuit of racial uplift (Ferguson 2002), scholars have found that the civil rights movement betrayed the interests of poor Blacks (Morris 1984; West 1984). Among Black women in particular, those who work as unskilled laborers, have found that their precarious economic status points to further marginalization within intraracial politics when gender and class are accounted for within a nationalistic context. In sum, “given a social condition that is also compounded by other oppressions, Black women have necessarily been concerned with effecting, at the very least, an amelioration of economic and gender discriminations” (King 1988, 57). It was middle-class Blacks who were best positioned to take advantage of affirmative action policies and electoral politics.

The consequences of class polarization associated with racial uplift in the Black community continues to impact all African Americans. The politics of respectability was fundamentally conservative in action but radical in its claims that Blacks could be as respectable as—or more respectable—than Whites. Following what was an essentialist Black political identity gave Blacks agency to redefine themselves, albeit in very heteropatriarchal terms. The need to (re)affirm Blacks’ humanity, however, later created a discourse of respectability that only reified sexism, homophobia, elitism, and classism. However, the legislators’ narratives above illustrate that class and the restrictive politics of respectability disrupts monistic race politics more forcibly than gender for some of the lawmakers. While gender is a (p.38) mediating force in Delegate Keira Miller’s narrative, the other legislators speak to the role that class plays in defining their Blackness.

Experiences During Segregation

A mid-Atlantic state, Maryland played an influential role in Jim Crow politics. Many key players in the fight for equality called Maryland home, including Frederick Douglass, Harriett Tubman, Thurgood Marshall, and Lillie May Jackson. These activists held the state accountable for its race-based discrimination (Smith 2008). As a border state, Maryland was unique in that segregation and integration existed simultaneously within its borders. Indeed, in some cities such as Cambridge, Maryland, Blacks were allowed to vote and hold political office during the late 1880s. Yet Maryland law permitted segregated schools and neighborhoods. Levy (2003) illustrates how Maryland’s segregation embarrassed the Kennedy administration during the Cold War because African diplomats were forced to stay in segregated public accommodations. Challenges by integrationists ultimately forced the local and state governments to desegregate. In fact, several of the Black women legislators lived through Maryland’s struggle to end both de facto and de jure Jim Crow segregation.

Six legislators attended segregated schools; however, only two of legislators attended primary school prior to Brown v. Board of Education (1954). One of these legislators was eighty-one at the time of her feminist life history interview. Growing up between her older sisters’ houses in Baltimore and her father’s house in Charlotte, North Carolina, Delegate Bella Campbell said, at first, “Segregation didn’t bother me” (Personal interview, June 20, 2011). She lived primarily in segregated neighborhoods and went to segregated schools and segregated churches. This delegate explained that the first time she realized she was Black was when she questioned why she could play with the two White children who lived near her Baltimore neighborhood but could not attend the same schools. This encounter changed her perception of racial relations. “I realized that I then needed to adjust my expectations of the world. Even as kids, people knew that you couldn’t go to school with Whites. I couldn’t expect to go to school with them” (Personal interview, June 20, 2011). Delegate Campbell’s story reflects the era of de jure segregation that shaped her life experiences. During her feminist life history interview she mentioned segregation in a matter-of-fact way—absent of emotion and as a natural artifact of American history. While she does not provide details about her experiences of segregated life, this delegate moves the conversation toward her work with (p.39) Baltimore public schools and her connection to her neighborhood institutions. This conversation flows organically. However, it is clear that her connections to her community and neighborhood schools are directly related to segregation because she grew up in an all-Black population. For her and others, the de jure death of Jim Crow did not signal the end of all Black institutions and communities in East Baltimore.

Also born pre-Brown, Senator Yvonne Scott attended segregated Maryland public schools. This senator fondly remembers her time in segregated schools. She explained the benefits of having Black teachers. “I was taught that being Black was a positive thing. Teachers told me that I was intelligent and always encouraged me. Prior to integration, everyone in the community encouraged the kids to do well. It was a community effect. The church and the school were the life blood of the community” (Personal interview, July 18, 2011). After Brown, Senator Scott attended an integrated school outside of her community. She remembers there being an “instant” gap between the Black children and the community school she attended. This senator is visibly moved when talking about the effects of integration. She recalls that the “absence of Black teachers [in integrated schools] left us with no one we could relate to” (Personal interview, July 18, 2011). This absence of Black teachers also implied that Black students lost parental figures within the schools “who always reminded us to behave and stay away from bad company” (Personal interview, July 18, 2011). While she mourns having missed the positive influences of Black teachers and other benefits of attending a segregated school, as an adult this senator helped to integrate Prince George’s County public schools. She also worked to integrate the hotels and restaurants along U.S. Route 40 and U.S. Route 1. Her quest for full integration was activated by her involvement in the civil rights movement. Still, although she celebrates the accomplishments of ending de jure segregation in Maryland, Senator Scott laments the loss of the positive elements of segregation.

Born in 1954, Delegate Olivia Jenkins attended a segregated elementary school because “people ignored Brown” (Personal interview, July 25, 2011). She grew up in a Black suburb in Baltimore County, in the district she represents today. This delegate first attended an integrated school in the sixth grade. As one of three Black students who attended this middle school, she vividly remembers a White boy saying that “he wasn’t allowed to play with me because I was Black” (Personal interview, July 25, 2011). It was during her middle-school years that Delegate Jenkins learned that, to succeed, Blacks had to be twice as good as Whites. This delegate enjoyed and excelled in math and science in middle and high school. But “girls weren’t pushed into the sciences back then” so instead she became a psychology major in (p.40) college instead of majoring in a science, technology, engineering, or math field. Her high school guidance counselors highly encouraged her to attend Morgan State University, a historically Black university located in northeastern Baltimore. Delegate Jenkins explained that guidance counselors had assumed that the college-bound African American students would naturally attend Morgan. However, Delegate Jenkins enrolled in the newly created University of Maryland, Baltimore County. It is clear, however, that the delegate’s experiences in the integrated Baltimore County public school system were both gendered and racialized when she was told that Black women do not major in the hard sciences. These experiences would later inform her political activism on behalf of women and minorities.

Born in 1955, Senator Pamela Price grew up in segregated East Baltimore. Her father owned a boarding house where Morgan State University faculty and students resided during the academic year. She reports that during the early 1960s and late 1950s there were no hotels in the area that would accommodate African Americans. This senator’s father was adamant that Blacks should be self-sufficient because the government and other people could not be depended upon. He owned a lot of property and businesses in the neighborhood and instilled in his daughter that Black people should take care of the needs of their community. Senator Price attended segregated primary and secondary schools, and the first time she experienced racism was during college at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her father’s advice about being self-sufficient helped her to see past students’ and professors’ bigotry and remain enrolled in college, even when it was difficult and she considered dropping out. She was determined that discrimination and prejudice would not stop her from earning a college degree. While Senator Pamela Price did not detail what had happened to her at the University of Maryland, College Park, she did make a direct connection between her experience there and her father’s teachings of self-sufficiency. Characteristics perhaps most readily seen in the tenets of Black Power, self-sufficiency, self-determination, and Black pride combined to help this legislator overcome a racist experience that threatened, presumably, to end her college career.

In sum, the legislators’ narratives that I have shared in this section illustrate that their experiences with segregation profoundly shaped them as individuals. The majority of these women connected these experiences either to directly launching their political careers or helping to shape their political agenda. Each narrative demonstrates a mode of resistance to racial oppression, and because these women were either born before or grew up during the civil rights and Black Power movements, their opposition to racial inequality is shaped by their generational experiences.

(p.41) Direct Experiences with Discrimination

Incidents of discrimination are often difficult to objectively determine, because they are defined in part by intention. The perception of discrimination may be largely influenced by one’s interpretation of the intentions of others. Yet, because the intentions behind social acts are often unclear, it is difficult for minorities and women—and women of color in particular—to definitively attribute harmful acts to a person’s intent to discriminate (Phinney, Madden, and Santos 1998). Because discrimination can be unclear, perspective is not an objective measure (Lazarus and Folkman 1984). Discrimination can occur even if it is not perceived by the person being discriminated against. Perceived discrimination, which is based on an individual’s interpretation of events, is also discrimination. Unfortunately, a majority of the African American women have experienced identity-based discrimination. And while most of the stories the legislators recounted were rooted in race-based discrimination, their experiences were also informed by gender, nationality, generation, and location.

