Ahead of Hillary Clinton, we had Shirley Chisholm trailblazing her way through Congress. So why don’t more people know about her or commemorate her importance to the Democratic party and women in politics?
Those of us who happen to be blessed enough to know Shirley Chisholm’s role in American history, she is an icon and an innovator who is worthy of much more recognition, attention, reverence, and inclusion than history or its many books and authors have given her over the years.
Despite her incredible exploits, she still remains pretty uncelebrated and unperceived, unless you came from the 1960s or ’70s when she was booming with attention (not all of it good).
So let’s get to it. Shirley Chisholm was elected to the United States Congress in 1968 and made a run for the White House in 1972. (Wikipedia, portrait by Kadir Nelson)
In her presidential campaign announcement, Shirley Chisholm refused to accept the norms of party politics and predicted a new political future. She said,
“I am not the candidate of any political bosses or fat cats or special interests. I am the candidate of the people of America. And my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history.”
“I ran because somebody had to do it first,” said Chisholm – the first African American woman of Congress, the first African American to run for President, and the first woman to run for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination, ever. Her campaign slogan, and the title of her biography: “Unbought and Unbossed”.
Shirley Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York, but spent most of her early years with her grandmother in Barbados, which gave way to her slight West Indian accent.
She returned to her parents in New York, just in time to enroll in Brooklyn College, where she later graduated in 1946. Chisholm soon became active in politics in New York’s political clubhouses, while attending the Columbia University where she would later graduate with a master’s degree in early childhood education.
During her time in these political circles, she came to realize just how unequal things were between the genders and also how women were being exploited.
This is what compelled her to run for the White House in 1972. She knew when she ran, that she didn’t’ stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning in a white, male-dominated world, yet she did it to raise awareness to the issues that she felt like not only a woman but a woman of color, were important to her and her community.
In 1971, Chilsholm, along with Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Dorothy Height, Jill Ruckelshaus, Ann Lewis, and Elly Peterson, LaDonna Harris, Liz Carpenter, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Fannie Lou Hammer, together created the National Women’s Political Caucus, even despite Gloria Steinem’s lack of support during her political campaign.
The NWPC is the only national organization dedicated exclusively to increasing women’s participation in all areas of political and public life — as elected and appointed officials, as delegates to national party conventions, as judges in the state and federal courts, and as lobbyists, voters and campaign organizers.
Spurred by Congress’ failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in 1970, these women believed legal, economic and social equity would come about only when women were equally represented among the nation’s political decision-makers.
Their faith that women’s interests would best be served by women lawmakers has been confirmed time and time again, as women in Congress, state legislatures and city halls across the country have introduced, fought for and won legislation to eliminate sex discrimination and meet women’s changing needs.
“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” -Shirley Chisholm
Chisholm served in Congress until January, 1983. She died in Florida in 2005 after a series of strokes.
It’s not just Chisholm herself who has been overlooked. The groundwork that Chisholm laid for others has been overlooked, as well. Chisholm helped to found both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Organization for Women.
“She has been an amazing role model and hasn’t gotten the full credit for the genius that was her ability to bring people together,” said Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., who was the first black woman to serve in the Alabama Congressional delegation.
“I am deeply in awe of the fact that women in my mother’s generation and in Shirley Chisholm’s generation took nothing and made something. And took with them as they climbed their whole community, their whole families,” Sewell said. “That sense of purpose, that sense of responsibility is something that is not lost on me or is not something I take lightly.”
While African-American women were critical to Chisholm’s grassroots campaigns, they also remain loyal members of the modern-day Democratic party. As Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said after Alabama’s special election that led to Democrat Doug Jones’ victory last year, “Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted. Period.” CNN exit polls showed 98% of black women voters supported Jones.
During Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, Clinton won between 84% and 93% of black women’s votes in the states where race/gender exit polling was released, according to Presidential Gender Watch, a nonprofit project of the Center for American Women and Politics and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.
Still, for all their ballot-box clout, African-American women remain underrepresented in office. According to a study released by Higher Heights and the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP), in 2016 only four black women were candidates for statewide elected office. And the U.S. has never had a black woman elected governor.
The need to create space for black women is not lost on California Sen. Kamala Harris, who in 2016 became the nation’s second African-American woman elected to the Senate (following Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill., who served from 1992 to 1998).
“My mother gave me advice, she would say often, ‘Kamala, you may be the first to do many things but make sure you’re not the last,’” said Harris. “And I have tried to live that advice in terms of mentoring and hopefully lifting folks up and making sure that we recreate a path for others to follow. Shirley Chisholm created that path for me and for so many others.”
Other black women in Congress echoed this thinking.
“There is still a need for black women to run for office at every level of government,” said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., “We have made some progress but we still have a long way to go.”
Shirley “was about outreaching and making sure that she tapped into talent,” Waters said. “She wanted to help develop other black women so that they could take their rightful place in legislative bodies.”
“Women in this country must become revolutionaries.”—Shirley Chisholm
“Can you imagine being a woman, and black in Congress then?” California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who once worked for Chisholm, tells Vaidyanathan. “Some of the men in Congress did not respect her, she just stood out and they didn’t get her. But she wouldn’t back down. She didn’t go along to get along, she went to change things.”
In 1972, just a few years after being elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm announced that she was seeking the Democratic nomination for the presidency, running against politicians like George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace. But while Chisholm admitted that she never expected to win and her campaign was largely symbolic, she ran in order to prove that Americans would vote for a black woman.
“I stand before you today, to repudiate the ridiculous notion that the American people will not vote for qualified candidates, simply because he is not white or because she is not a male,” Chisholm told supporters when she launched her campaign. “I do not believe that in 1972, the great majority of Americans will continue to harbour such narrow and petty prejudice.”
Chisholm’s campaign wasn’t easy. During the road to the primaries, she survived multiple assassination attempts, sued to make sure she would appear in televised debates and fought her way onto the primary ballots in 12 states. Though she didn’t win, in the end, Chisholm won 10 percent of the total vote at the Democratic National Convention, clearing a path for future candidates that weren’t white or male.
“Shirley Chisholm would have been proud of our achievements,” says Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke, who represents part of Chisholm’s district. Still, Chisholm wouldn’t be satisfied with progress to date. According to CAWP:
- Four black women serve as mayors in top 100 largest cities in the country.
- Only 35 black women from 15 states have ever served in the United States Congress.
- Only 10 black women from nine states have ever served in statewide elected executive offices, and three states have never elected a black woman to their state legislature.
“Why more than 40 years after she entered the Democratic Party primary for president of the United States, this nation has yet to elect a woman of color as president; she would go right to the heart of it because her style, her way of capturing the hearts and minds of Americans was courageous and it was forthright,” – Mary C. Curtis
“In the end, anti-black, anti-female, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing – anti-humanism.” – Shirley Chilsholm
Sources: BBC, Biography.com, Wikipedia, NBC News, Smithsonian.
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