How Stacey Abrams Became One of the Most Inspirational Women in America

In 2018, Stacey Abrams became the first Black woman to run for governor as a major-party candidate in any state. But it's what she did after her narrow defeat that cemented her legacy.

By Billy Nilles Jan 05, 2021 3:38 PMTags
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"Leadership is about answering that question: How can I help?"

That's how Stacey Abrams summed up her worldview to The Washington Post back in May, revealing the internal inquiry that has driven much of her adult life.

It's likely that, in the aftermath of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, you've heard Abrams' name quite a bit. Maybe even for the first time ever. And for good reason. Her work fighting for voting rights in Georgia has been widely credited with playing a crucial part in the state, voting for a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since 1992.

But while Abrams' advocacy work in the Peach State has been largely tied to her defeat there in the 2018 gubernatorial race amid claims of voter suppression, it's really part and parcel of a story that began long before then, well outside the world of politics. It's the tale of a Black woman who has consistently dared to dream bigger than reality would seem to allow—both for herself and her country. 

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Abrams and her five brothers and sisters were raised in Gulfport, Miss., the children of a librarian mother and father who worked in a shipyard. The house she grew up in was situated in a neighborhood that gave her and her siblings access to one of the area's better schools, giving her an early lesson on how to navigate America's often lopsided racial division of resources.

As she told The Washington Post, "It was less a black community than we lived on a 'black street.' There were these two streets that were adjacent to the middle-class, predominantly white part of town to get zoned into the middle-class school...We lived on the two streets that were all black until the Brooks family came...All the streets got nicer names as you went further in, so those were predominantly white. My parents understood that education was the essential ingredient to success for both of them. My mom is the only one of her siblings to finish high school. My dad is the first man in his family to go to college."

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An avid PBS viewer—it was one of only two channels the family received—Abrams was also a voracious reader, consuming just about any printed material she could get her young hands on. "I think my mom is the reason I started reading the encyclopedia and the dictionary, because I would ask questions and she was like, 'Go look it up.'" she said. "Finally I figured if I wanted to know everything, I just needed to read everything."

As she told Vogue in 2019, "They expected us to want more."

And that meant seeing themselves as equals in a world that might not always agree. In fact, Abrams and her sisters credit their father as the first feminist they ever met, she told The Washington Post. "He will tell you before anyone else will that he thinks my mom is the smartest person he knows," she said. "It is a true belief that there is no division of capacity that comes along with gender. He raised us with that understanding, and we never questioned it."

The family moved to Atlanta when Abrams was 15 so both parents could pursue graduate degrees at Emory University. She enrolled at a performing arts high school, graduating as valedictorian. "I applied to Spelman, Swarthmore, Vassar, Sarah Lawrence. I was leaving the South," she told the Post, adding that she was looking for a different experience in college than the life she knew. "I only applied to Spelman because my mother tricked me into it."

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Spelman, the historically Black women's university located in Georgia's capital, is where she wound up. And, ironically, it wound up providing her a cultural awakening after all. "The notion of identity and the way I situated myself as a young person, as a Black person, as a Southerner, as a woman—they were all challenged," she told Vogue. "I could experiment and fail in ways that were larger than my family but that weren't going to ruin my life."

Spelman marked the first time Abrams was so widely immersed in Black life and culture outside her own home. It also introduced her to the world of politics. When the school hosted a town hall with Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, the first Black man elected to lead a major Southern city, she didn't hold back.

"I berated him for not doing enough for young people," she recalled to the Post of their exchange, which was broadcast on local TV. "I was very irate and then...I gave them my number, and I gave my parents' number. '[Here's] where I'm going to be, if you have any questions.'"

Jackson wanted to know what she thought she knew. Abrams let the trailblazing mayor know that she'd been attending city council meetings and zonings. She also told him she thought he wasn't doing nearly enough. Despite this—or, maybe even because of it—when Jackson created an Office of Youth Services the following year, Abrams was the only undergraduate college student hired.

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After receiving her Bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies (political science, economics and sociology), she earned a Master's in public policy at University of Texas. She followed that up with her acceptance to Yale Law School, where she earned her Juris Doctor. 

It was during her third year up north in Connecticut that the lifelong voracious reader put another goal into motion and wrote Rules of Engagement, her first book outside the novel she'd penned at 12 and titled The Diary of Angst. (That early work was about her "tortured thoughts of being an outsider," she told Vogue.) Using the pseudonym Selena Montgomery, Abrams has written a total of eight romance novels, with the latest published in 2009. Combining a love of both James Bond films and soap opera General Hospital, the books allowed for Abrams to show herself and other Black women that they could be "as adventurous and attractive as any white woman," as she told The Washington Post in 2018.

The existence of such a writing career speaks to the duality that is Abrams' existence. She's a policy wonk who studied tax law because working in the mayor's office showed her that if she wanted to be a public servant, she needed to understand how the entire system worked. And she's also someone who watches, as she told Vogue, "an inordinate amount of television," a pop culture junkie just as unafraid to debate the frivolous stuff as she is to tackle the fight to make the American system work to its fullest for all its citizens.

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In 2002, at the age of 29, she was appointed Atlanta's deputy city attorney by Mayor Shirley Franklin, the first woman to hold the job and first Black woman to be elected mayor of a major Southern city. Four years later, Abrams ran for and was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives. By 2011, she'd become the Democratic Party minority leader. 

Voting rights have become the bedrock of Abrams' civic career. In 2013, she created the New Georgia Project, a voter registration nonprofit. But after her narrow loss in the 2018 race to be Georgia's governor—a race that made her the first Black woman to earn such a nomination from either major party in any state—she doubled down. "I sat shiva for 10 days," she told Vogue. "Then I started plotting." Only, she didn't make it about her.

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Rather, she launched two more nonprofits: Fair Count, dedicated to ensuring minority and poor communities in Georgia were counted in the 2020 census, and Fair Fight Action, an organization that works to secure and protect the voting rights of everyone in the state. 

"When I ran for governor, I did not run simply for me," she told the crowd at Atlanta's Paradigm Shift 2.0: Black Women Confronting HIV, Health and Social Justice earlier this year, as quoted by The Washington Post. "And the thing is, if I had fought back and said, 'I am going to contest this election and make myself governor,' then everyone who loved me and stood with me would have thought, 'Well, this is about her fight.' My responsibility was instead to focus on the right to vote and not my right to be governor. I had no right to be governor, but I have an obligation to do the work that I said I would do if I were governor."

And it's that work that has been widely credited with truly changing the game in Georgia.

It's a testament to who Abrams is: a Black woman with the audacity to never back down from a fight in a country that's never made it easy for her. She is exactly the person Robert and Carolyn Abrams raised her to be, and she is a forced to be reckoned with.

"It was always just a part of what you do," she told The Washington Post. "Your job is to serve."

This story was originally published on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020 at 6 a.m. PT.

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