On Tuesday Hillary Clinton is expected to rack up more primary wins, bringing her even closer to making history as the first woman to secure the Democratic nomination for president. But another upcoming primary serves as a powerful reminder of the gulf that still exists between Hillary Clinton and other female candidates who are not named Clinton, not married to a former president, and not white.
Donna Edwards, a black Congresswoman in Maryland, is locked in a tight Senate race with fellow Congressman Chris Van Hollen. Much of the Democratic and political establishment have been shocked by Edwards’s ability to make the race…well, a real race. Politico labeled Van Hollen the Democratic “golden boy,” and apparently Edwards’s rise has troubled some powerbrokers fearful she is a less viable general election candidate. (Polling indicates Van Hollen, who is white, fares better with white voters.) But of course this is part of a larger problem, namely that black women are rarely viewed as viable candidates in statewide or U.S. Senate races.
To date, there has been just one African-American female U.S. senator, Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, who served from 1993 to 1999. There have been no African-American female governors. The irony of course is that black women often play key roles in electing others to these offices. As Cornell Belcher, a prominent pollster who has worked for the Democratic National Committee, once told me in an interview for my book Party Crashing, “If there weren’t for church-going black women, the Democratic Party would be in a lot of trouble.”
He’s right. Black women consistently have higher turnout rates than black men, and black voters saved Democrats from disaster in the 1998 midterm elections following the Lewinsky scandal. In 2008 and 2012 black women had a higher turnout rate than any other group of voters.
So why does it seem so hard for the same party to elect some of the women it relies on to win as leaders in their own right?
Well, one troubling reason is best summarized by Hillary Clinton’s own candidacy. Though America prides itself on not being a monarchy like our cousins across the pond, the truth is political dynasties are alive and well here. Not only are they alive and well, they are particularly noteworthy in their impact on women candidates. As New York magazine wrote last year: “In 2008, about a quarter of the women in Congress or in a governor’s office had an ‘immediate family relation who ran for state or national-level office.’ For the women who had made it into the Senate before 2008, that proportion was 56 percent.” The article went on to note that up until the 1970s, 35 of the 95 women who had served in Congress had stepped into the shoes of their deceased husbands.
Ultimately though the piece celebrated the positive benefits dynasties allegedly have on the representation of women in halls of power. But of course it overlooked one of the major downsides: namely, the women who are subsequently excluded as a result. Since most of our presidents, governors, and senators to date have been white, that means there is an extremely small pool of women of color who have the opportunity to begin their political careers with the kind of advantages Hillary Clinton did.
This is not to say Clinton is not qualified for the presidency. But it is to say that the path for her to get there was easier than it would be for a woman who didn’t have a former president as a spouse and all of the social, financial, and intellectual capital that entails. The fact that some political watchers are already touting a potential candidacy of Chelsea Clinton should not be cause for celebration among Clinton supporters, or frankly anyone. In America such legacy championing should be cause for embarrassment, or at the very least, cause for some head scratching and head shaking at the realization that more than 200 years after breaking free from one monarchy, America has simply managed to create its own political royal families. And just like the ones overseas, they tend not to reflect the diversity of the people they represent.
When Hillary Clinton ultimately clinches the Democratic nomination, she will owe her win to black women who carried her to victory as the Sanders campaign chipped away at her support among white voters in state after state. So if she wants to show real gratitude, instead of saying “Thank you,” she should find qualified black women who want to run for office, and adopt them—politically speaking. She should give them her Rolodex, headline their fundraisers, and loan them her husband on the campaign trail. After all, Chelsea Clinton doesn’t need any more social capital to get ahead. But the next Carol Moseley Braun does.