Born in 1938, Delegate Angela James grew up in southern Alabama and Columbus, Georgia. She retold a story of walking down a dirt road in Alabama with her great-grandmother, on their way to the store. She recalls walking past White people and vividly remembers “seeing hate in their eyes.” Delegate James reports having “experienced discrimination at an early age . . . this was the first time that I saw hate in a person” (Personal interview, July 20, 2011). From her time living in Columbus, this delegate remembers stories of a little Black girl who was killed for attempting to socialize with White children in neighboring Phoenix City, Georgia. Her dead body was thrown across her family’s lawn as a violent reminder that segregation, White supremacy, and African American subordination would be strictly enforced in that community. Delegate James explained that segregation meant that Blacks were always treated unjustly. Hers is not a romanticized vision of Black life prior to integration, with unified Black families, communities, and institutions. Instead, James’s experiences with segregation were the most disturbing and violent of all the legislators’ narratives.

In another racially motivated incident, Delegate Ingrid Jefferson remembers witnessing a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) demonstration in Baltimore. As a ninth-grade student at Western High, the oldest public all-girls school in the United States, Delegate Jefferson and her friends had decided to watch the local boys play basketball at Patterson Park after school. In 1966, Patterson Park was a place where “African Americans only went in large numbers” (Personal interview, July 21, 2011). Delegate (p.42) Jefferson forcefully noted that she was only in the primarily White neighborhood because she attended Western High. Once the basketball game ended, she and her friends decided to leave the park by walking down Baltimore Street. From this vantage point she saw a large number of Klan members dressed in regalia. She recalled the story: “Some members of the Klan yelled ‘There go some niggers. Let’s get ’em!’ I said, ‘Come on!’ Then some of the older guys who were with us said, ‘Run, y’all, run!’ I’m like, “Why? Who we runnin’ from? Them?’ Someone grabbed my hand and said, ‘Come on now! Run, y’all, run! If they get us, they gonna kill us!” (Personal interview, July 21, 2011). Delegate Ingrid Jefferson reiterated that she did not want to run; she had wanted to fight. She describes how engaging in fights as a teenager was akin to playing a sport for her and added that she “didn’t fight like a girl. I was good at fighting” (Personal interview, July 21, 2011). However, she ran from the Ku Klux Klan because was she urged to run away by her friends. Noting how this experience cannot fully be defined by either race or gender, Delegate Jefferson evokes the passion of a young Black girl who wanted to engage physically with members of the KKK. Urged to run, she was the only one “foolish enough to want to confront the Klan for calling us niggers” (Personal interview, July 21, 2011). It wasn’t until returning home later that evening that she realized the magnitude of her encounter. While watching the evening news with her mother, the delegate shared that she had seen the KKK. Her mother was horrified by her daughter’s experience and that her initial reaction had been to fight the Klan. She then explained the Klan and how this delegate had put herself in a dangerous position. Delegate Jefferson notes that she was “simply blown away because I had no idea who the Klan was at that time” (Personal interview, July 21, 2011).

A Jamaican immigrant to the United States, Delegate Cassandra Ross explained how she never fully fit into America’s racial hierarchy. Having grown up in Jamaica and attended nursing school in Great Britain before immigrating to the United States, this delegate recalled that she had viewed America as a land of golden opportunities. But she quickly learned that these opportunities were often closed to Blacks. “No one ever tells you the dark side of America, only the positive things” (Personal interview, July 29, 2011). She met her former husband, an African American, in the United Kingdom while he was in the military. They married in England and returned to the States after she completed her degree. When she arrived in the United States in the 1960s, she quickly learned about racism and discrimination. Delegate Ross remembered that she had a difficult time relating to African Americans because she did not understand their conceptualizations of race, and they did not understand hers. Because she had not (p.43) been socialized into race-based segregation, hierarchies, and prejudices, she did not understand why Blacks were discriminated against. She recalls that this cultural difference led to different understandings of who she was and who Black Americans were. “I never felt that I had to submit myself to race-based denigration. They didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand them” (Personal interview, July 29, 2011). Delegate Ross concluded by telling a story about traveling through the South with her husband in the 1960s and how she had only later fully absorbed that racism impacted every aspect of Black life during this time. Despite her status as a Jamaican national, Delegate Ross was treated as second-class citizen because of her African heritage. Her different nationality at first hindered her understanding of American race relations, but her experiences with Jim Crow helped her to comprehend how racism shaped the United States.

In an interesting arrangement, Delegate Tanisha Harold recounts how she and her White neighbor, a friend, had decided to “share an office job when our children were in elementary school” (Personal interview, July 28, 2011). These friends were both stay-at-home mothers in a small, predominately White Prince George’s County town in the early 1980s. Because they both needed the extra income and their children were becoming more self-sufficient, this delegate and her neighbor had decided to seek part-time employment outside of the home. They both interviewed for a clerk/secretary position at a local firm. After sharing the details of their interview with one another, the friends decided to propose to the firm that they would accept a full-time position if the employer agreed to split their wages. They would be responsible for scheduling their hours (which would incorporate their children’s schedules and needs). The friends reassured the employer that because the firm needed a full-time clerk/secretary, this would be the ideal situation. The firm agreed. Over some time, Delegate Harold realized that her neighbor was offered a promotion, more money, and benefits, although she was not. This enraged Delegate Harold because the neighbor had begun to cut back on both her hours and tasks at the firm to due to family responsibilities. Delegate Harold had picked up the slack for her friend, as per their initial agreement, but was livid when she was not offered the same promotion. She recounted that because she viewed this “oversight” as a form of discrimination, “I asked the office manager if I too would be eligible for the promotion since the agreement we had was between three entities—me, my neighbor, and the firm. The office manager was visibly shocked by my question, which let me know that they never intended to promote me. It was because I was a Black woman sharing a job with a White woman” (Personal interview, July 28, 2011). Delegate Harold discontinued her relationship with the firm after this (p.44) encounter. She recalled that her neighbor had assumed that both women had been offered the promotion and was unaware of the underlying racial discrimination.

These four unique narratives illustrate the diversity of experiences with discrimination that Black women have faced. Implicit within these stories is the intersecting nature of identities that complicate these women’s experiences with racial discrimination. Delegate Ingrid Jefferson’s story incorporates gender; she actively challenged constructions of womanhood as docile and weak. As an immigrant, Delegate Cassandra Ross viewed American racism as an outsider but later realized that her nationality did not buffer her from experiencing race-based discrimination. Delegate Angela James’s story is both generationally and geographically specific; she is one of the older members in the study and grew up in a location and time where brutal, explicit, and dehumanizing forms of racial discrimination were commonplace. Lastly, Delegate Tanisha Harold’s motherhood status played a distinct role in the form of race-based discrimination that she faced. As a mother of young children, she established a job-sharing arrangement so that she could prioritize the needs of her children while earning income. Each of these instances shows how gender, nationality, motherhood status, generation, and location can affect how African American women experience racial discrimination.

Religious Upbringing

Another commonality among the women in my study is a strong religious upbringing. The majority of the women report that they grew up in historically Black Protestant churches.1 Indeed, three of the eighteen women legislators had fathers who were ministers. Another’s grandfather was a Baptist preacher. The Black church, throughout its history, has facilitated not only the political socialization and the dissemination of information to members but also their mobilization. Black churches inspire their congregants to engage in political action, galvanizing them to work toward the goal of political righteousness. “Religion’s psychological dimensions could potentially empower individuals with a sense of competence and resilience, inspiring them to believe in their own ability, with the assistance of an acknowledged sacred force, to influence or affect governmental affairs, thus--in some instances--to act politically” (Harris, F. 1999, 82). Thus, it is not a coincidence that well over half of the legislators credit their religious upbringing with both encouraging their interest in politics and influencing their legislative behavior.

(p.45) The daughter of a Baptist minister, Senator Yvonne Scott, explained that Christian principles are the backbone of her political agenda. She believes that her role in the legislature is to take care of “the least of these” (Personal interview, June 21, 2011). This is a reference to Matthew 25:40–46, in which Jesus shares a parable urging his disciples to treat lowly people the same way that one would treat the King. She who would treat the most marginalized and underprivileged citizens with disdain and contempt would have eternal punishment; she who would treat others as she would Christ would be rewarded with eternal life. Senator Scott learned these values from her religious upbringing. As the pastor of a small Black congregation in western Maryland, her father was active in the community. The family engaged in community uplift by helping to feed and clothe the needy and provide books and educational services to the tiny Black population of in the town. Senator Scott’s father encouraged her to take an active interest in her community. As a result, she became extremely active in the civil rights movement. She participated in sit-ins, marches, and boycotts. She also led educational seminars about civil rights for the community. “My father told me that politics runs your entire life. So it was just a natural move for me to enter the political arena. I’ve done everything to help my community and this [serving as a state senator] is just an extension of that” (Personal interview, June 21, 2011). During her interview, Senator Scott often quoted scripture to illustrate her beliefs on certain legislation, especially on same-sex marriage.

