Democratic Sen. Laphonza Butler is presently the only Black woman serving in the U.S. Senate as a representative of the State of California. The newest congresswoman made history Tuesday when she was sworn in by Vice President Kamala Harris. According to CNN, she is also the first out Black lesbian to enter Congress.
She became a senator after she was appointed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Her current status also makes her only the third Black woman to serve as a U.S. senator.
The first was Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois, serving from 1993 to 1999. Harris was the second, from 2017 before becoming vice president in 2021. Before her appointment, Butler was the president of EMILY’s List, a group dedicated to electing Democratic women who support abortion rights.
Butler grew up in Magnolia, Mississippi, and attended Jackson State University, a historically Black university, according to her profile on EMILY’s. She said she grew up in a family where service to others was encouraged.
She started her career in sales and customer service at a company called Wireless One while in college in Mississippi. According to her, she was trying to bring cable and satellite television to places in the rural south.
“I was talking to people over the phone, and I learned I could actually have an impact on how those conversations played out just by thinking intentionally about the tone of my voice. I still think about that lesson very much today,” she said in an interview with Elle.com.
At just 30 years old, Butler became the president of SEIU Local 2015, the country’s largest home care workers union and California’s biggest union. In addition, she served as SEIU International’s vice president and president of the SEIU California State Council.
She told Elle.com that while working with SEIU, she was able to connect her job with her mom’s. She recalled that she once worked at SEIU as a national leader for SEIU’s security officers’s organizing campaign. Her mother had also worked as an untrained security officer carrying a weapon in some of the most dangerous projects in New Orleans, she said.
“There have been parallels in my career and what I knew my mom experienced as a worker herself,” Butler said. “I always felt like the work I’ve done has been my opportunity to continue my mom’s journey and to make those jobs better for the children of those workers.”
In the political space, Butler served as campaign advisor to Vice President Kamala Harris in the 2020 elections. Also, she was an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Before she was appointed a senator, she was the first Black woman president of Emily’s List. “Being the first Black woman to lead the organization is really about helping to facilitate the voice of Black women, who have always been the backbone of the Democratic Party, and help them know that they belong at EMILY’s List,” she said at the time.
While in the labor movement, she also worked on the campaign to raise the minimum hourly wage to $15 in California, the first state in the country to do so.