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African-American women must harness their political power

womenpower 600Fannie Lou Hamer was a poor black woman with a sixth-grade education who spent much of her life working in the cotton fields. Her legacy, however, demonstrates that each of us has an important voice and role to play in our democracy, and as we near the end of Women's History Month, it is a mighty reminder of the real power African-American women have in blazing the path toward true political equity and leadership.

Activist Hamer showed up at the 1964 Democratic National Convention as a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, intent on securing voting rights for African-American people. Her formidable presence and insistence that she, too, deserved a seat at the decision-makers' table rattled the likes of President Lyndon B. Johnson and Sen. Hubert Humphrey and threatened their bid to secure the Democratic Party's nomination for the presidential ticket.

Fifty years later, African-American women are among the country's most politically active citizens. In 2012, 70 percent of eligible African-American female voters went to the polls, providing the highest rate of voter turnout for any group. This statistic highlights African-American women's ability to be defining factors in election outcomes. But despite this growing power, African-American women's electoral heft is not translating into legislation and policies that address their concerns.

African-American women continue to experience significant inequities in public education, health outcomes and economic opportunities that hurt not only them, but also their families and communities. The data is sobering. Research shows that employers paid African-American women just 64 cents for every dollar they paid white men. African-American women lost more jobs than their male counterparts during the recent recession, and they are significantly more likely than white women to go without health insurance. Lack of health insurance is a primary barrier to receiving lifesaving health care.

The good news is that across the country we see examples of African-American women running for office, winning and taking on the hard issues. This is evidenced by women like California Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose policies have helped reduce jail sentences and the recidivism rate of African-American males. We observe it in the work of Rep. Yvette Clarke, who has sponsored bills aimed at broadening access to family planning services and affordable housing in the state of New York. And we see it in many other African-American women on the local and state level.

Yet, there is more work to be done. Currently, not a single African-American woman is among the 100 members in the U.S. Senate, and just 16 of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives are African-American women. Only one of the nation's 100 largest cities currently has an African-American female mayor, and no African-American woman has ever been elected to a U.S. governor's office.

Furthering African-American women's efforts to gain political power is hardly a unilateral win. Historically, when women such as Hamer (who ran for a U.S. House seat in 1964 and a Mississippi State Senate seat in 1971), Rep. Shirley Chisholm (who made a historic bid for the White House in 1972) and Sojourner Truth (a vocal abolitionist and women's suffrage movement supporter) have put their might behind issues like the anti-war movement, employment equality and voting rights, other groups have also realized economic, social and political gains.

Their success in the face of resistance shows why it is crucial that we close the political leadership gap. So as we say farewell to this year's Women's History Month, let us march forward with a renewed commitment to elevate African-American women's voices in th e political process.

(Glynda C. Carr and Kimberly Peeler-Allen are co-founders of Higher Heights for America, a national organization focused on harnessing black women's political power and leadership potential.)

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