Raised by her devout grandmother, Delegate Justine Anderson recalls spending several hours a day in church. Her grandmother was a “strong Baptist woman” who believed that “if you could party on Saturday night that you could get up early and praise the Lord on Sunday morning” (Personal interview, October 10, 2011). Delegate Anderson recalled going to church at least three days a week and remaining there for hours on end. Church was both a social and religious experience for this delegate. Her grandmother taught her to be a good Christian girl and “to stay away from boys. And of course that didn’t work!” (Personal interview, October 10, 2011). She became pregnant during her first year of college and had a son in the late 1960s. Because “no one believed in abortion back then,” she had to drop out of school and raise her son (Personal interview, October 10, 2011). She moved back to Maryland and took an entry-level position at Prince George’s Hospital, which was segregated at the time. While her grandmother was disappointed that this delegate had not lived up to her religious beliefs about chastity, yet she agreed to watch the child so Delegate Anderson could go to work. “My grandmother told me not to depend [on] any man, work hard, manage my money, and (p.46) take care of my son” (Personal interview, October 10, 2011). The delegate noticed how poor workers, especially Black employees, were treated in the hospital where she worked. In 1974 she organized her colleagues to form a union to advocate for better jobs and treatment. She became “the voice of people who were too afraid to speak. I had absolutely no fear” (Personal interview, October 10, 2011). Delegate Anderson credits her grandmother and her religious upbringing for instilling in her the values of hard work and sacrifice. She also learned the importance of treating all people with respect, humanity, and dignity—just as Jesus did. In the end, this message of valuing people and forfeiting personal gain for the good of the group led her to become a leader (and later president) of her local union affiliate of the Service Employees International Union. The skills she learned as union leader easily translated into electoral politics, and Delegate Anderson credits her union experiences with providing her a training ground for her role in electoral politics.

While many of the Black women interviewed here indicated that religion had played a major role in shaping their Black identity and was central to the communities in which they lived, another delegate found that her religious identity was something that distinguished her from other Black women. Delegate Leila Baker recounted one of the first times she realized that she was different from other African Americans. Growing up the eldest of six children in a Pennsylvania city, this delegate recounted how, one summer during her childhood, her family visited her grandparents in North Carolina and she first learned that her family was different from other Black families. Her grandparents were active in the Central Baptist Association. However, her mother, raised as a Central Baptist, had converted to Catholicism when she married the delegate’s father.

According to the National Congress of Black Catholics, there are three million Black Catholics in the United States (National Black Catholic Congress 2013). Research from the Pew Research Center indicates that, among African Americans, Black Protestants account for 78 percent of the population and Black Catholics for 5 percent (www.pewforum.org). As a religious minority among African Americans, as a child, the delegate realized that her religious denomination made her different than her cousins. This was one of the first times that Delegate Baker says she realized that there was diversity among African Americans. Again, pointing to ways in which Blackness is often constructed in narrow monolithic terms, Delegate Baker’s narrative illustrates that the portrayal of Blackness as one-dimensional misses the diversity within this community.

While she grew up a devout Catholic, this delegate now identifies as a Presbyterian. She sees herself as a Christian in “a humanistic way”—a (p.47) person who emphasizes the humanity of Jesus and his social teachings, juxtaposed to the divinity of Jesus (Personal interview, June 16, 2011). On June 12, 2011, Delegate Baker preached a sermon at a local Unitarian Church about marriage, in which she spoke in favor of same-sex relationships. While Delegate Baker did not explicitly state that her conversion from Catholicism to becoming a humanistic Christian is directly related to the Catholic Church’s stance on same-sex marriage, it can be surmised that, as an out lesbian, both her own sexual identity and the issue of same-sex marriage may have contributed to her decision to leave the Catholic Church. Delegate Baker is proud to be one of the two Black women state legislators nationwide who are out lesbians.2 Her identity as a Black lesbian is paramount. She actively lobbied her colleagues to support Maryland’s same-sex marriage legislation, which was signed into law by Governor O’Malley on March 10, 2012. The Catholic Church, which has 1.2 million parishioners in Maryland, openly opposed the bill. Unlike the two other legislators mentioned above, Delegate Baker does not indicate that she uses her faith to influence her legislative decision making. Instead, on the issue of same-sex marriage, this delegate markedly departs from her religious upbringing. Similar to the Black feminists who have long called into the question of a unitary “women’s experience” or an “African American experience” (see, e.g., Truth 1851), Delegate Baker’s use of religion to contest a Black political identity illustrates an anti-essentialist depiction of Black political identity.

Socioeconomic Background

In the eighteen life histories that I conducted, fourteen women explicitly discussed class. Six self-reported that they grew up in a middle-class household, while eight described the communities of their childhood as poor or working class. The importance of class in shaping the political decisions of African Americans has been well documented (Dawson 1994; Ferguson 2002; Hochschild 1995; Wilson 1978). Scholars are concerned that if the social networks that reinforce Black identity have eroded, it may mean that race is a less salient factor for these individuals (Cohen and Dawson 1993; Dawson 1994; Gillespie 2012; Marable 1983; Reed 2000; Wilson 1978). The divide between poor and affluent Blacks is readily seen in differences in public opinion among African Americans (Dawson 1994; Simpson 1998). More affluent Blacks are less likely to support redistributive economic policies and tend to adopt conservative positions similar to those of Whites in similar economic circumstances. Less well-off African Americans are more (p.48) likely to favor the ideals of Black Nationalism, such as starting an all-Black political party and disengaging from mainstream America (Price 2009; Simpson 1998). Other scholars have noted that the intersection of race, gender, and class creates complex social locations for individuals that complicate a race-only approach to studying Black politics (Collins 1990; Crenshaw 1989; Higginbotham 1992).

The study of new Black politics complicates questions of class in relation to African American elected officials. Third-wave Black politicians—young Black politicians born after 1960—generally benefit from belonging to a privileged class status (Gillespie 2009). However, the privileged socioeconomic status of younger Black politicians may challenge the notion of linked fate with those in less well-off economic circumstances. Thus, policy preferences, party affiliation, governing approaches, and campaign management may be different than for third-wave Black politicians. As a result, Adolph Reed argues, “There is no unified Black agenda because of class differences among African Americans” (Reed 2000). Furthermore, Simpson convincingly argues that a weak group identity for some African Americans is typically combined with middle- or upper-socioeconomic status, which may produce a more traditional conservative ideology (Simpson 1998, 26). The socioeconomic differences among the Black women state legislators may exacerbate problems of communication between the haves and have-nots of Black communities. However, in this selection of legislators, there is an almost even split in the number of younger Black women politicians who grew up in poor or working-class communities and those who grew up in middle-class neighborhoods. Thus, the new generation of Black women political elites may better represent the opinions of both poor and affluent African Americans.

Bailey Smith, a younger African American woman senator, describes her community as pleasant and congenial. “Well, it wasn’t Mayberry exactly but it was very close. Very, very close” (Personal interview, June 30, 2011). Senator Smith grew up around the corner from Kurt Schmoke, the first Black mayor of Baltimore. The current mayor of Baltimore, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, presently lives in that neighborhood. Senator Smith remarked on how unusual her childhood community was: “It was a strong middle-class Black neighborhood. I was intrigued because it was a covenant community. The covenant always said no Blacks, no dogs, and no Jews. And so my father always reminded me that we had a black dog—so we always had dogs and we always had Black people in the community in spite of the restrictive covenant” (Personal interview, June 20, 2011). She remembers her neighborhood as one in which every child grew up in a two-parent household, where all the adults were gainfully employed, and children (p.49) played freely in the streets. Senator Smith attended Duke University for her undergraduate education and earned her law degree from the University of Maryland. As a promise to her dying father, she agreed to return home after law school to take care of her mother. As a result, she currently lives in her childhood home. “He asked me to take care of his wife, who was the love of his life. I will keep my promise to my dad.” (Personal interview, June 20, 2011). Senator Smith routinely comes across her former classmates, teachers, and Sunday school teachers while running errands or walking her dog in her neighborhood. These encounters have led her to realize that “Black politicians particularly need to realize that the community is proud of you when you’ve done the right thing, and we need to continue to affirm our neighbors and we need to affirm all those people that helped us because they are proud of us” (Personal interview, June 20, 2011).

