House Majority Leader Joanna McClinton speaks on the House floor on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. (Capital Star photo by Peter Hall)
By Stephen Williams
PHILADELPHIA — Political observers say the most recent political gains by Black women in Pennsylvania and across the U.S. are a result of their knowledge, skill, experience, work ethic and relationships.
As Black History Month ended and Women’s History Month kicked off, state Rep. Joanna McClinton ascended to speaker of the Pennsylvania House.
Last week, McClinton, D-Philadelphia, became the first Black woman to hold the speaker post and the first woman to rise to the position in the body’s 250 years.
In November, U.S. Rep. Summer Lee, D-12th District, a lawyer and former member of the state House, became the first Black woman from Pennsylvania to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. In the upcoming Nov. 7 election for mayor, former City Councilmember Cherelle Parker, could become the city’s first Black female mayor.
McClinton, who is also a lawyer, praised the Black women who came before her, did the work and paved the way for her rise.
“I stand on their shoulders,” said McClinton, who also made history as House Democratic chair in 2018, House Democratic leader in 2020 and House Majority leader in November.
A native of the city’s vote-rich and politically active Northwest section, Parker, a former state House member joins three other female candidates, two of color, vying for the mayor’s seat. They are former Council members Helen Gym, an Asian American; Maria Quiñones-Sánchez, a Latina; along with Rebecca Rhynhart, former city controller.
“Black women don’t achieve any semblance of success in any field or earn anything in life, just because they are Black women,” Parker said. “Rather, they must learn to succeed, in spite of the fact that they are Black women. The rise of these Black women leaders, like Joanna and Summer, is a testament to their respective hard work, determination and grit.”
There has never been a female mayor in Philadelphia.
“For so long, Black women have been the backbone of politics, of the Democratic Party, our churches, mosques, schools and communities,” said Councilmember Cindy Bass, D-8th District. “I think it’s long overdue. We really have been holding it down.”
As deputy whip in Council, Bass already holds a leadership post, but is considering running for Council president to replace Darrell Clarke, who plans to retire.
The rise of these Black women leaders, like Joanna and Summer, is a testament to their respective hard work, determination and grit.
– Philadelphia mayoral candidate Cherelle Parker
“We are really stepping up into the forefront and saying I want to lead,” Bass said. “I am excited about the possibilities of having so many women in leadership. I think you are going see dramatic changes in the way things are done. I do think that as women, we see things differently and process things differently and that’s going to be beneficial to all of us.”
Molefi Kete Asante, historian and chair of Africology and African American Studies at Temple University, said many Black women have been inspired by the many high-profile appointments of Black women by the Biden administration.
For example, Marcia Fudge, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development; Cecilia Rouse, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers and Shalanda Young, White House Office of Management and Budget director.
“Historically, Black women have been the most persecuted, most abused, most neglected in this society and Black women have decided to take things in their own hands,” Asante said “I think there is a strong emphasis now of women saying I can do this.”
Traditionally, Black women have had trouble breaking the glass ceiling in this state, according to Sandra Mills, a retired union organizer and longtime political operative.
“Isn’t it beautiful? I think it speaks to Pennsylvania growing and maturing,” Mills said. “These women (Lee, McClinton and Parker) rose up through the ranks. Nobody gave them anything. They earned it. They worked for it and they had the knowledge, skills and experience. I think it’s a great day for the state.”
Pennsylvania is not the only state where Black women are also making political gains, Asante said.
For example, in November 2022, Karen Bass was elected as the first Black female mayor of Los Angeles. And he said, a student he taught at UCLA, Shirley Nash Weber, was nominated in December 2020 to serve as the first Black female California secretary of State by Gov. Gavin Newsom. She was sworn in Jan. 29, 2021.
“It’s a wonderful thing to see and I am totally ecstatic about it,” Asante said. “This is a good thing for the society, for us and as a nation.”
It’s important to inspire the young generation of women and men to be more politically active, he said.
“To paraphrase Dr. Maya Angelou, as they rise, they are bringing the gifts that our ancestors gave, and are the dreams and the hopes of the slave,” said mayoral candidate Parker. “And as a whole, everybody, from every race and background, is better when we have leaders like these women.”
Stephen Williams is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.
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