On Jan 20. 2021, Vice President Kamala Harris became the first Black woman to hold the nation’s second highest office, but Black women in America are still underrepresented at all levels of government, nationally.
Like Harris, Eatontown Councilwoman Danielle Jones also appeared on the ballot in November 2020.
“The fact that (Harris) is the second in line for the presidency, it really makes my heart so happy,” Jones said. “This is what we need. We need a Black woman in those spaces to really be in those decision-making rooms, and also being right next to all that power.”
In 2021, there were nearly 21 million people who self-identified as Black women, making up 6.2% of the country’s 331.9 million population. In New Jersey, nearly 620,900 of the 9.27 million residents self-identified as Black women, according to 2021 Census data, or about 6.7% of the population.
But according to a Rutgers University study, as of 2022, just 5% of all state legislators, nationally, identified as Black women. 3.8% of all women in statewide office to date have identified as Black, and no Black woman has ever served as elected governor of a state. 5% of all voting members of Congress identify as Black women.
The New Jersey state legislature has been more representative of the constituency, as there are 12 state legislators who identify as Black women, or 10% of the total state legislature. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-12th Dist., currently serves in congress and Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver has held the second highest office in the state since 2018.
‘We need more’
At the local level, Asbury Park City Councilwoman Angela Ahbez-Anderson said, Black woman have made some progress, but the going has been slow.
“There are two Black women now here on City Council in Asbury Park. We have Danielle Jones, a councilwoman in Eatontown. We have Deputy Mayor Tassie York (in Neptune). We’ve made some gains in our communities and we are visible. We are making sure we are seen, but we need more,” Ahbez-Anderson said.
“We need more women of color in positions and we need to be able to be the model for our younger girls so they can see someone that looks like them in the position,” Ahbez-Anderson said.
Asbury Park City Councilwoman Yvonne Clayton thinks “as women, period just women, we bring a different perspective to caring for the community.”
“We are the mothers, we are the wives, we are the people who really support the community as a whole. As Black women it is even more important because we have not always had the opportunities and our community has not always had the opportunities,” Clayton said.
She stressed hearing from women, especially from underserved communities, is “a need.”
“There is a need for us to step up and get involved and make our voices heard because they haven’t always been heard,” Clayton said.
Jones admitted that she initially had to deal with feelings of imposter syndrome and the fear of being labeled with the “Angry Black Woman” stereotype.
“I keep that mind,” Jones said. ” I don’t make any apologies for it. I am not going to keep my feelings and my opinions to myself at my expense, and let you freely share what you think and how you feel, and I don’t say anything.”
Jones called her experiences in office “eye-opening.”
“For the most part I love and enjoy being of service to my community,” Jones said. “I recognize that I was put in this position for a reason and if I don’t speak up… then who will?”
Representing a majority White area, mixed with the closing of Fort Monmouth, Jones doesn’t even see the diversity that she grew up with in Eatontown.
“I am very conscientious of that,” Jones said. “What can I do to show people yes I am here; I am here not only to represent you but also create the change that you want to see.”
Being the first
Ahbez-Anderson has been living in Asbury for 30 years and has previously served on the school board from 2011 to 2021, including five terms as president of the board. She was elected to the city council in the November 2022 elections and was sworn-in in January.
“I was the first Black woman to run for the Monmouth County Clerk position back in 2020,” Ahbez-Anderson said.
She takes pride in the 2020 race despite not winning.
“I was up against a powerful Republican engine; she was the incumbent, and she was well supported financially. When you run for that type of race you need hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Ahbez-Anderson said. “I didn’t have that support, the financial support. I came out of nowhere and I ran.”
Ahbez-Anderson said despite her loss, Harris’ election opened up even greater possibilities.
“It also gave me hope that hopefully in my lifetime I will see a ticket of two powerful women of color or Black and white being sworn in as President and Vice President of these United States. Now that will be powerful,” Ahbez-Anderson said.
Myra Campbell, former Mayor of Asbury Park, said more representation is needed up to and including the federal level.
“If you’re not at the table then you can’t make a decision,” she said. “I think it takes some time to get involved and realize it is a possibility, it can even be a career.”
In July 2013, Campbell became the first female African-American Mayor of Asbury Park in 2013 when she was appointed to the position after a 3-2 vote during her first term.
“The number of diverse people, that now are beginning to look like all of America, are participating in government. Yes, its not where I’d like it to be, but I’m pleased with what we are working towards as far as inclusion,” Campbell said.
She believes the more engaged the youth becomes with civic duty they better off public service will become.
“You can’t just vote, you need to follow up,” Campbell said. “You have to be active.”
Kelly Dittmar, Director of Research at the Center for American Women and Politics, said “thankfully” not only have there been increases not only in the number of women in office “but certainly diversity, racial and ethnic diversity among those women. “
“We certainly seen the gains since when we did our first report in 2014. Those gains are not only at a state legislative level but we are at a record for Black women in congress, we had high numbers of Black women leading the top 100 cities as mayors. So we have seen significant progress, I don’t want to discount that,” Dittmar said.
She said “real investments” in Black women as candidates will help continue those increases.
“And certainly continued support for as elected officials, especially as they’re thinking about running for higher office. And that investment is financial,” Dittmar said.
Also, investment in terms of looking to Black women when doing recruitment.
“We know that in a lot of our community spaces Black women are at the helm, in leadership, in community organizing, volunteer work, etc. They are often in these community leadership roles but that is not always translated into running for office,” Dittmar said.
She added that identifying opportunities in political leadership is a must but also providing “the resources and support that would be necessary for them to be successful” as well as creating an environment that is conducive to prospective candidates wanting to run for office.
“Because sometimes we look at these political institutions that are historically white and male-dominated and they are not friendly, particularly to women of color,” Dittmar said. “So we have to continue to push to change the culture of these institutions so that they are even appealing enough for somebody to make the decision that they want to run and be part of this space, and that they want to stay, because we also see retention problems when you have these particularly unfriendly spaces.”
Charles Daye is the metro reporter for Asbury Park and Neptune, with a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. @CharlesDayeAPP Contact him: CDaye@gannettnj.com