A legislator who grew up in the Ashburton community in Baltimore, Delegate Naomi Young’s neighborhood comprised middle-class Blacks who were college educated and held professional jobs. Although she lived in a self-described “utopia community,” she was well aware of the struggles that African Americans faced. Her father was a prominent civil rights activist in Maryland. As a result, her family was more concerned with “working to change the living conditions for people, over making sure that the daily chores were completed. Daily functions were never more important than the daily good” (Personal interview, June 16, 2011). Born in 1964, Delegate Young was deeply affected by the Black Power movement. She recalls growing up in the 1980s in this community, which displayed Black power and pride. The most pivotal moment in her life was the 1971 death of her father. His untimely death at the age of forty-eight turned her world upside down. However, she holds steadfast to her “vision of the world” of Ashburton from 1964–1971 as a stellar example of what African American communities can look like.

Senator Brenda Perry described her childhood Lancaster, Virginia, neighborhood as a predominately Black middle- to working-class neighborhood. She was born and lived in Baltimore until her fifth birthday, but her family eventually settled down in Virginia to be closer to relatives. They lived in a rural area with detached housing. After retiring from the military, her father was a waterman serving as a mate, and later a captain, on a commercial fishing ship. She remembers that her family ate a lot of fish when she was growing up. Her mother was a domestic worker and a cook for a local family. Senator Perry recalls many family discussions about discrimination. Her father would remind her that Blacks always had to work harder than Whites to get less than half of what Whites got. So, in turn, her parents preached the benefits of education and always encouraged her to do (p.50) well in school. Namely, she remembers her father telling her that he had made $2.50 a week prior to enlisting in the military and that Black men made so little because Whites didn’t want Blacks to have economic freedom. This story had a great impact on Senator Perry, and she uses it to explain why she is committed to economic and social justice issues.

As a self-described “military kid” and the fourth of five children, Delegate Keira Miller portrayed life on an Air Force base as difficult, therefore forcing her family to become tightly knit. “We didn’t have a lot of money to do things outside of the home,” so the family would sing and play instruments as a pastime (Personal interview, June 29, 2011). Her parents each worked full-time and together raised five children. Her brother picked up extra work to help the family when their father was stationed in other places. She learned that things would “always be OK if you had family around” (Personal interview, June 29, 2011). Her parents were extremely religious; her mother was the daughter of a South Carolina preacher who could be described as a religious fundamentalist. Delegate Miller recalls a time when the family didn’t have much but also that they were always helping others, donating food, clothing, and their time to the local food pantry. “My family was very big on helping others. That is the Christian thing to do” (Personal interview, June 29, 2011). This delegate lists her family as her greatest inspiration and support system. As a single parent of two teenaged boys, this delegate is grateful to her sister for helping her to raise her children and for facilitating her service in the legislature.

Born in the late 1930s in Alabama, Delegate Angela James faced many hardships. Her mother and father were not married at the time of her birth, and her mother later married a man who would eventually father her two stepsiblings. The delegate stated that being a “bastard child with dark skin and nappy hair meant that people never expected me to succeed in life” (Personal interview, July 6, 2011). She grew up extremely poor and recalled that her family lived on a dirt road diverging from a tar road where other poor Blacks lived. The Blacks who lived on the tar road were better-off than her family; her family lived in the poorest Black neighborhood. Delegate James noted, “We lived in shotgun homes. We didn’t even have hot water and the commode was outside on the back porch. My sister and I would make dolls out of string and doll clothes out of rags” (Personal interview, July 6, 2011). In addition to her family’s low income, Delegate James experienced physical abuse, sexual molestation, domestic violence, and mental anguish at the hands of her stepfather. Her mother was known as the town drunk. Delegate Angela James left her abusive home at the age of sixteen and became homeless. She later moved in with her grandmother in Columbus, Georgia, and finished high school. After completing her high (p.51) school degree, Delegate James received a scholarship to a Baltimore-area university. However, she became pregnant and, as a single parent, had difficulty balancing motherhood and her studies. Today, Delegate James is a successful businesswoman and author. She has written numerous books and sees herself as a role model for women and girls in abusive situations. This legislator makes a direct connection between her upbringing and her perceived role in the state legislature. Delegate James believes she’s in the legislature to advocate for the voiceless—a population she came from and is intimately connected to.

Delegate Ingrid Jefferson’s father was a substance abuser who would also become physically and verbally abusive to the members in her household. Delegate Jefferson does not remembered her father ever working and recalled that he would frequently disappear. The family was forced to move several times, and, as a result, this delegate attended ten elementary schools growing up: “We moved around a lot. Running from the ‘rent man,’ so to speak” (Personal interview, June 20, 2011). Violence and lack of money contributed to her difficult childhood. Her family was on welfare and needed that assistance to eat. She remembers not knowing where some of her meals would come from. “I was from the wrong side of the tracks. I didn’t go to school often because I didn’t have money to buy the ‘cool’ clothes. I didn’t have money to catch the bus so I had to walk three miles to school. I didn’t have money to eat lunch so I didn’t eat. So most times I was hungry. So you deal with all of that. And if someone says something to you or looks at you the wrong way—you know when you are hungry you would do anything to feed yourself and your outlook on life can be nothing but negative” (Personal interview, June 20, 2011). Delegate Jefferson later ran away from home to escape abuse. She was homeless at the age of thirteen and lived on the streets for one year—without the supervision of an adult—until she reunited with her mother after her father had permanently left the family home. Not surprisingly, Delegate Jefferson details that she was an angry teenager because of the abuse that she had experienced. After graduating from high school, she moved into her own apartment. She struggled to make ends meet on her own, and in her late teens, she lived in apartment without a refrigerator and a stove. She endured these hardships, however, because she was determined not to go back to her mother’s house. Delegate Jefferson became a single parent at the age of nineteen. She speaks of having made bad decisions when she was younger and attributes these poor choices to the anger stemming from her childhood experiences.

The six lawmakers highlighted in this section hail from a mix of socioeconomic backgrounds. Senator Bailey Smith and Delegate Naomi Young (p.52) grew up in middle-class neighborhoods with politically active African Americans. The African Americans from these communities were educated and held professional jobs. Indeed, these legislators presented their childhood neighborhoods as storybook-ideal. Senator Smith and Delegates Young and Miller are among the younger women in this study. However, only Delegate Young and Senator Smith reinforce Gillespie’s (2009) finding that third-wave Black politicians have a privileged class status. Delegate Miller’s family did not have much disposable income and relied heavily on family for both support and entertainment. Unlike Senator Smith and Delegate Young, Delegate Miller’s family was not economically advantaged. Yet she was surrounded by love and a supportive community similar to the ones that Delegate Young and Senator Smith detailed.

Conversely, Delegates James and Jefferson grew up in poor communities and experienced several forms of abuse as children. These delegates faced severe challenges in childhood and early adulthood not only because they were low-income but also because they were women. Both Delegate James and Jefferson became unwed teenage mothers and experienced the financial difficulties of being a single parent. While she did not face the same vicious physical abuse and poverty as Delegates James and Jefferson, Senator Brenda Perry also grew up in a family with meager earnings. Similar to Delegate Miller, Senator Perry’s family was close-knit, and love sustained the family in lean times. However, akin to Delegates James and Jefferson, Senator Perry also became a teenage mother. She married her son’s father directly after graduating from high school and followed him to California for a short period of time. When it became clear that the young couple would divorce, she moved back to Maryland with her young son and enrolled in college. She sent her son to live with her parents in Virginia so he could grow up around a large, extended family.

While the primary focus of this section was to highlight the economic diversity of the legislators’ formative years, it also illustrates the complexity of the women’s early lives. These African American state legislators have had a myriad of experiences, from living in utopian communities to marginalized neighborhoods and hellish circumstances. The worldviews of these women are directly informed by class status. As a result, these women’s class-based experiences influence how they perceive both themselves and others. In general, the interconnectedness of race and class for African Americans has been accented by “progress, relapse, and stagnation in the struggle for racial equality” (Simpson 1998, 11). Thus, while some women in the study have been privileged by their class status, the markers of socioeconomic status—occupation, education, and income—help to explain why younger generations of women who have been protected from some of (p.53) the most abominable products of racism still discuss how race plays a role in shaping their middle-class identities.

