Black Women Have Always Been the Backbone of the U.S. Now, Jennifer McClellan Wants to Set the Agenda
Photo credit: Courtesy of the McClellan campaign
In the past, women had to be persuaded to enter politics. But since the 2016 presidential election, thousands of women have announced that they will apply for public office. And we want them to win. So we give them examples of women who ran. The point: you can too.
As early as March, the Washington Post reported that 2020 was the year of women in Virginia. As the Democrats controlled the state legislature for the first time in decades, a record number of legislators helped approve the federal gender equality change, protect abortion, combat gender discrimination, and more.
Late last month, state delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy announced her offer to the governor of Virginia. And today Senator Jennifer McClellan officially joined the race. If one of them won the 2021 election, they would be the first black governor of Virginia - and the United States.
McClellan spent 11 years in the House of Delegates and then another four years in the Senate. She was the first member of the house to be pregnant in office. With the pandemic and the ongoing fight for racial justice, McClellan is now ready for more. Below McClellan about how she decided to run.
I have always been interested in the government from a historical perspective. My father was born in 1925 and my mother in 1932, and I listened to the stories of how they grew up in the separate South during the Depression, during the New Deal, during the civil rights era. My father's love of history has sparked an interest in the government that it can either be a powerful force to change and solve people's problems - or a force of oppression for some and an opportunity for others.
When I went to college, I joined the Young Democrats. I studied law. I thought maybe I would become a congressional worker or work on a congress committee. But as I got older, I started to think I wanted to be the one who runs to make changes, instead of just choosing other people with the hope that they will.
It was in the back of my mind: maybe I run a day after I get married, after I have children, after I earn money and retire, maybe I run. But in 2005, when I was 32, a state delegate named Viola Baskerville decided to run for the vice governor and leave her seat open. The more I thought about it, the more my friends talked to me about it. It was like, "Well, why not now?" So I ran for that place and won.
Then Donald McEachin, who was my senator, was elected to Congress in 2016. I thought, "I can do that in the Senate and be one in 40 instead of one in 100." Over time, I have found that the governor sets the agenda through the budget, through appointments, through the governor's bullying pulpit. I want to be the one who sets the agenda for positive change and problem solving that I want to see, and not just one of 140 people who help implement someone else's vision.
Part of what drives me to run now is that Virginia and this country are at a critical crossroads in history that we've only seen a few times in the past. Which direction are we going? Will we live up to the promise of a government by, by and for all people with freedom, life, freedom and justice for all? This requires deliberate efforts to reduce 400 years of systematic inequality. Will we do that? Or will we go in the direction of a just opportunity for some and leave people behind and not give everyone a place at the table?
I fight the same fight as my parents, my grandparents and my great grandparents. I cannot leave this struggle to my children and grandchildren without doing everything in my power to make progress.
Hope is critical to this process. I announced my candidacy for the Senate four days after Donald Trump's election. I saw people who appeared in the snow for a special election in January. People who have never been involved in politics in my life helped me to be elected and they remained committed.
Last year I was with a group of black women of several generations and this young woman said, "You all at this table have seen progress in your life, but all I have seen is regression. I was in elementary school, when Barack Obama was elected President and 2016 was the first election I ever voted in. The planet is dying. Most people in my generation say, 'Why bother?' "It was like a slap in the face. I looked at her and said, "If you and your generation lose hope, we are lost." I have to do everything I can to bring hope back and show them that not only can you see progress, but you can make progress and be part of that progress.
I feel the weight of the choice. I think of my own family. My great-grandfather had to pass a literacy test and get three white men to guarantee that he could register for the vote. My great-grandmother couldn't vote. Her parents were slaves. When I think about the path of my own family, from bondage to leading a Commonwealth that was the capital of the Confederation, I can't help but feel the arc of the moral universe leaning towards justice, from the Dr . King spoke. I have to do my part to bend it.
Black women have been the backbone of this country for 400 years. We have often been banished to the shadows or in the back, and we have pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed forward. Knowing that I could now be Governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia is the natural advance of this movement, which began when the first African woman was brought here in chains. I feel the weight of it, but I also feel the strength and hope for it.
For the sake of clarity, this interview was edited and condensed.
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