Carol Moseley-Braun

Carol Moseley-Braun was elected to Senate in 1992, which was considered the “Year of the Woman,” as many angry women voters came out to show their disagreement with the outcome of the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill proceedings.  Her win made her the first African-American woman elected to the United States Senate, the first African-American senator to be elected as a Democrat, and the first woman elected to the Senate from Illinois. 

Born in 1947, Moseley-Braun grew up on Chicago’s Southside in a perilous neighborhood called “Bucket of Blood.”  She lived with her grandmother after her parents divorced, and at age 16, conducted a one-person sit-in at a restaurant that would not serve her.  In the next decade, she marched with Martin Luther King in an all-white neighborhood to protest segregation.  These events, along with the Mississippi lynching of Chicago teenager Emmitt Till, shaped her activism. 

A hard working student, she graduated from the University of Illinois in 1969 and earned a law degree from the University of Chicago in 1972.  After brief private practice, she joined the Chicago offices of the Justice Department, where she won the Attorney General’s Special Achievement Award in 1975.  Three years later, after being recruited by neighbors, she was elected to the Illinois House. 

A Democrat, she focused on public education, welfare reform, and gun control.  She rose to become Assistant Majority Leader, and when she retired in 1987, her peers named her “Conscience of the House.”  Moseley-Braun went on to win election as Recorder of Deeds -- a position that seems merely clerical, but holds power in Illinois governance.   She served there until her run for the U.S. Senate.

In 1991, Illinois’ Democratic Senator Alan Dixon voted to confirm Clarence Thomas as a justice of the US Supreme Court.  Angered by his vote, Moseley-Braun challenged Dixon in the primary, and other Democrats helped her defeat him.  Illinois often votes Republican, however, and the general election also was a challenge.  Women all over America sent donations to help her defeat the Republican nominee, and she won 53% of the vote.  The “Year of the Women” had mixed results elsewhere, but Carol Moseley-Braun was its best exemplar.  She was the onlyAfrican American in the U.S. Senate. 

She was the first woman to serve on the Senate Finance Committee and the equally powerful Judiciary Committee. Her legislative initiatives included an innovative Education Infrastructure Act, the Women's Pension Equity Act, and historic preservation for the Civil War’s “Underground Railroad” sites. 

At the same time, however, many of those who supported her election were disappointed in her service, especially when questions arose about her personal and campaign finances.  Unable to explain these problems fully, she lost her 1998 re-election bid to a Republican man by about the same margin that she had won in 1992.

President Bill Clinton soon named her ambassador to New Zealand, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Antarctica.  Moseley-Braun has said that of all the positions she has held, this was her favorite.  It ended, of course, when George W. Bush took the White House in 2001. 

On September 11, 2003, she announced her run for the presidency at Howard University in Washington, D.C.  While acknowledging that it might be a “long-shot,” she did not think that this meant she could not win.  Moseley-Braun argued that her experience in local, state, national and international government made her a well-rounded candidate. 

However, many feminists were disappointed in her Senate tenure, and some African Americans urged her to step down in favor of black activist Al Sharpton.  Yet when television journalist Diane Sawyer asked why she didn’t support another candidate who had a “real shot at victory,” Moseley-Braun replied that her record was as strong that of some male candidates:  John Edwards had yet to stand for re-election; Howard Dean led a state with fewer residents that Cook County; and Al Sharpton never held elective office.

Like other female candidates, Moseley-Braun found it difficult to raise money, and her well-publicized effort to get on the Virginia ballot by petition did not collect enough signatures.  On January 15, 2004, four days before the Iowa caucuses, she dropped out on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show and endorsed Dean.

With a large debt from the campaign, she considers herself a “recovering politician” and has been practicing law in Chicago.  Carol Moseley-Braun also recently launched a line of organic food products called “Ambassador Organics.”

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Works Cited:

  • Reprinted from NWHM Cyber Exhibit "Women Who Ran for President"