Community Activism and Interest in Politics Instilled by Parents

Eleven of the eighteen African American women in the Maryland state legislature credit their parents with inculcating in them at an early age the importance of community activism and politics. A child becomes politically socialized by naturally “learning of social patterns corresponding to his societal positions as mediated through various agencies of society” (Hyman 1959, 18). Easton and Dennis find that children are taught to like the government before they are fully aware of what government is (1965, 56). From the beginning, political socialization studies have been concerned with subgroup differences of race, sex, age, class, and, more recently, gender (Dennis 1986; Greenberg 1970; Greenstein 1970). Yet the literature does not explain how the roles of identity and difference play in political socialization (Sapiro 1981). Walton (1985) concluded that, in the African American community, political socialization occurs in indigenous institutions, where resocialization and counter-socialization is a response to dominant attitudes. This leads to different views of politics, challenging the assumptions of previous political socialization studies.

Ruth Nicole Brown offers a framework to understand African American girls’ political socialization. Building on Collins’s Black feminist standpoint theory, she contends that “Black women and girls encounter a distinctive set of social practices that accompany our particular history within a unique matrix of domination characterized by intersecting oppressions” (Brown 2007, 124). To this point, racism, sexism, and other systems of domination shape a Black girl’s lived reality. In her examination of what life is like for the urban Black community for the “average girl,” Joyce Ladner finds that both cultural and familial relationships influence how girls grow up (1971, 12). By incorporating the role of human interactions in political socialization, the concept of democracy expands to include not only cognition but also the ways in which citizens mingle and interact (Taylor, Gilligan, and Sullivan 1995). Thus, the emphasis on participatory values for political behavior—along with a sense of political efficacy, partisanship, and cognitive and affective underpinnings—may be different for African American women than Black men and White men and women.

The eldest girl in a family of five girls and two boys, Senator Raquel Simmons was born in a small borough within Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, to working-class parents. Her parents instilled in their seven (p.54) children the value of hard work and dedication. Although her parents did not have much money, she and her siblings were always well-groomed and nicely dressed—her mother worked hard to ensure that the family was always presentable. The senator recalls that her parents would always dress up to go to vote. On trips to the polling place, she recalls, the entire family would be tastefully clothed and scrupulously neat. She explained this family ritual as her parents’ way of showing her the importance of voting. Getting dressed in their best outfits, for African Americans who were once disenfranchised, illustrated the significance of their taking part in an election. The magnitude of importance in being politically active was clear to this senator at an early age, and Senator Simmons describes her involvement in politics as stemming from a passion to make the world a better place. She notes that politics “is innately part of who I am. I want to improve people’s lives. My legislative priorities are all to improve people’s lives by meeting the specific needs of people” (Personal interview, July 12, 2011).

Delegate Yvonne Wood is biracial, but she reports that she has never thought of herself as half-White. Instead, “I just thought of myself as light skinned because I was raised culturally as Black” (Personal interview, July 6, 2011). Her parents, a Black man and White woman, married in Washington, DC, in the 1950s because their union was illegal in Virginia and Maryland at this time. She remembers being politically aware, even as a young child. The delegate was seven years old when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. A local television news reporter interviewed students from her elementary school about King’s death. She told the reporter that King meant a lot to her because “he got us a seat on the bus” (Personal interview, July 6, 2011). Later that evening she told her family that she would be on the local news. She remembers her family watching the news story and being impressed with her knowledge of King because “no one trained me to say this. I had no sort of preparation to speak to the news reporter” (Personal interview, July 6, 2011). Here, Delegate Wood reflected that she grew up in a political household, and so training was unnecessary. Discussions of current events, politics, and race relations were common among the adults in her household. It was only normal that she would pick this interest up. To be sure, race relations were “always a subtext for us” (Personal interview, July 6, 2011). Delegate Wood’s mother was a liberal White woman who used subversive tactics to challenge the racial order of the 1950s and 1960s. For example, when her parents would drive to the South, her mother would stop at restaurants that did not serve African Americans. She would feign ignorance and ask the restaurant owner what did the “Whites Only” sign on the door mean. Then she would place a large to-go order and leave without paying as an act of defiance. Delegate Wood’s (p.55) mother shared with her daughter that she took the hamburgers from the segregated restaurant out to her Black husband who was asleep in the car. Additionally, Delegate Wood’s mother would attend White Citizen Council (WCC) meetings pretending to be a White supremacist. She would take notes at the meetings and then make reports to the Afro-American newspaper, which would later print her stories. The WCC had no idea how the Afro-American had such intricate details of their organization’s plans. The delegate fondly calls her mother “a rabble-rouser,” whose sense of humor was key in her efforts to disrupt the racial hierarchy of the day.

Senator Bailey Smith recalls being active in a 1972 teachers’ strike in Baltimore. Both her parents were teachers and active in the union. Remembering that her parents required that she and her brother attend school despite the strike, she notes, “We were the only children in school” (Personal interview, June 30, 2011). After school, she would join her parents on the picket line and they would protest as a family. Senator Smith believes that “politics might be in people’s blood; it certainly is in mine” (Personal interview, June 30, 2011). She provided the example of her grandmother’s grandfather, a member of the North Carolina House of Delegates in 1885. Edward “Ned” Rawls had been born into slavery. He attended Shaw University and then ran for public office in 1884 and won an election to the short session from January to March of 1885 (Ijames and Lanier 2009). Rawls lost a contested reelection due to Reconstruction-era voting trickery. He later represented Northampton County, North Carolina, as a legislator in 1887, 1889, and 1897. “He is one of 123 known Black Republicans to serve the Tar Heel State in this way during the Reconstruction period of 1868–1901. This period ended in 1901 with the “colored” people again losing the right to vote and with a political and social climate that had become increasingly hostile to African Americans” (Ijames and Lanier 2009, 4). Senator Smith became so intrigued by her family’s oral history of Ned Rawls that, at the age of ten, she visited the National Archives to research her great-great grandfather. Because her parents were teachers, they encouraged her to explore her heritage by delving into archival materials. Several years later she would use census data, primary documents, and the oral histories of family members, to write her undergraduate honors paper about Ned Rawls. Senator Smith remarked that she, herself, is like Ned Rawls: “I work to represent Black people” (Personal interview, June 30, 2011). She is thankful to her ancestors for “being strong enough to withstand slavery and Jim Crow and segregation and all of the lost and missed opportunities that had been stolen from them. . . . I thank Ned Rawls for saying, ‘You can be a politician, because I did it’” (Ijames and Lanier 2009, 6).

(p.56) The stories here demonstrate the prominent roles of the women’s parents in developing the political consciousness of their children. The legislators were politically socialized at an early age, and, as a result, political involvement was second nature for them. Senators Smith and Simmons and Delegate Wood, concluded their life histories by stating that their goals are to improve their communities and people’s lives. Indeed, Senator Yvonne Simmons was running for mayor of Baltimore when her feminist life history was conducted. While her bid for mayor was unsuccessful, her desire to run for mayor was predicated on her wish to improve the lives of young people and other marginalized groups in Baltimore. Senator Simmons had noted that incumbent Mayor Rawlings-Blake did not fully understand the challenges faced by younger residents of the city and that she felt a responsibility to advocate for this seemingly silent and apolitical group.

Senator Smith and Delegate Wood also directly connect their race consciousness to their parents. These women both actively challenge race-based stereotypes and discrimination. Delegate Wood co-founded Mocha Moms, a supportive organization for stay-at-home mothers of color who seek to devote attention to both their families and communities. Founded in Prince George’s County in 1997, the 501(c) (3) now has over one hundred chapters nationwide and makes an intersectional connection between race and gender to present positive and affirming messages of minority motherhood. The organization’s mission statement acknowledges that African American women have historically been denied the option to devote the entirety of their time to their family and communities, a choice unavailable to many since it constitutes unpaid labor. Mocha Moms primarily advocates for the engagement of minority mothers as activists in their communities. Lastly, Senator Bailey Smith has been a stalwart agitator against Maryland’s refusal to apologize for slavery and its treatment of African Americans. In 2011, she challenged Western Maryland’s all-White Republican delegation to change the name of Negro Mountain to Nemesis Mountain, the name of a Black frontiersman who died defending White settlers from Native Americans. Illustrating that parental example matters, these women have continued in their footsteps of their parents to push for remedies to alleviate race-based injustices.

