After a five-month delay, Loretta Lynch made history last week. On Thursday, the Senate confirmed Lynch as the next U.S. attorney general, the first African American woman ever to hold this Cabinet position. Her long-stalled nomination sometimes seemed in doubt, held hostage to partisan jockeying between Democrats and Republicans. But one political bloc never gave up, relentlessly rallying its support behind Lynch: the black sorority.
During her initial hearing, the seats behind Lynch were filled with more than two dozen of her Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters arrayed in crimson-and-cream blazers and blouses, ensuring their visibility on the national stage. These Delta women—U.S. Representatives Marcia Fudge and Joyce Beatty among them—were there to lend moral support and show the committee that they meant business. The Deltas were not alone. The Lynch nomination also drew support from congressional representatives from other black sororities: Alpha Kappa Alpha members Terri Sewell and Sheila Jackson Lee took to the House floor to advocate for a vote while Sigma Gamma Rho members Corinne Brown and Robin Kelly and Zeta Phi Beta member Donna Edwards used social media and press conferences to campaign on Lynch’s behalf.
For Lynch, who co-founded the Delta chapter at Harvard University, the political support of the sorority sisters was not necessarily a surprise. But for those less familiar with the political activism of black sororities, their appearance at the Lynch hearing offered an unexpected crash course in the political influence of the black sisterhood.
Black sororities are not social auxiliaries of polite society, but are focused organizations with very specific civic and political goals. As elected officials from both parties are quickly finding out, these sorority-member activists are part of a growing power bloc of black women in the modern political landscape. As Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in particular has learned twice in the last few weeks, the black sisterhood will show up at your office and respectfully request that you take action on their requests without delay.
Outside of black communities, the sorority’s political influence, social action initiatives, and economic development often go unnoticed. Likewise on college campuses—particularly those that lie outside of the network of Historically Black Colleges and Universities—the general student body is largely unaware of the extent of black sororities’ work in communities and their contributions to expansive national programs in areas like education, health, and promotion of strong families.
Yet the reality is that black sororities are—and have been—hard at work on a political agenda that seeks to improve the American experience of blacks and women across the country. And unlike most other sororities, membership in a black sorority is not simply a college phase, but a lifelong commitment. Alumnae comprise 75 percent of the active membership of these groups. Black sororities do not confine their concerns to college campuses. And their fight for Lynch’s confirmation only represents the surface of over a century’s worth of work.
In order to understand the broader context of sorority politics, it’s worth taking time to look back at how these organizations developed, and to look forward to the new forms of political sisterhood that are emerging today.
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The four major black sororities—Alpha Kappa Alpha, Delta Sigma Theta, Zeta Phi Beta, and Sigma Gamma Rho—were founded over a 14-year period a century ago to provide sisterhood to the relatively few black women attending college. The first of them was Alpha Kappa Alpha, which sprang up on the campus of historically black Howard University in 1908. Its nine founders were consumed by the idea that their education was a privilege accompanied by “an everlasting debt to raise [black communities] up and to make them better.” In the years that followed, the remaining three historic black sororities were founded with similar aims, but with slightly different focuses that gave them each unique character. They, along with five historic black fraternities, constitute the National Pan-Hellenic Council.
In those early years of their existence, these sororities, like nearly all of black America, were shut out from many economic opportunities and barred from participating in the political process. But as the late political scientist and Alpha Kappa Alpha member Jewel Prestage argued, black women have been political activists since slavery and proficient innovators of new approaches to political activities.Leveraging their college education and experiences, the sororities focused on the things they could control, like their appearance, behavior, community organization and education. In this way, the black sororities took many of their cues from the personal politics of the turn-of-the-century black church-women. These women, as historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham notes, were deeply influenced by the "politics of respectability" and the pressure to consistently be twice as good as their peers. This culturally conservative political stance—for both church-women and sorority sisters—emerged as part of a strategy to combat injustice by being above reproach in their work ethic, conduct, and achievement.
