Melissa Watson never planned to run for Congress.
For over 13 years, the high school teacher and mother of two has been active in Democratic politics. She always preferred to serve in supportive, behind the scenes roles.
In addition to volunteering for community organizations in her rural community of Berkeley County, S.C., her political resume also includes time spent as deputy secretary and second vice chair of the South Carolina Democratic Party and two years as a member of the Democratic National Committee.
She even co-chaired Sen. Kamala D. Harris’s (D-Calif.) presidential campaign in South Carolina.
During Harris’s campaign, Watson said she felt the candidate was being treated unfairly compared to her male counterparts.
Watching it all pushed Watson to join the political arena as a candidate.
“It made me angry. And when I get angry, I get busy,” said Watson, who is running for South Carolina's 7th Congressional District seat. “In my head, the only way to prevent this is for more women to keep running. To keep trying. To keep putting our face out there. So, I decided to put my face out there.”
Watson is just one of at least 130 Black or multiracial Black women who filed to run for Congress in 2020.
According to the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), which began collecting the racial identifications of female candidates in 2004, this is the largest number of Black female candidates who have run for the House or Senate, overall and in both parties, in a single election year.
In this group of candidates, 117 Black women filed to run for the U.S. House and 13 Black women filed to run for the U.S. Senate.
And as primary season nears an end, nearly 60 Black women are still in the running, according to Collective PAC.
“Black women have been the backbone of our democracy. … Black women have always ran to the forefront and been the pioneers of solving problems and standing in the gaps,” said Rhonda Briggins, the co-founder of Vote Run Lead, a nonprofit organization that trains women to run for office in America.
Since its launch in 2014, Vote Run Lead has helped train over 36,000 women, 60 percent of whom are women of color and 20 percent of whom are from rural America.
“We now know that if we’re going to have America look the way it needs to look; we must be at the table. We have to include our voice. We must be the architects of whatever this new thing will be,” said Briggins. “The only way to get there is by emerging ourselves in this political process and increasing the pipeline to politics for us because that equates power.”
While Black women make up nearly eight percent of the U.S. population, they only account for roughly four percent of all members of the House of Representatives and one percent of the Senate, according to Higher Heights for America, a national nonprofit that seeks to build the political power and leadership of Black women.
This lack of representation helped fuel Democrat Phyllis Harvey-Hall’s decision to run for Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District.
“Our government should reflect in every way the people who make up the country,” said Harvey-Hall. “When I look at the pictures of our current country, I don’t see enough reflection of the people who share my story and I believe my story needs to be told because it is representative of so many poor people in Alabama.
This cohort of Black, female congressional candidates tracks with the tendency Black women have to step up during times of racial and social injustice, said Kimberly O’Neil, a professor of political science at Collin College.
O’Neil pointed to the creation of organizations and political action committees around the country like Higher Heights For America as part of the reason for the exponential growth in candidates among this demographic.
Female candidates face a number of challenges during their race for office. According to CAWP, these struggles include party gatekeeping, violence and media coverage.
“People like to kick the tire and test your knowledge,” Danyell Lanier, a candidate for Oklahoma’s 2nd Congressional District, said.
Of the seven candidates interviewed for this story, all cited funding as a campaign obstacle.
As a Republican running to represent California’s 26th District, Ronda Baldwin-Kennedy expressed her disappointment at the lack of support from her local county party as well as the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
“One of the things [they are] saying is there is a record number of Black women running. They’re using it to raise money for fundraising purposes but yet, you’re not trickling down any of that money to those candidates that you’re using to raise the funds off,” said Baldwin-Kennedy.
Adrienne Bell, a Democrat running for District 14 in Texas, says another challenge is that women running for office get more questions about their families and their ability as parents compared to their male counterparts. She says she tries to flip that narrative to focus on her policy initiatives.
“We’re going to work on policies regarding child care. We’re going to work on policies that build up our homes. We’re going to work on policies that we make sure that students can eat, and they can’t be shamed because they cannot afford lunch,” said Bell. “We’re going to work on those kinds of policies because we’re women and we bind together and we help support families.“
Sheila Griffin, a Republican vying for District 13 in Florida hopes the momentum of this election season will keep going.
“Once you see someone else do it, it actually provokes you to use your gift and not give it away,” she said. “We’ve worked for people for years. We’ve been in the White House before, but we were working for someone else. We’ve been in Congress before, but we were working for someone else.”