Gender Roles

American society is patriarchal, and gender roles are organized via a social order in which men hold the dominant positions of power and authority. Sylvia Walby (1990, 1994, 1997) contends that patriarchy is upheld by six (p.57) major structures: work, relations in the state, modes of production, relations in cultural institutions, male violence, and relations in sexuality. In this system in which men dominate, oppress, and exploit women, relationships between men and women are inherently unequal and hierarchical. However, patriarchy is expressed in the political, economic, and social structures that have special meaning for African American survival (Lawrence-Webb, Littlefield, and Okundaye 2004). As patriarchy denies individuals’ humanity, African Americans negotiate how gender privileges are bestowed. While patriarchy allots men special privileges and, in a racist society, assigns special privileges to White men, it also denies others opportunities and resources, including employment and education for women. The historical and current oppression experienced by Blacks has a tremendous effect on the construction of gender roles among African Americans. From the period of slavery to present day, Blacks’ gender roles have been continuously socially reconstructed according to normative conceptions for men and women. As such, Blacks perform gender in culturally appropriate behaviors classified as either feminine or masculine. While gender varies across time, space, and racial/ethnic and social locations, it is an ongoing and evolving aspect of social interaction (Green 2005; Risman 1998). Rather than a set of behaviors, identities, and practices, gender can be envisioned as a project to be accomplished in varying ways depending on the social context (Connell 1995).

The majority of the Black women state legislators interviewed for this study self-reported being socialized in or as embodying traditional gender relations. Of the women in the study, Delegate Keira Miller had the strictest sense of gender roles growing up: “Politics was men’s business. Because of that I had to grow into an assertive role as a person who now represents others” (Personal interview, June 29, 2011). This legislator’s perception of gender roles may be more clearly defined than others’ because she grew up with religiously conservative military parents. Out of the eighteen women in this selection, only three reported that their parents encouraged them to take on nontraditional gender roles. These three women are among the youngest legislators in this study, born respectively in 1962, 1964, and 1977. The youngest delegate reports that her mother grew up with very strict enforcement of gender norms and was determined that her children would not. As a result, she and her brother split household chores and, as teenagers, were held to the same expectations. Many of the legislators who report having grown up being taught traditional gender roles provide examples of household duties. For example, six legislators report that they were responsible for washing dishes, cooking, watching younger siblings, and doing the laundry, while their brothers had to mow the lawn, take out (p.58) the trash, and shovel snow. However, even this division of labor was uniquely accompanied by parental messages that empowered female children. Many of the legislators who experienced these gendered chores were also taught that girls could grow up to do anything that they wanted and that gender should not stop them from accomplishing their goals. Indeed, it was the legislators’ fathers who were their strongest proponents of nongendered achievement. Seven legislators from this group explained that their fathers had played an important role in their lives and gendered socialization.

Beyond citing household chores as a proxy for traditional gender roles, a few legislators gave examples of explicitly gendered norms during their childhoods. In a story about a childhood fight, Senator Bailey Smith recalled how her parents responded to her method of defending herself and her older brother by both establishing and challenging traditional gender norms. The senator’s older brother was a shy and quiet boy. Because he was bigger than the other children on the block, many people did not bother him. One day, however, a neighborhood boy began to bully Senator Smith’s brother. She “got mad and chased him down the block with some hedge clippers!” (Personal interview, June 30, 2011). Once her parents learned of the “hedge clipper incident” from several neighbors on their way home from work, they were rightfully angry. Her father chastised her: “Young ladies don’t do that” (Personal interview, June 30, 2011). However, that did not stop her from engaging in several other neighborhood fights. Her brother, on the contrary, was never involved in fight. Although her parents disciplined her for fighting, “they also sent the message that girls have to be girls, but by the same token they were like ‘don’t let them walk all over you.’ And I think having a brother, I kind of knew gender roles too. My parents made it clear that [it] was unacceptable for me to allow other people to treat me badly. But I was not allowed to stomp all over my brother. To some extent, my parents were right. They gave me some good lessons on politics” (Personal interview, June 30, 2011). Senator Smith believes that she learned to know her place and work within the context she was given. “As the youngest kid in the house who was a girl, I knew that my father particularly would not have liked me to stomp all over my brother. So I knew my place, I couldn’t stomp all over him but I could stomp around him, and I did. That’s all. I just think you have to know how to use what you’ve got, to be better.” (Personal interview, June 30, 2011). This senator learned at home how to act within the society’s constructions of femininity by maneuvering around gender-oriented obstacles.

It was not until her junior year in college at the University of Maryland that Delegate Fatima Coleman developed a perspective on gender. She credits (p.59) college with expanding her horizons and exposing her to different ideas. It was during a women’s studies course that she met an out lesbian for the first time. She recalled not knowing what the word “gay” meant until college. She reports that when she grew up in a Black middle-class community in Prince George’s county, sexual orientation and gender were not considered salient components of identity. Instead, Delegate Coleman noted that prior to college, she was more aware of race and socioeconomic status.

Delegate Leila Baker emphasizes her sexual identity as a lesbian in recalling gendered messages that she received from her family. This legislator remembers becoming aware of her sexual orientation at an early age, although she came out to her parents in high school. “My parents told me that they were disappointed in my sexuality . . . due to their middle-class values” (Personal interview, June 16, 2011). And although she would label her mother a feminist, her mother had not been pleased about her daughter’s sexual orientation. This delegate remembers deriving a message about gender from her mother’s comments when life was particularly hard for her family. Her father suffered from manic depression and could no longer work due to his mental health. When her father lost his “good job,” she was nine years old, and the family consequently lost their middle-class comforts because they now relied solely on her mother’s income to provide for the family of eight. Delegate Baker learned through watching her mother that “you still had to get up and go to work in spite of what’s going on around you. You have to be able to see the big picture. One day when I was particularly sad and unmotivated, my mother told me ‘you are a poor Black girl. You don’t have the luxury of not getting up. You’re not depressed!’” (Personal interview, July 16, 2011). While problematic in its failure to address mental health challenges in the Black community and by reifying the Black superwoman myth, this admonishment by Delegate Baker’s mother inspired her to move beyond her particular situation. Heeding her mother’s advice, this delegate picked herself up and focused on helping the less fortunate. She would later go onto form a progressive student alliance while in college. This organization brought together women, African Americans, and LGBTQ individuals.

For these legislators, gendered messages were mediated through a myriad of other social identities and relationships that included sexual orientation, race, class, family dynamics, and mental health. Illustrating that Black women’s lives are complicated by other factors, the legislators in this study are similar to other African American women who negotiate gender in highly context-specific manners. Representative of my sample, Delegates Baker and Coleman and Senator Smith discussed gendered identity construction in relation to what they learned from others. Unlike stories of race consciousness, gendered identity construction was an individual and (p.60) negotiated process through which the legislators evaluated themselves in relation to others. Interpersonal relationships with others, in fact, reinforced gendered expectations, behaviors, and differences.

The themes in this chapter show the intersectional nature of identity; however, legislators had difficulty identifying purely gendered themes in their early adulthoods and childhoods, finding it much easier to identify racialized messages and experiences. Indeed, many of them paused prior to responding to the question. This was the only noticeable gap in my conversations with the legislators in the course of conducting the life histories. Perhaps race acts as a metalanguage for these African American women state legislators (Higginbotham 1992) since it plays an encompassing and prominent role in Black women’s lives. Or perhaps, in line with intersectionality theory, Black women cannot parse out parts of their identity and respond solely to one aspect of identity (Jordan-Zachery 2007).

Current Home Life

Traditional gender socialization remains an aspect of electoral politics (see Flammang 1997; Kahn 1996; Sanbonmatsu 2002), and gender stereotypes still affect the electoral process (Fox and Lawless 2004; Kahn 1994; Koch 2000). Being married and having children involves diverse responsibilities for men and women. For example, traditional gender norms dictate that women are primarily concerned with caretaking while men are the providers. As a result, the household division of labor is unequal for many women, which may make it more difficult for them to balance the demands of legislative duties. Studies are inconsistent about whether women’s familial responsibilities hinder their participation in electoral politics. Some scholars have found that women’s family roles influence their political ambitions and that women with young children are less likely to enter politics (Bledsoe and Herring 1990; Fox and Lawless 2004; Sapiro 1981). Other findings show that having children living at home does not influence whether a woman will consider running for office (Fox, Lawless, and Feeley 2001). In fact, little is known about the effects of family on African American women state legislators.

This group of female lawmakers reveals a broad range of current family situations. Thirteen women in this study have children, and seven are grandparents. Four of the women were unwed teenage mothers. Seven women are currently married,3 four are single, three are widowed, four are divorced, and none identify as partnered. Of the seven married legislators, five are in their second marriages.

