The Rising Power of Black Women

Shelley Seale

Last week, Oprah Winfrey made headlines not only for her rousing speech at the Golden Globes, but for the immediate speculation that she would run for president. While she quickly quashed rumors of aspirations to the most powerful political office in the world, to paraphrase her soon-to-be legendary speech, it surely wasn’t lost on Winfrey that many young black women were observing those “Oprah 2020” hot takes and hashtags, and becoming inspired to claim power for themselves.

Taking this on the heels of last month’s stunning political upset in Alabama’s U.S. Senate race, in which Democrat Doug Jones beat favored Republican candidate Roy Moore in a deeply red state largely thanks to the mobilization of black women voters, it seems Americans may finally be ready to understand and embrace black women as vital social, economic, and political influencers.

“Black women have always played an important role in various movements, most obviously in the civil rights movements, but also in the feminist movement,” says Dr. Terri Givens, provost and professor at Menlo College in California. “[But] I don’t see a shift happening yet in the spaces where the most important decisions are being made. Although black women have a voice in social and cultural spaces, there are incredibly few women in powerful positions (i.e. Fortune 500 CEOs).”

Of course, dreaming of Oprah in the Oval Office is a nice way to escape that reality, but there are other more realistic reasons to be hopeful for more representation of black women in America’s c-suites and political offices, working to better the society that has oppressed them.

Money Talks

In September, Nielsen released a report called African-American Women: Our Science, Her Magic, which found that as consumers, African-American women’s preferences and brand affinities are resonating across the U.S. mainstream. Driven by black women, the authors predicted total black spending power would hit a record $1.5 trillion by 2021.

The Nielsen report found young black women are playing an increasingly vital role in influencing mainstream culture, avidly watching TV and using social media to support representations of strong black characters and public figures. “Economically, it’s no secret that black women have a footprint,” says Ifeoma Ike, a partner and director at the thought leadership firm ThinkRubix. “They hold a significant share of the $1.2 trillion spending power of black people overall, and how they spend shapes trends and direction within our overall culture.” For instance, two of the biggest films of the past two years, 2016’s Hidden Figures and 2017’s Girls Trip, starred black women, bringing in $235 million and $139 million respectively.

Described in the Nielsen report as “self-made” and “self-reliant,” black women’s educational and economic goals and progress certainly sound like the quintessential hard-working American. For example, 64 percent of black women agree their goal is to make it to the top of their profession (95 percent higher than non-Hispanic white women); and 58 percent agree that they don’t mind giving up their personal time for work (20 percent higher than non-Hispanic white women).

“Black women have strong, life-affirming values that spill over into everything they do. The celebration of their power and beauty is reflected in what they buy, watch, and listen to, and people outside their communities find it inspiring,” wrote author Cheryl Grace, senior vice president of U.S. Strategic Community Alliances and Consumer Engagement at Nielsen. “Understanding how black women’s values affect their buying decisions has long been a marketing necessity. Now, marketers must also recognize the intercultural influence of black women on the general market as an increasingly vital part of how all women see themselves, their families, and the rest of the world.”

Givens agrees, noting that “a lot more attention is being paid now to the role that black women play in driving purchasing decisions.”

Doing It for Themselves

But despite prior success and a customer base growing in affluence, it often falls to black women to create products and services for their market. To go back to Winfrey, she has both her own network (ahem, OWN) and production company. One of network television’s greatest recent successes, producer and writer Shonda Rhimes, recently expanded her production company Shondaland to become a content hub. Pop star Rhianna launched her own beauty line for women of color, which almost instantly sold out last summer. Though not explicitly marketed as such, Beyonce’s ahead-of-its-time athleisure line Ivy Park produces fitness gear for body types with proportions that may fall outside industry standards, which has always been sized around white measurements. After a recent acquisition to reinvigorate Essence magazine, Michelle Ebanks leads the company’s all-black female executive team.

Like the famous names launching their own ventures, black women are also increasingly going into business for themselves. According to the Nielsen report, between 2007 and 2012, the number of businesses majority-owned by black women grew 67 percent—almost twice the percentage of all women-owned businesses—and they own more than 1.5 million businesses with more than $42 billion in combined sales. “Black women contribute to society in ways many other women have never been demanded to,” Ike says.

And despite substantial gains, Givens sees plenty of room at the top for black women. “Shonda Rhimes is producing shows, but who is providing the money?” asked Givens in an email. “Who is leading the studios? Who is making the big money?” Not black women, not yet.

Moving Forward

Ike points to online movements like #NotOneDime, #OscarsSoWhite, and #BlackWomenLead as recent examples of influential campaigns that put black women’s power—purchasing and otherwise—at the forefront. But as a bloc, black women’s inclusion in the broader feminist political movement in the U.S. is still fraught.

Women might have shared collective identity, but those of color also deal with structural and institutional racism. Black feminist scholar Barbara Smith argues that the mainstream feminist movement noticeably leaves out issues unique to black women, fighting against sexism and class oppression at the cost of ignoring race as an inhibitor. “As a result,” she wrote in a paper for MIT, “Black women were an invisible group whose existence and needs were ignored.”

Even when broadly popular feminist causes are sparked by black women activists, they often don’t receive credit and their specific lens may fall out of focus as time goes on. Take, for instance, the 2017 Women’s March protesting the inauguration of President Donald Trump—co-founded by social justice activist Tamika Mallory and inspired by marches for civil rights in the 1990s—which received early criticism for seeming to co-opt those previous marches’ efforts and not including women of color in leadership from its earliest planning stages. More recently, the #MeToo online movement to draw attention to pervasive sexual harassment was largely attributed to a tweet from actor Alyssa Milano, when the concept was actually put into play more than a decade ago by social activist Tarana Burke as part of her work building solidarity among young survivors of harassment and assault.

“From enslavement to the women’s suffrage movement to the civil rights movement to the current movement for the liberation of black life, black women are the engines of movement,” Ike says. “We may not be seen under the hood, but no car moves without us.”

Their activism, purchasing power, and social influence is all the more impressive considering the stiff hurdles black women still face. On average, black women earn only 67 cents to the white man’s dollar. While black women are now the most educated group in the U.S., as of 2016 they held just 8 percent of private sector jobs, with only 2 percent in leadership positions. Perhaps that’s why black women’s median wealth is a stunning $200 compared to white women’s $15,640, and when considering black women with children as compared to their white counterparts, their wealth falls to $0, while white women’s still remains above $14,000.

“We don’t discuss how even with higher salaries than prior generations, phenomena like gentrification, glass ceilings, and increased cost of living limit our ability to be socially mobile,” says Ike, noting that very little attention is paid to how much debt black women go into to finance their education and businesses. “Collectively, we are dying from health concerns at rates you’d see in developing countries, our neighborhoods are blanketed with unjust environmental practices, and we are still extremely vulnerable to violence within and outside of our communities.” Reflecting on the success of women like Winfrey, Beyonce, and Rhimes, she concludes “there may be more visible portrayals of progress, but we need to see more of a shift in our experiences.”

Creating that shift requires broader support and empathy, says Givens. “We need our allies to listen and believe us when we are speaking our truth,” she says. “Every black woman leader you know has likely experienced some form of racism and/or sexism.” For young black women climbing the ladder to success, “There are those who will try to cut us out of decision making processes. We have to support each other and lift each other up, so that the next generation of young women won’t have to fight the same battle,” Givens counsels.

“Fight with and for us,” Ike urges. “That includes trusting us, elevating us, promoting us. And sometimes, just getting out of our way.”