Why Are Black Women Shut Out of Leadership Roles in State Houses?


A record number of women of all races are currently serving in state houses across the country. While Jatia Wrighten said she is thrilled by the progress women have made in state legislatures as senators and representatives, she’s less excited by the leadership gaps that exist in every state capital. 

“There are more black women and white women in state legislatures, and more recently we’ve seen more black women gaining more seats, which is exciting because for a very long time they legally couldn’t run in the first place,” she said. “In fact, black women are actually gaining seats at faster rates proportionality to white women.

“However, those black women are not in leadership positions. Even though they are descriptively represented at state legislatures, there’s no substantive representation.”

Being in the house or senate isn’t enough to enact policy, said Wrighten, who is a PhD in Political Science candidate at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. “[Black women] don’t have the power to create policy agendas and set the calendars,” she said. “Often what we see is even though there’s a number of black women in state legislature, those policies that they’re interested in aren’t getting to the floor. Their voices aren’t being heard.”

Her study, “My Sister’s Keeper: An Examination of Black Women’s Ability to Gain Leadership Positions in State Legislatures,” examines the reasons for this discrepancy. Her early conclusions are predictably disconcerting.

“I examine ideologies—perhaps it’s the differences between black and white women’s ideologies. Maybe black women are too liberal, or seen as too liberal, in comparison to white women and that’s why they’re not gaining leadership positions.

“I also look at perceptions by other members. Is it because their peers perceive them as being more liberal than they actually are? I talk about how perceptions of black women can be rooted in stereotypes, and discrimination, and prejudices. There are a lot of things that people think about them that’s dictating their inability to gain those leadership positions.”

Wrighten’s work is among the first studying sexual and racial disparity in the leadership at the state-level—and she’s found considerable variations across 50 U.S. states.

“Currently four states have never had women in any leadership position, black, white, brown, whatever—no women,” she said. “Nine states have never had black women in their state legislatures. I think this is clearly politically relevant at this point in time.”

The chairman of her political science PhD committee, Associate Professor Robert J. McGrath, agreed.

“[Jatia’s] dissertation is highly promising, from both theoretical and empirical perspectives,” he said. “[She] is influenced by scholars of women in politics, but rightly recognizes that much of the recent work in this important field has ignored race and the intersectionality of race and sex. Her perspective is an especially timely corrective to a field that is gaining influence as more women run for and win elective office in the United States.”

The research was made easier when she won the Southern Regional Education Board-State Doctoral Scholars Program fellowship this summer, a highly competitive fellowship that comes with a $25,000 grant. McGrath brought the program to her attention and helped her write the application for the grant.

The Schar School was “amazingly accommodating,” Wrighten said, when it came to scheduling her mandatory teaching assistant duties. “With three children at home, ages 11, 8, and 4, scheduling is tight,” she said. Her husband, Andrew, is a policeman whose own schedule is often in flux.

“The grant gives me time and flexibility to write at home and continue with my education. And I can apply for other grants that will allow me to continue my trajectory for the PhD.”

The support she’s received from the Schar School—from learning about grant and fellowship opportunities to writing the proposals to scheduling her TA time—is welcome validation of her ideas.

“I’m very excited I won the fellowship because I felt like it was a longshot—you never realize how important your work is because you are so ‘in’ it you can’t see what other people are seeing,” she said. “What I know now is my work is important, and somebody else noticed.”