(p.61) Delegate Justine Anderson remarked, “God sent me this wonderful man” (Personal interview, October 10, 2011). Her husband is retired and has the time to assist her in campaigning and attend constituent events. He often accompanies her to Annapolis. Delegate Anderson shared that her husband is extremely supportive. “He never let me quit. He always pushes me to accomplish my goal—to one day be a Maryland state senator” (Personal interview, October 10, 2011). Delegate Anderson added that she did not run for political office until her children were self-sufficient. The mother of four adult children and grandmother to four young grandchildren, she notes that politics is a family affair and that she is able to balance her legislative responsibilities and family life because her husband does most of the housework. Delegate Anderson’s example speaks to the necessity of a supportive spouse if married women political elites want to maintain a successful marriage and political career.

Delegate Fatima Coleman also shared that her husband supports her in her career and legislative responsibilities. This legislator’s husband is a political advisor and an attorney, and this delegate noted that it is hard work to maintain a marriage when one partner holds elected office. She acknowledged that she is able to balance her family, work responsibilities, and legislative duties because she has such a supportive family. “My husband is very hands-on and that helps a lot” (Personal interview, July 29, 2011). After six years of dating, Delegate Coleman married her husband directly before her new duties as a legislator were scheduled to begin. They had a small and informal wedding at the University of Maryland chapel on a December Sunday in 2010. They did not have a honeymoon and spent their first three days as husband and wife apart. Instead of a honeymoon, she joined her fellow freshman class of Maryland state legislators for a bus tour of the state. Delegate Fatima Coleman has an elementary school-aged daughter. “My mother, husband, and I have a system where we all share family responsibilities. My family takes care of my daughter when I’m in Annapolis. But it is a hard decision to make” (Personal interview, July 29, 2011). Delegate Coleman shared that being a working wife and mother is a difficult yet rewarding task. She explained that she has to set boundaries so that she can carve out time just for her husband and daughter and that the housework is often demanding. “I have to cook for the entire week to ensure that my family has wholesome food to eat. I cook all day on Sundays. Usually I do a lot of Crock Pot meals. Crock Pots are great! My Sundays are spent at the grocery store and in the kitchen” (Personal interview, July 29, 2011).

Echoing similar sentiments, Delegate Ingrid Jefferson said, “This life is hard. It’s hard. It would be different if I were a male legislator and had a wife to take care of me and our family. So no, I don’t have a traditional life (p.62) and neither does my husband” (Personal interview, July 19, 2011). This statement mirrors feminist research, which finds that work and family balance is different for men and women. Milkie and Peltola (1999) detail that the more hours one works outside the home, the greater the perceived unfairness of sharing housework. This imbalance occurs for both men and women who are employed full time, and yet, for women, when young children are accompanied by these tradeoffs, martial unhappiness is often the result. Delegate Jefferson is currently raising one of her granddaughters, which she noted that she would be unable to do along with having a political career if she did not have the support of her husband. “It’s important to be married to the right person. I wouldn’t be a legislator if I was married to my first two husbands. My husband helps me. He helps me with my campaigns and he’s my biggest advocate” (Personal interview, July 19, 2011).

Married for two years to her second husband, Senator Pamela Price emphasizes the importance of marrying a man who will complement and add to the quality of life. Because this legislator was first married at nineteen and divorced at twenty-five, she believes that she learned a lot about herself and what she wanted her next relationship to be like. She also learned that she needed to develop a work and life balance because she became physically sick and unhappy due to stress. Senator Price explained, “Black women need support bases. If we don’t, we’ll fall apart mentally, spiritually, and physically. We need to be sure that we take care of ourselves and have a balance” (Personal interview, June 21, 2011). Once this lawmaker “worked on” herself, she met her current husband. Her husband has been involved in electoral politics in the past and, as a college professor, is involved in community development. These attributes allow her husband to understand her legislative duties. Because of this, “he’s very supportive. My husband is supportive and is great at communicating. He is trusting” (Personal interview, June 21, 2011). Senator Price noted that many of her colleagues do not understand how to balance their home lives and legislative responsibilities. “Well, the men colleagues just don’t get it. They have women at home who take care of things. So they don’t have the same levels of stress. And the unmarried women in the legislature want to be connected to men too, but they have to make sure that they end up with men who are supportive” (Personal interview, July 21, 2011). Senator Price ended our interview by stating that mental, spiritual, and emotional health is paramount and that a woman should only connect herself to others who are going to enrich her life, reiterating that women need to marry men who are encouraging, supportive, and cooperative.

The women who are currently married to men emphasize the importance of having a supportive husband. The divorced legislators note that (p.63) their husbands’ lack of support led to the dissolution of their marriages. Several of the unmarried and divorced legislators claimed that African American men may lack the self-assurance to be in a relationship with a powerful Black woman. Delegate Olivia Jenkins’s narrative best illustrates the outcome of marrying an unsupportive and insecure man. She stated, “When I became speaker pro tempore I began to realize that my husband had a problem with this. People would call him Mr. Jenkins (the legislator’s maiden name). It was a resentment factor; he didn’t feel secure in his position as a man” (Personal interview, July 25, 2011). She noted that her husband wanted a traditional marriage. He was thirteen years older than she, which she believes may have contributed to his desire to have traditional gender roles within the marriage. Delegate Jenkins concluded that the demise of the relationship was caused because her new position as speaker pro tempore did not easily allow her to fulfill traditional gender roles. Although she had been active in both community and electoral politics when she married her second husband, the increased time commitment demanded of her as speaker pro tempore was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. “When we married in 1999 I wasn’t speaker pro tempore but then when I took that position I had to come to every session. So the day that I was going to be sworn in at noon, he called at 10 A.M. and told me to get someone else to hold the Bible for me. The relationship was over. I had to call my brother. So my brother rushed down to Annapolis and held the Bible for my swearing-in ceremony” (Personal interview, July 25, 2011). One of her defining political moments also signified one her lowest personal moments; the end of her second marriage. Delegate Jenkins adds that she is extremely cautious about dating now.

Delegate Cassandra Ross detailed that she had been a single mother even when she was married. Her former husband did not help her with their three children, nor did he have regular employment. Delegate Ross worked full-time and went to school part-time to earn her nursing and business degrees. She also took care of the household responsibilities and the children. “My husband thought that I took on too many responsibilities. You know, children, school, and working full time. This led to the demise of my marriage. Sitting up late night doing homework and working with the kids, my marriage didn’t survive” (Personal interview, July 29, 2011). In hindsight, Delegate Ross surmised that her husband had difficulty “feeling like a man. I was the breadwinner. And I was pursuing my dreams to become a registered nurse and business owner when he didn’t aspire to do much of anything” (Personal interview, July 29, 2011).

Of the unpartnered heterosexual women, three explicitly stated that, as powerful women, they have difficulty dating Black men. The term (p.64) “powerful woman” took on negative connotations for these women, who surmised that Black men would rather partner with a submissive woman with a lower-profile occupations than theirs. Delegate Naomi Young added that Black professional women are least likely to be married so “why would I be any different just because I’m in Annapolis. If anything, this is more reason to be single” (Personal interview, June 16, 2011). Delegate Tanisha Harold, who is divorced, noted that people react differently to her now that she’s a state legislator. “Some of my friends started to call me ‘Delegate Harold’ instead of by my first name. They changed when I got elected. People see me differently now. So if people who knew me before Annapolis act that way, imagine how men, potential dates, would treat me now?” (Personal interview, July 28, 2011). Lastly, Delegate Keira Miller, who is also divorced, said, “I was married for seventeen years and divorced for seven years now. I’m not involved in a serious relationship now. Who wants to date a powerful woman? When you get into politics, in a man’s game, you pick up male behavior. I communicate differently now. I picked up their behavior” (Personal interview, June 29, 2011). All three of these delegates express that is difficult to date. They attribute much of their inability to find and maintain relationships with men to their political stature.

Unlike the other legislators who narrate gender norms vis-à-vis heterosexual relationships, one legislator in this study is in a same-sex relationship. Delegate Leila Baker is one of eight openly gay and lesbian members of the Maryland state legislature. This delegate is estranged4 from her wife, whom she married in Vermont, the first state to allow same-sex unions without being required to do so by a court order. She is now in a long-term, committed relationship with another woman who lives in Maryland. Delegate Baker notes that she does not have the desire to move in with her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s children. She noted that politics is rough on families, especially those with young children, and she does not want her girlfriend’s family to be forcibly immersed in her political life. Instead, Delegate Baker relishes the quiet time that she is able to spend with her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s children outside of the public eye. While her girlfriend’s identity is not a secret to the majority of Marylanders, Delegate Baker chooses to keep her personal life private and declined to elaborate further on her current relationship.

