A year of inspiration and motivation: Historic firsts for women of color in politics

By Darreonna Davis

Originally published by The 19th

Several women of color made history as the first women from their ethnic or racial group to serve in various political offices this year, affirming arguments put forth by candidates and political analysts that their electoral success is a sign of shifting politics.

At least six women of color made history as mayors, the most notable being Cherelle Parker, the first woman and first Black woman elected to lead Philadelphia. Parker joins Mayors Sharon Weston Broome of Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Vi Alexander Lyles of Charlotte, North Carolina; Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C.; Elaine O’Neal of Durham, North Carolina; Karen Bass of Los Angeles; LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans; London Breed of San Francisco; and Tishaura Jones of St. Louis in a growing list of Black women serving as mayors of major cities.

This year’s addition to the list of women of color mayors is part of a trend experts like Kelly Dittmar, director of research for the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), have observed over the past decade. Dittmar attributes it to the way many women of color value and interact with communities, and to the inspiration provided by other mayors who are women of color.

“I do think having role models and examples where you see other women of color, broadly speaking, be successful and be in these positions of leadership … can both be inspiring and motivating and also legitimizing to the insiders that these women can win and should win and make a difference in policy and policymaking and political leadership,” Dittmar said.

Women of color also made gains beyond City Hall. Pennsylvania had another major first, with Joanna McClinton being elected as the first woman and first Black woman speaker of the state House of Representatives. Dittmar pointed to McClinton’s ascension from House Democratic Caucus chair to House Democratic leader to her current first as a result of women of color in the statehouse who first encouraged her to run for party leadership and gave her the confidence and experience to seek the speaker’s seat. Dittmar also pointed to the work by women of color who have fueled the voter base in cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and how that work is helping them take their rightful place and demand a seat at the table.

CAWP released a report this month about the changes in women’s political power between 2010-’23, which included a 2022 interview with McClinton that addressed the misperceptions Black women were overcoming with each election.

“I think party leadership has always had this idea of who can win and many times that person was not a Black woman for certain communities,” McClinton told CAWP. “So we are learning, we are seeing, we are getting educated, and we’re seeing through the wins and losses how this is evolving.”

She added that her time as the House Democratic leader had shown her that others are eager to follow in her footsteps. “Some of the candidates that I meet and talk to ask me about the journey. …They see what’s going on in Pennsylvania and they’re encouraged to hear a woman’s voice at that podium.”

Here are some of the women of color whose success this year got their names written in history as firsts.

Cherelle Parker

Parker is a Philadelphia native who attended local public schools, Lincoln University, a historically Black college, and the University of Pennsylvania. Parker was an educator, state representative –– the youngest African-American woman elected –– and city councilwoman before becoming the city’s 100th mayor and the first one to be a woman.

Deborah Whitfield

Whitfield is the first Black mayor of Lawrence, Indiana — and the first Black mayor in all of Marion County, an area that includes the state capital, Indianapolis. Whitfield, a respiratory therapist, worked in health care for 40 years. She formally entered politics when she joined the Lawrence Common Council At Large in 2019.

Joanna McClinton

McClinton first made history in 2018, when she became the first woman and Black person to chair the House Democratic Caucus, and in 2020, when she was the first woman to serve as House Democratic Leader. She has been serving her constituents in Philadelphia and Delaware counties since being elected to the state House in 2015.

Lily Wu

Wu is the first Asian-American mayor of Wichita, Kansas. Wu, whose family immigrated to the city from Guatemala when she was 8, attended local schools and Wichita State University and worked as a local television reporter for 12 years at KAKE News.

Nadia Mohamed

While Deqa Dehlac became the first Somali-American mayor in the U.S. when city council members unanimously appointed her mayor of South Portland, Maine, in 2021, Mohamed became the first Somali-American mayor elected in the U.S. this year and will serve the town/suburb of St. Louis Park, Minnesota. Mohamed, who is 27, will be leaving her post as an at-large city councilmember to take the reins as mayor.

Roslyn Harmon

Harmon is the first Black mayor of Golden Valley, Minnesota, a suburb west of Minneapolis. A 30-year resident of Golden Valley, Harmon has a background in education, nonprofit leadership and marriage and family therapy.

Yvonne Flowers

Flowers is the first Black mayor of Poughkeepsie, New York. A native of the mid-Hudson Valley town, she served as the Ward 5 councilwoman for eight years and spent over 30 years in accounting at her alma mater, Dutchess Community College.

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