Loretta Lynch and the History of Black Women in the Senate

US Capitol Building and Senate Chamber (East Front) - Washington DC during Sunset
US Capitol Building and Senate Chamber (East Front) - Washington DC during Sunset

Loretta Lynch had to wait 166 days to be confirmed as the next Attorney General, longer than any nominee for this position and longer than the last seven Attorney General nominees combined, but why? Democrats and those on the Left have suggested that race is at the center of the delay, with Minority Whip Dick Durbin quipping that Senate Republicans had put Ms. Lynch at the "back of the bus." On the other hand, Republicans have denied such accusations, citing that such remarks are beneath the dignity of the venerable institution. Republicans have raised questions over Ms. Lynch's support of the President's immigration policy and quarreled with Senate Democrats over abortion language in unrelated human trafficking legislation to explain the unprecedented delay. Nonetheless, while we are unable to ascertain if there are racist underpinnings in the long delay Ms. Lynch has suffered, it does not mean we cannot use Ms. Lynch's case to understand the role of race and gender in the modern Senate more broadly.

To chalk up the treatment of Ms. Lynch as the latest casualty in Washington politics is to ignore how black women have often been caught in the crosshairs of political warfare, particularly in the Senate. The persistence of such a long wait for confirmation reiterates how the Senate is a raced and gendered institution where race and gender determine who is in power, how space is organized, and more fundamentally, how work is done is Congress. Ms. Lynch joins a coterie of black women who have been treated with exception in the Senate, often penalized in order for white men to score political points and whose voices are often silenced and deemed unworthy for protection.

Almost two decades ago, Professor Anita Hill bravely sat before the Judiciary committee, (the same committee that has already approved Ms. Lynch's nomination), and described in explicit detail her experience of sexual harassment by Supreme Court Nominee Clarence Thomas when they worked together at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The elite Senate panel of all white men, which is still all white today, prosecuted Ms. Hill as if she was on trial, and failed to investigate similar claims of harassment by other women. Ms. Hill's testimony helped spur the "Year of the Woman," which resulted in the election of Carol Moseley Braun (D-IL), the only African American woman to ever serve in the Senate. It bears repeating that the Senate is an institution constituted primarily by white men, and of the 1,963 members to serve in the Senate, 96 percent have been white men. It was also during this time that Professor Lani Guinier was labeled a "Quota Queen" for her support of Affirmative Action when President Clinton nominated her as the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. Senators deliberately misconstrued her more nuanced position to achieve racial equality by relying on racial stereotypes instead of her résumé.

Black women were not just the subjects of Senate scrutiny in the 1990s. In the 1950s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy subpoenaed Annie Lee Moss to appear before his Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations for being a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. Ms. Moss was a black woman who started her life by picking cotton and working in government cafeterias before she earned a position as a civil service employee at the Pentagon. The hearing involving Ms. Moss was a part of McCarthy's campaign against the Department of the Army for failing to protect the nation against Communist spies by promoting individuals with suspicious backgrounds. Unlike in the testimonies of Professors Hill and Guinier, Democrats like Senator Stuart Symington came to the rescue of Ms. Moss, but as historian Andrea Friedman points out, only because they saw her as a "poor old colored woman" despite her background as community activist and homeowner.

Senator Symington is also known for hiring Christine McCreary, one of the first African American women to be a private secretary in the Senate. McCreary came to Capitol Hill during a time when most African Americans there worked in service positions as janitors and cooks. McCreary famously challenged the persistence of de facto segregation on Capitol Hill by dining regularly in the Senate staff cafeteria. It is worth noting that in 1934, a House Congressional committee deemed racial segregation allowable in dining facilities, as they constituted private spaces for members of Congress.

While McCreary was one of the first African Americans to work in a professional position in the Senate during the 1950s, black women who worked prior to her made other important contributions. Historian Kate Masur documented the career of Kate Brown, who began working in the Senate as a laundress in 1861, before earning a position as the attendant in the Senate ladies' retiring room. Brown not only had the confidence of several members of Congress, but also famously sued a Virginia railroad company for its segregative practices after being brutally attacked for not leaving the "white" ladies' car by train officials. The incident spawned a Congressional investigation and was subsequently cited in Supreme Court case Plessy vs. Ferguson in 1896. Brown was so well-regarded that after she recovered and returned to work, senators made a specific appropriation for her salary so that she would have job security. Unfortunately, when Southern Democrats gained controlled of the Senate in 1878, they eliminated Brown's name from the appropriations bill and fired her in the next session. While overt racial segregation is not longer permissible on Capitol Hill and African Americans have gained influence, its workforce is still racially stratified, with few black women occupying positions of authority.

When Senators like John McCain (R-AZ) suggest that it is beneath the dignity of the Senate for someone to suggest that race and gender may enter into legislative decision-making, it is a position that obfuscates history. Throughout Senate history, black women who have served as employees, nominees and witnesses have been used to score political advantage, often with detriment done to their professional reputations and careers. Despite living in an era when Loretta Lynch can be nominated as the nation's chief law enforcement officer, the experiences of black women in the U.S. Senate illuminate how the institution continues to be a space built around white male privilege.