Barbara Jordan – People’s Representative

“There was simply something about her that made you proud to be a part of the country that produced her.” [Former Texas governor Ann Richards]

BARBARA JORDAN         Barbara Jordan was the first African American woman to address the Democratic National Convention, but she started on the path to this accomplishment early. In high school she was an award-winning debater and continued excelling as an orator in college, graduating magna cum laude.

After three tries (and some re-districting in Texas), Barbara Jordan was elected to the Texas state legislature, the first African American woman to serve since Reconstruction. She was not warmly received but, only six years later, her colleagues voted her president pro tempore of the state senate.

She ran for Congress and, in 1972 became the first woman to represent Texas in the House of Representatives in her own right. Along with Andrew Young, she was one of the first two African Americans elected to the U.S. Congress since Reconstruction.

At both the state and the national level Jordan supported legislative measures to assist the poor and disadvantaged. She also worked to promote women’s rights, supporting the Equal Rights Amendment and co-sponsoring a bill to allow Social Security benefits to housewives based on their labors in the home. She achieved national attention during the Watergate hearings when she eloquently defended her decision to support the impeachment of President Nixon as a means to preserve the Constitution.

Many said that she was destined for greater things but she retired from congress after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and the second time she addressed the Democratic National Convention, twenty years after her first appearance, it was from a wheelchair.

In the intervening years she held a number of positions including special counsel on ethics for Texas Governor Ann Richards and she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton.

Barbara Jordan had wanted to attend the University of Texas but the school was segregated at the time. In order to avoid integration, Texas established the all-black Texas Southern University, which Jordan attended. When she retired from Congress she was awarded a professorship to teach political ethics at the University of Texas at Austin in the Lyndon Johnson School of Public Affairs. She had also wanted to attend law school at Harvard but was advised that a black woman would not be admitted, so applied to Boston University. Harvard later established the Barbara Jordan Award for Women’s Leadership.

Her last First Woman To. .occurred after her death in 1996. Barbara Jordan was the first African American buried in the Texas State Cemetery among governors, senators and congressmen.


Read her autobiography: Barbara Jordan: A Self-Portrait (1979)

She also appears in Black Americans in Congress (1870-2007)

Read a shorter biography:

Hear the beginning of her keynote address to the Democratic Convention in 1972:


If Barbara Jordan had attended a segregated University of Texas and Harvard University Law School, would her path have been different?

Sharon Pratt – Mayor of Washington, D.C.

SHARON PRATT          “Divisiveness has no place in our politics. . .spitefulness and hatred only erode that which is truly magnificent about our country.” [Sharon Pratt Dixon Kelly]

Sharon Pratt, like many First Women, holds several firsts:

–The First Woman To be hired as a Vice President at Potomac Electric Power Company–

–The First Woman To be selected as Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee

–The First Woman To be elected as Mayor of Washington, D.C.

–The First African American Woman To be elected Mayor of a Major American City

Sharon Pratt’s biography reflects some consistent patterns in the lives of women born in mid twentieth-century who rose to prominence. The first, and more mundane, issue is her name. Currently she manages a consulting firm she founded, Pratt Consulting, and uses her maiden name Sharon Pratt. When she ran for mayor of Washington, D.C., she carried her husband’s name, Sharon Pratt Dixon. Shortly after her election, however, she married a second time and became Sharon Pratt Kelly. Knowing how to report her name as mayor presented a bit of a conundrum to me and I am certain many of us who changed our names will present future problems for historians and genealogists.

The second commonality with other women that we witness in her life is the issues on which she chose to focus. As a lawyer, executive and politician, her focus, like many women of that era, was on issues more often considered “women’s issues.”

Her first job was as a lawyer in her father’s firm, Pratt and Dixon. Although she had wanted to be an actress, her father, a Superior Court Judge, persuaded her to attend Howard where she majored in political science and then attended law school. In her practice she supported the rights of children in the middle of custodial battles, provided juveniles with representation and practiced family rights law, a new area of the law at that time.

After a stint as a law professor, she was hired by the Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO) and became their Vice President for Public Policy, not only the first woman, but also the first African American, to serve as vice president for the utility. During her tenure, she created programs focused on low-income residents and senior citizens in Washington, D.C.

She was also active in politics, serving first as committee representative to the Democratic Party from Washington, D.C. and then from the country’s Eastern region. She was the first woman to serve as Treasurer of the party.

When she ran for Mayor of Washington, D.C., it was after the implosion of Marion Barry, arrested on charges involving cocaine use. She wore a pin shaped like a shovel and promised to “clean house with a shovel, not a broom.” She vowed to overhaul city government and took a slogan that feels familiar today, “Yes We Will.” She won with 86% of the vote.

Her efforts to overhaul government and remove corruption were largely unsuccessful, but during her tenure, infant mortality was reduced, services for families increased and emergency ambulance service improved. An initiative to increase black and Hispanic business ownership was also a focus of her efforts. During her one-term tenure she led an initiative to increase black and Hispanic business ownership. She also petitioned Congress for statehood status for Washington, D.C., a fight continued today by Eleanor Holmes Norton (see my blog of August 26, 2013).

Sharon Pratt Kelly was voted out of office when Marion Barry resurrected himself, after serving prison time, and was re-elected by Washington, D.C. citizens. Although Sharon Pratt believed that divisiveness does not belong in politics, it was divisiveness that eventually led to her defeat as Mayor and to her retirement from politics. In today’s political environment her words would be well taken to heart.


Jessie Carnie Smith, Epic Lives: One Hundred Black Women Who Made a Difference (Detroit, Michigan: Visible Ink Press, 1993)

See more at: 1944#sthash.2eU1HiXS.dpuf


Do women today still focus on “women’s issues” or are they free to work on issues that were previously dominated by men?