This article is just one in a series celebrating Black individuals & groups throughout the month of February in honour of Black History Month. While there are numerous women throughout history in North America that have made political change, this article includes a showcase of 5 of these trailblazers.
Let’s start with our most recent Black female change-maker in politics – the United States’ current Vice President, Kamala Harris. The former California Senator made history on January 20, 2021 when she was sworn in as both the first woman and first woman of colour to serve as the vice president of the United States (see figure 4). A former prosector and attorney general in California, Harris broke a number of barriers throughout her career. While she had originally launched an unsuccessful bid for president in 2020, she had successfully captured national attention with her debate performances. Between this and her close friendship with Joe Biden’s late son Beau, Biden selected her as his running mate for the election.
For years now, the VPs popularity amongst Black communities has been rocky. There are a number of reasons for this, including Harris being California’s “top cop”, the mishandling of her truancy policies, her support of prison labour and the death penalty, and her involvement with imprisonment for marijuana offences. Overall, the feelings towards Harris within America’s Black communities are ones of disbelief and uncertainty. This was captured well in a 2020 interview done by BBC with North Carolina A&T State University graduate Peyton Forte. Peyton Forte stated the following regarding her personal feelings about Kamala Harris becoming the Vice President:
While Harris has been in office for a short time, she has attempted to discuss her and President Biden’s plans to address racial disparities through investments in Black businesses, putting $70B in funding towards Historically Black Colleges & Universities, and the adoption of a national standard on the use of force in policing. That being said, Harris must do more than quote policy or budget numbers; she has to speak to the experiences of Black people who are frankly tired of empty promises and disappointments from their leaders.
Shirley Chisholm was elected as the first Black woman to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1969, representing the 12th district of New York. While in office, Chisholm fought for the same issues she championed for in her years as a community activist, such as children’s education and welfare, a guaranteed minimum income to aid the poor, immigration rights, and women’s rights. Chisholm felt that her function in Congress was to be a trailblazer, building coalitions to bring about the change that she and her constituents desired; not a legislator. Keeping true to her intentions and her goals, Chisholm aided in the establishment of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in 1971 before becoming the first Black person (of any gender) from a major party to run for the presidency in 1972. Shirley Chisholm’s attempts to secure the 1972 Democratic Party presidential nomination was met with significant discrimination. For instance, she was blocked from participating in televised primary debates, and after taking legal action, was only permitted to give one speech. Even still, students, women and minorities followed the “Chisholm Trail.” She entered 12 primaries and garnered 152 of the delegates’ votes (10% of the total) despite an under-financed campaign and contentiousness from the predominantly male Congressional Black Caucus.
After Chisholm’s failed bid for presidency, she continued to focus on her work in Congress – making significant changes along the way. For instance, in 1977, she co-founded the Congressional Women’s Caucus, and became the first Black woman and second woman ever to serve on the powerful House Rules Committee. Then, after leaving her position with Congress in 1983, she co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women, and campaigned for Jesse Jackson’s presidential bids. After leaving Congress in 1983, Chisholm co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women and campaigned for activist and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson‘s presidential bids. When asked about her legacy, Chisholm stated, “I want to be remembered as a woman … who dared to be a catalyst of change.”
Jean Augustine started out her career as a schoolteacher with the Metropolitan Separate School Board in Toronto. Eventually Augustine became a school principal, and then a Supervisory Officer, where she influenced the lives of many youth, while simultaneously involving herself in grassroots efforts in her community. Augustine contributed to a range of social causes through her involvement on boards at York University, The Hospital for Sick Kids, the Stephen Lewis Foundation, and the Harbourfront Corporation. As well, she served as the President of the Congress of Black Women of Canada.
Jean Augustine made history as the first Black Canadian woman to be elected to Canada’s House of Commons as the Member of Parliament for the Greater Toronto Area constituency of Etobicoke-Lakeshore. She served with distinction, winning 4 consecutive elections until she decided to move on to new challenges in 2006. Over this period in Parliament, her work included:
- Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister
- Minister of Multiculturalism & the Status of Women
- Chair of the Foreign Affairs & International Trade Committee
- Chair of Human Rights Committee
- Three-time Chair of the National Women’s Caucus
- Deputy Speaker
Amongst her many notable achievements during this time, was legislation established to protect disadvantaged low-income individuals, including single mothers, securing unanimous legislative support to pass a landmark motion to erect the only statue featuring women on Parliament Hill, the Famous Five Monument, and extensive travel and engagement for initiatives around the world to try and improve the human condition. In 2015, Augustine retired, and has since received a number of awards and recognition for her lifelong achievements, including multiple honorary doctorates and the Key to the City honour for the City of Vaughan.
Barbara Jordan was the first Black woman to be elected to Congress from the Deep South; she was the first Black woman to be elected to the Texas state senate and the first Black Texan in Congress. Jordan was a politician who focused on local community interests instead of broader issues like women’s or civil rights. With an aim to get things done, Jordan worked within the established systems and structures, while avoiding making commitments to any particular interest group. While in Congress, Barbara Jordan worked on legislation promoting women’s rights, supported the Equal Rights Amendment, and co-sponsored a bill that would have granted housewives Social Security benefits based on their domestic labour. As well, she held a seat on the Education & Labour Committee in addition to the Judiciary Committee. The latter position propelled Jordan to national fame when President Richard Nixon was being considered for impeachment due to the Watergate scandal in 1974.
At the time, Barbara Jordan was a new member of the Judiciary Committee, and delivered an opening statement supporting articles of impeachment against President Nixon on national television. “My faith in the Constitution is whole, it is complete, it is total,” Jordan stated. “I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution.” Her impeachment speech helped lead to Nixon’s resignation and won Jordan national acclaim for her intellect and integrity. Two years later, she was asked to deliver the keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, which was another first for a Black woman.
Dr. Hedy Fry
The Honourable Dr. Hedy Fry was originally elected to Parliament for Vancouver Centre in 1993, becoming the first ‘rookie’ to defeat a sitting Prime Minister. Dr. Fry was re-elected in 1997, 2000, 2004, 2006, 2008, 20011 and 2015 – making her the longest serving female member of parliament in Canadian history. Fry first immigrated to Canada in 1970, practicing family medicine at St. Paul’s hospital for decades – leading the medical community in her positions as:
- President of the Vancouver Medical Association (VMA)
- BC Medical Association (BCMA)
- The Federation of Medical Women
- Medical information host on CBC’s Doctor, Doctor
After being elected in 1993, Dr. Fry became the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Health. Then, from 1996-2002, she was in the Cabinet as Canada’s Secretary of State for Multiculturalism & Status of Women, where she worked on social policy, arts and culture, gender equality, the environment, homelessness, same-sex benefits, and equal marriage. Then, from 2006-2015, Dr. Fry held a number of leadership positions in the Official Opposition – holding the Harper government to account as Critic for Canadian Heritage, Critic for Sport & the 2010 Games, and Critic for Health. While acting as the Critic of Health, she was responsible for developing the Liberal Party of Canada’s 2015 Health platform.
In 2021, Dr. Hedy Fry has been working with Mental Health & Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson, and Dr. Patricia Daly, the medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, to initiate pilot projects aimed at the reduction of record number of overdoses in British Columbia. These new programs will be implemented at Vancouver Coastal Health, AIDS Vancouver Island Health & Community Services, the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, and the Urban Indigenous Health & Healing Cooperative.
This article was the first in a series in honour of Black History Month. Keep an eye out for more to come!