Black women are one of the country’s most influential voting blocs, credited with helping deliver Democrats important wins in Georgia and in the presidential race last year alone. But despite their power as political organizers and at the ballot box, Black women remain deeply underrepresented in state legislatures across the country.
A new study from State Innovation Exchange, a group that advocates for representation in state legislatures, and the National Organization for Black Elected Legislative Women takes a closer look at these gaps, finding that Black women fill just 4.82 percent of the 7,383 state legislature seats across the United States.
Because some states have much higher populations of Black people than others, state-by-state breakdowns tell a more complete story of this under-representation.
The gap was especially pronounced in Southern states, where Black women generally constitute a greater share of the electorate.
Roughly 1 out of 5 Mississippians is a Black woman, but they make up just 7.47 percent of the state legislature. Mississippi was the state where Black women were most underrepresented compared with their share of the population, but gaps were also substantial in Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee and Connecticut.
“The numbers are stark,” said Kimberly Peeler-Allen, co-founder of Higher Heights, a political group that mobilizes and advocates for Black women’s political power.
Peeler-Allen said while the gaps were “very jarring” in these states, in other states, including Georgia, Maryland and New York, Black women were at or above parity compared with their state population.
She says she sees a direct correlation between the numbers of Black women in a statehouse and the kinds of policies these legislatures put forward.
“The numbers don’t lie, and they explain a lot as to why some of these states are making the decisions they’re making,” Peeler-Allen said.
While women of color have become increasingly visible, particularly as Democratic lawmakers, statehouses in the South have remained Republican strongholds, said Nadia E. Brown, a professor at Purdue University who studies Black women in politics. Without a strong presence from the Democratic Party, Black women are unlikely to expand their numbers in these statehouses unless the GOP actively tries to cultivate Black women leadership and make the party more inclusive.
Nationally, there are also major institutional obstacles for Black women regardless of their party affiliation. Black women have a harder time fundraising, primarily because they’re not networked into big donor communities that are essential to fuel major campaigns, said Brown.
Within the Black community, “we don’t talk about money being the mother’s milk of politics,” Brown explained. While Black communities greatly value voting, there are major barriers to their political power as donors, such as a lack of generational wealth and greater economic precarity and vulnerability.
Primaries can also be particularly challenging for Black female newcomers because incumbents — who tend to be White men — have strong structural advantages in terms of their networks and financial resources, Peeler-Allen noted. Black women are not often considered in succession-planning for these leaders.
Black women who do get elected tend to come from majority-minority areas and Democratic strongholds, in races where there are special elections or open seats that allow for more diverse races.
A National Women’s Law Center study found that women elected to state legislatures have been more effective than their male colleagues, introducing and enacting more legislation than male representatives in the past two legislative sessions.
But Black female lawmakers in particular have been able to foreground important policies that had been overlooked by lawmakers of other backgrounds, according to the study.
Tennessee state Rep. London Lamar is one of three Black women in the statehouse and the youngest female legislator in the state. She represents Memphis, a city in which more than 60 percent of the population is Black.
There is a dramatic difference between the neighborhoods she represents and the rooms she sits in at the State Capitol in Nashville, she says.
“When I look around the room … I don’t really see anyone who looks like me,” said Lamar, who is 30. That singularity as a young Black woman makes her feel pressure to explain and “over-articulate” the needs of other young women like her, especially when it comes motherhood, education and health care, she says.
Early on in her tenure, Lamar advocated for better maternal health legislation. She also became pregnant during her first year in office, but faced pregnancy loss and experienced complications that put her health at risk.
Lamar saw the tenor of the conversations around maternal care at the statehouse change after that — Black maternal health issues were no longer talking points they could brush aside, but something her White male colleagues saw her personally deal with.
“It’s real now, it’s in your face,” Lamar said.
This week, Lamar saw a piece of legislation she introduced, which would recognize doulas as vital birth and community health workers, passed the House floor unanimously. She said it’s expected to pass the state’s Senate and be signed by the governor in the coming weeks.
Brown also pointed to the Crown Act, which expanded racial discrimination statutes to include bans on hair discrimination, as a key piece of legislation that had been overlooked by other lawmakers. The Crown Act has particular impact on Black women and girls, who have historically faced discrimination in schools and workplaces based on their hair.
But the power of these state lawmakers is often overlooked by voters themselves, in part because there is such an emphasis on federal elections, noted Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, a political action committee that focuses on education and mobilizing Black voters.
“When we think about many of the issues that Black voters care about, in particular, we think about things like criminal justice reform and mass incarceration and voting rights. … Those are all state-level decisions,” said Shropshire.
Voter education is a key component of bridging these gaps but structural barriers must also be addressed, she said.
Shropshire points to Virginia as an example of what’s possible when Black women constitute a greater share of state leadership. According to the State Innovation Exchange study, Virginia is close to parity in its statehouse: Black women hold 8.57 percent of state legislature seats, while making up 10.36 percent of the state’s population.
“There’s a set of policies that, frankly, are transformational in Virginia that literally are the result of a diverse set of officials moving into both chambers of the state legislature,” Shropshire said.
Among them is the state’s own voting rights law, which would be the first of its kind in the South. It was written by a Black female lawmaker, Del. Marcia Price (D), who modeled the bill after the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. The state’s Black female delegates also led the charge in ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment in 2020.
The state has also passed other legislation that have been high priorities to Black voters, including expanding Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and rescinding the death penalty, said Shropshire, who credits the state’s Democratic Party with building a multiyear plan to increase racial and gender representation in its ranks.
Now, there are two Black women vying to be the state’s first Black female governor, which would not have been possible if the local and state representation hadn’t been bolstered, Shropshire added.
Greater numbers would also affect the environment Black lawmakers work in, which can be exclusionary, said Andrea Johnson, director of state policy at the National Women’s Law Center. Part of her role is to testify in front of state legislatures on a number of gender-related issues.
“I’ve seen over and over again how Black women legislators are being interrupted and talked over, [they] often have their expertise questioned or are otherwise dismissed and harassed by their White colleagues, especially White men,” Johnson said.
Lamar echoed that point, noting that she often feels pushed to take on more than she can handle.
“I can’t take all our issues alone,” she said.
For Brown, the latest statistics highlight the institutional barriers that still prevent many from having their voices heard by their elected leaders.
Even though the numbers are an improvement, they are still indicative of a centuries-long “crisis of democracy” in this country, Brown said.
“Democracies can’t truly be democracies if they don’t represent all the people.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article noted that Black women were under-represented relative to their nationwide share of the U.S. population. It’s been amended to focus on state-by-state comparisons.