The majority of women legislators who are mothers entered electoral politics when their children were self-sufficient. Five women entered electoral politics when their children were teenagers. Delegate Keira Miller explained, “Although my sons could basically look after themselves, I still had to be a present and attentive mom. I went to all—well, maybe except two—of my son’s basketball games. My other son is in the school band. I attend (p.65) his performances. If I can’t, then I make sure that my sister goes. I want them to have family support” (Personal interview, July 29, 2011). Similarly, Delegate Fatima Coleman shared that she tries to make it to her child’s events. But often she is forced to choose between attending her child’s event and a civic association meeting. “My kid cares more than the civic association if I show up. So I really try to make my kid’s event first. But sometimes there is something going on that is so important that I have to miss my kid’s events. And then you have to tell her that I’m going to be late. Thankfully, my daughter is pretty understanding” (Personal interview, June 22, 2011).

Two legislators had young children when they decided to run for office. The mother of five boys, Delegate Yasmin Wood used her children to help her campaign. Her husband, a state’s attorney for Prince George’s County, did not want her to campaign door-to-door alone. He was concerned that someone would try to hurt her. So she devised a buddy system in which she would pair up with people and campaign. “So I went through a whole lot of volunteers. On a typical Saturday I could easily go through three shifts of people because I was going to start in the morning and door-knock until it got dark. No one else was going to do that. I would get three different people to be with me plus any extras I could get. It was a lot” (Personal interview, July 6, 2011). When Delegate Wood could not get any volunteers to canvass communities with her, she would take her children. “That’s the thing about having children. They don’t have a choice. If I got truly desperate I would take the two little ones and they would ride their bikes. They would just be on the street with me. If I got snatched they could scream. That would be my last-ditch effort” (Personal interview, July 6, 2011).

As a grandmother to young children, Delegate Tanisha Harold expressed that her legislative duties keep her from being as involved in her grandchildren’s lives as she would like to be. When it is possible, she schedules political events for times that do not conflict with her family dinners. But she lamented that she “can’t do anything with my family when I’m in session!” (Personal interview, July 28, 2011). As a result, she has found that she has had to adjust her life around her legislative duties, and so she schedules time with her extended family around the Christmas holiday. And Delegate Harold has found ways to merge some of her legislative responsibilities and her desire to spend time with her grandchildren. “The grandkids love campaigning with me. I put them in a little red wagon and pull them door-to-door with me when I campaign. But even more than that, they absolutely love attending parades with me. They get to be part of the parade since I usually have some sort of official capacity there. I pull them in the wagon and they get to wave and smile at the onlookers. They love that!” (Personal interview, July 28, 2011).

(p.66) Eleven of the legislators in this sample are unpartnered, and seven are married. This represents national trends, which indicate that, as a group, Black women are the least likely to be married (Goldstein and Kennney 2001). Academic and public conversations around Black womanhood and marriage rates have lately reemerged in the public forums. Studies that illustrate the lower marriage rates of African Americans often conclude by pathologizing Black womanhood and Black motherhood. Yet the narratives shared by the women in this section also hold Black men accountable for the low marriage rates in the African American community. The narratives of delegates Naomi Young, Fatima Coleman, and Keira Miller illustrate that Black women are not solely to blame for why they are single, and Delegate Miller finds that her behavior has become masculinized as a result of serving in the state legislature, which she feels prevents men from wanting to date her. Delegate Olivia Jenkins’s story, while still within this narrative, paints a more detailed picture, illustrating her perspective on why her marriage ended. It is significant that these three legislators all theorize that Black men lack the necessary self-confidence to marry a powerful woman.

The women in this study highly value their roles as mothers and grandmothers. They note that they take pleasure in caring for their families and are proud of their children’s accomplishments. These women also go out of their way to mother other children in their churches, communities, and extended families. For example, Senator Yvonne Scott detailed that her biggest regret in life was not having children. She has taken a very active role in her the lives of her nieces and nephews, even paying for one of her nephews to attend college. Similarly, Senator Raquel Simmons does not have biological children but considers the children of Baltimore to be her family, so much so that she has dedicated her political career to advocating for the city’s youth. However, Delegates Yasmin Wood, Fatima Coleman, and Tanisha Harold note that simultaneously being a legislator and a parent or grandparent to young children can be difficult. These women stated that they constantly work to strike a balance between their legislative duties and spending time with their families. Yet they all affirmed that their family comes first and that it is essential to their lives.

Conclusion

Akin to the findings of Cole and Stewart (1999), who found that Black women’s lives, more than White women, are shaped by historical events, the women in this study indicate that they feel driven to participate in social movements and that historical events have helped shaped (p.67) their relationship to politics. Collins (2000) detailed that Black women’s advocacy begins with their support for African Americans and the poor. She later found that the experiences of being non-White and a woman increased Black women’s desire to advocate for women, a pattern that is echoed in this scholarship which supports the findings that race and gender have a distinct impact on African American women’s politics. Unlike previous studies, however, this chapter has presented an in-depth view of Black women’s lives that may provide scholars with a better starting point for understanding the motivations behind their legislative behavior. As the following chapters will continue to illustrate, Black women’s personal identities significantly inform their policy-making.

We assume that Black women political elites are privileged individuals who have benefited from education, financial security, and professional opportunity. Yet, as the feminist life histories in this work establish, African American women state legislators face numerous challenges that upend these assumptions. These women have shared as many similar as divergent life trajectories on their paths to the Maryland state legislature. The narratives that I have shared in this chapter point to the intersection of race, class, and gender in these women’s lives. We see here both a homogeneity and heterogeneity of Black women’s experiences as the state legislators reveal the complexities of their lives how that complexity influences what they do as lawmakers.

Perhaps most interesting are the common threads that weave throughout. Regardless of generational and socioeconomic difference, race and gender play a prevailing role. All the women prove the relationship of race to identity when they tell stories about their backgrounds and how they currently see themselves. Yet their racialized experiences are filtered through and mediated through other social identities. The Black women state legislators rarely explicitly spoke about womanhood in general but instead couched their discussions of self specifically in terms of being Black women. For these women, race and gender work in tandem when they explain how they view their formative years and who they are today. In addition, sexual orientation, motherhood status, marital status, professional identity, and nationality inform their lives.

I do not contend that the feminist life histories of these eighteen legislators are representative of Black women in general or African American women legislators nationwide. I acknowledge that everyone’s life experiences influence his or her legislative behavior. Yet, this study illustrates the importance of incorporating race and gender to better understand the impact of identity on legislative behavior. Future studies that explore other groups of minority legislators (e.g., Black men, Latinas, Jewish women, (p.68) etc.) are necessary for examining how a group’s specific identity may or may not impact individuals’ legislative decision making. Of course one limitation to this study is that the data collected are retrospective and that the legislators’ recollections of past events are subject to problems inherent to memory.

While this chapter cannot fully capture the rich narratives of all of the women in this sample, the experiences detailed here are representative of the group. It was not a goal of this chapter to present each woman’s complete life history but rather to highlight the diversity in this sample. Because this book is not a collaborative project, I cannot readily assume that the legislators would have self-selected to highlight some of their experiences and stories under these particular thematic headings. My findings are shaped by the women’s words but rely on my interpretation, and I accept responsibility for the information and analysis presented.

While there are limitations to any study, detail-rich case studies obtained from personal interviews and feminist life histories provide readers with a multidimensional understanding of Black women state legislators’ intersectional identities. Using the case-study approach with one state as the unit for analysis provides the necessary first step toward fully understanding the roles and motivations of Black women state legislators in the policy making process. Hopefully this study will elicit future studies on Black women’s policy preferences in other states and provide a model for studying other minorities who are elected officials. The feminist life histories I present in this chapter serve as the anchor for the remainder of the book, and the following chapters go on to examine how Black women use multifaceted and nuanced understandings of identity to influence their legislative decision making.

Notes:

(1) . Only one woman practiced Catholicism.

(2) . The other serves in the Georgia state legislature.

(3) . Delegate Baker has been estranged from her wife for a number of years. She is currently in a long-term committed relationship with another woman.

(4) . While she has been separated from her wife for many years, Delegate Baker was unable to divorce her because neither currently lives in Vermont, which is a state requirement. However, Maryland courts recently decreed that same-sex couples could be divorced in the state even if they were not married in the state, which opens the possibility for a divorce.