By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
The Black woman. For decades she had two strikes against her. White America discriminated against her because of her skin color and her gender. Black men had it bad, but the sisters had it much worse. Before liberalism opened opportunities for minorities in America, Black women were forced to endure both racism and sexism.
From vaudeville shows to the Hollywood epic “Gone with the Wind,” Black women were depicted as both intellectually and physically inferior people who could do well as maids. In her novels, author Zora Neale Hurston often showed how Black women were victims of sexism by Black men, too. Unlike white women, today, Black women are degraded to physical objects in hip hop music.
The feminist movement primarily served the interests of the white middle class and well-to-do women who wanted to gain equal rights with the other sex. Supportive and hardworking Black women on the other hand, just wanted respect. The kind Aretha Franklin sings about.
Fast forward to 2017. Sisters are doing it for themselves as thousands in Chicago prepare to converge on McCormick Place for the 24th annual Black Women’s Expo, a traveling convention that serves to empower and uplift Black Women.
The three-day event will include seminars, town hall meetings and numerous booths with businesses offering goods and services to women of color. There will also be a roster of entertainers, including gospel singer Cece Winans and actress Vivica Fox.
It will be a celebration because Black women have made impressive gains in prominent professions in recent years according to a new report.
Across the nation, Black women are establishing a commanding presence not only in the home, but boardrooms and conference rooms. It’s a growing reality that’s quietly gaining momentum without an organized movement or rally. Armed with college degrees, professional skills and fresh confidence, white America is seeing the Black woman in a different light more than ever before.
It’s happening in Chicago, where Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle runs the county, the second most populous county in the United States. Kim Foxx, Cook County State’s Attorney, is the county’s first Black female prosecutor. Karen Lewis has made significant gains, leading thousands of teachers as the President of the Chicago Teachers Union. Dorothy Brown, as Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court, has served the county for over 15 years.
These Black women fought their way into leadership when opportunities for them were few. Many consider them pioneers, who paved the way for a new generation of Black women, who are challenging the status quo with fresh ideas and dynamic leadership.
And their numbers are growing. Today, six, or nearly half of the city’s 15 Black aldermen are women. The newest Black female alderman is Sophia King (4th) who was easily elected to the position, grabbing 63 percent of the vote. In second place for the 4th ward aldermanic seat was another Black woman, Attorney Ebony Lucas. The rest of the candidates, who finished a distant last were all Black men, including activist Gregory Livingston. On top of that, King’s predecessor was a male, Will Burns, who resigned in 2016 to take an executive position with Airbnb.
The same success for Black women is happening on a state level. Today seven Black women serve as State Representatives for Illinois. The newest politician, Julianna Stratton, rose to prominence after she defeated veteran State Rep. Ken Dunkin in the March 2016 primary. Ironically, both Stratton and King received an unprecedented endorsement by President Obama, a rare move by a sitting president.
In addition, five Black women serve as state senators for Illinois, and in 2016 Andrea Zopp became Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s second deputy mayor, the highest ranking Black female in Chicago’s history.
Zopp is among three Black women who have served as president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League in the last decade. The organization’s first female, Cheryle R. Jackson took the helm in 2006 and the Urban League’s current president, Shari Runner got the top job in 2016 when Zopp ran for the U.S. Senate.
Then there is Michelle Obama, the Whitney Young Magnet School graduate who became the first Black first lady of the United States after her husband’s historic election to the White House. Another Chicago prominent native Valerie Jarrett, was President Obama’s senior advisor.
There are other areas where Black women in Chicago are leading the way. Prominent Chicago Attorney Perri Irmer is the CEO of the Du-
Sable Museum of African American History. Last year, former Chicago resident Carla Hayden became the first Black woman to become the Librarian of Congress in Washington, D.C.
In business, Melody Hobson manages $10 billion in assets as president of Ariel Investments.
It’s a growing reality that is changing the perceptions of women of color and fueling the rise of today’s Black women as they advance in fields traditionally dominated by white men: politics and business. It’s a fact that’s documented in a major new report by the Black Women’s Roundtable, a national civic group. The fourth annual report lists key political, economic, and social issues that impact the nation’s 23 million Black women, their families and communities.
The 72-page document, entitled ‘Black Women in the U.S., 2017: Moving Our Agenda Forward in a Post-Obama Era,’ was released to coincide with the group’s 6th annual “Women of Power” national summit, taking place this week in the nation’s capital and Arlington, Virginia.
The report noted gains Black women have made in recent years. They included the election of Foxx, who was among three Black women elected as top prosecutor, along with Kimberly Gardner in St. Louis and Aramis Ayala in Orange County, Florida.
“[It] provides very concrete answers around the question of where we should go from here, at the dawn of the post-Obama era,” said Avis Jones-DeWeever, Ph.D., the document’s editor-in-chief.
- In both 2008 and 2012, Black women redefined voting history by becoming the largest demographic group to cast ballots in an election. In 2016, Black women continued to vote at high levels and increased their numbers in Congress (from 20 to 21 women); for the first time in nearly two decades, a second Black woman —former California Attorney General, Kamala Harris, was elected U.S. Senator.
(In 2016, 94 percent of Black women voted for Democratic Candidate Hillary Clinton while 88 percent of overall Black voters backed her.)
- Two of three African Americans elected Mayor in a top 100 city were women, and smaller jurisdictions in Arizona, Arkansas and Florida each elected their first Black mayor.
Black women earned 67% of Associate Degrees and 65% of Bachelor Degrees earned among Blacks. And while all women across race are more likely to complete higher education than their male counterparts, Black women outpace their male peers more than any other group.
Black women however, continue to lag behind when it comes to those enrolled in an academic major reflective of the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), 10.6% Black women vs. 19.3% Black men respectively.
Black women remain the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs. As of 2016, there were an estimated 1.9 million Black women-owned firms, employing 376,500 workers and generating $51.4 billion in revenues.