This ideology, at this particular time, helped to develop the sororities as relatively grassroots, democratic organizations that stressed personal development and community responsibility. These characteristics, sociologist Bernice McNair Barnett notes, were hallmarks of black women’s collectivist movement organizations during this period. Further, Barnett believes black women developed this organizational model as a result of their unique vantage point from “within interlocking systems of gender, race, and class stratification.” This made them well-suited for fundraising, dispersing information, mobilizing community members, and pooling resources for collective action.
Once the Great Society legislation of the 1960s empowered African Americans with theretofore unrealized civil rights, the sororities began to rely more on traditional political activities like voter registration and lobbying, and established more representative forms of governance in their organizations. As Barnett points out, the hierarchal model that emerged in black women’s collectivist organizations stressed a more directly proactive and visible approach to political and civic leadership and engagement. It became the default for those organizations, like today’s black sororities, that had access to more resources by virtue of their education, professional connections, and middle-class status.
As large, diverse groups, these sororities experience tension between their pursuit of respectability and their progressivism, and between their grassroots origins and present-day hierarchy. Additionally, because of the economic class markers of these differing approaches, they are sometimes charged with elitism. These tensions can play out in unpredictable ways. In the Black Lives Matter movement, some directed their members not to wear sorority letters while protesting, whereas others encouraged it.
Such tensions over style are to be expected, but they do not detract from the broad agreement these groups share about the goals they pursue. Perhaps the most important legacy of sorority activism has been its ability to get black women involved in national politics—from civil disobedience to encouraging candidates for office and organizing a powerful voting bloc.
Sorority members were among the first black women to enter into state and national politics: Delta Sigma Theta member Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to Congress in 1968 and first African American to run for president on a major-party ticket in 1972. Sigma Gamma Rho member Gwen Cherry broke the gendered color barrier in the Florida House in 1970. And in 1993, Carol Moseley Braun, another Delta, became the first—and so far the only—black female Senator in history.
Following on these accomplishments, 13 of the 18 black women in Congress today belong to one of the four national black sororities. The two black women running for Senate seats are also sorority members: California Attorney General Kamala Harris of Alpha Kappa Alpha and Representative Donna Edwards of Zeta Phi Beta.
The importance of the black sorority is not entirely lost on the American political class. They know the special role they play in influencing the black vote through the larger black sisterhood, as evinced by President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Attorney General Eric Holder all finding time to meet with Delta Sigma Theta’s sorority leaders and address the entire convention during its centennial celebration two years ago. And it is no coincidence that Hillary Clinton just hired Maya Harris, a civil rights lawyer and think-tank senior fellow who’s published on the power of the women of color voting bloc, as co-lead for her policy team. If the 2016 Republican presidential contenders have any inclination to attract black voters, they need look no further for their initial efforts. Their pathway in begins with a survey of the survey of the nation's leading conservative sorority members: Sheryl Underwood, co-host of the CBS show The Talk, is a noted Republican and past national president of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, and Jennifer Carroll, the recent Republican Lieutenant Governor of Florida is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha.
The political clout of black women today has become more tangible and visible to those outside of the black community. This transformation is the result of their increased access to traditional political activities in an attempt to obtain a more equal American experience for African Americans.
The confirmation of Loretta Lynch may be a signal achievement for black women, whose electoral power and political influence undeniably has been on the rise in the last decade. But it is especially sweet for the black sororities, which have now spent more than a century pursuing traditional and nontraditional political activities, watching one of their own make history yet again. As Dr. Paulette Walker, national president of Delta Sigma Theta, told fellow Delta Melissa Harris-Perry last week, “We are more than a sorority … oftentimes, when you hear the word sorority—we are stereotyped as to what that means. But we are advocates for social [action]; that’s what we do, that who we are.”
Though Lynch’s confirmation will not suddenly bring the invisible middle—those black women who do not conform to the stereotypical caricatures prevalent in media portrayals—into the spotlight, it is nonetheless an important victory for a group of women who have been ignored for too long.