Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm announcing her candidacy for presidential nomination
By Barbara Winslow
“I ran because someone had to do it first. In this country everybody is supposed to be able to run for president, but that’s never been really true. I ran because most people think the country is not ready for a black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate. Someday…” (The Good Fight, 1973) So wrote Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress (in 1968) as well as the first African American and the first woman to mount a serious and sustained campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. As of this writing, Shirley Chisholm remains the only woman to have been nominated for the presidency with delegate votes (151) at a party convention.
Chisholm ran for the presidential nomination in 1972 during turbulent times. People took to the streets against the U.S. war in Vietnam, for racial justice, and for women’s liberation. A loyal member of the Democratic Party, Chisholm was also quite radical. During her years in Congress and on the campaign trail for a year, she was outspoken on the issues of social and economic justice; she supported the role of government in expanding and democratizing the welfare state. She defended trade unions and was often photographed on strikers’ picket lines. She staunchly opposed militarism and fought against police brutality as well as the ever-enlarging carceral state. She spoke out in favor of the rights of prisoners and defended prison uprisings. In addition, she opposed the increasing militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border and the racist treatment accorded Haitian refugees. A former teacher, she was a staunch defender of public education, believing that education at all levels should be free and open to all. And she was a proud feminist, a supporter of LGBT rights, and a staunch defender of a woman’s right to abortion, birth control and sexual freedom.
Contrast these positions with those of the current contenders for the American presidential nomination. The presumptive Republican nominee is a proud and outspoken misogynist, racist, xenophobe, climate change denier and bully. The Republican Party opposes women’s reproductive rights, restrictive access to women’s contraceptives, funding for women’s health, as well as governmental action on equal pay for women or raising the minimum wage.
While the Democratic Party contenders, Hillary Clinton and avowed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders support governmental action for equal pay for women, women’s reproductive rights and a higher minimum wage, Chisholm would no doubt be disturbed by the Democratic Party’s complicity in abandoning the welfare state, shrinking federal spending, allowing the decline of trade unionism and eroding public education including through attacks on teachers and teachers’ unions and support for standardized testing. Beginning with her election to the New York legislature in 1965, Chisholm championed legislation providing for funded access to higher education, support for women teachers and funding for childcare.
She would be equally appalled that many Democratic candidates have supported constant wars, bombings, and military excursions including lethal drone warfare; increasing the prison population; and mass deportation of the undocumented. After her election to the U.S. Congress, Chisholm refused to vote for any appropriations to the military budget as long as poverty existed in the United States. As she finished her career in Congress in 1982, she publicly denounced the racist disparities in the treatment of Haitian and Cuban refugees: Cubans gained citizenship immediately, while Haitians were incarcerated.
No one can know what Chisholm would have thought about the current Democratic primary campaign. Probably she would be thrilled about the possibility of a woman having a realistic chance of winning the Democratic nomination as well as the presidency. While in the Senate, Hillary Clinton had a very liberal voting record. She is staunchly for women’s economic and reproductive rights. But, one can only believe that Chisholm would not support Clinton’s hawkishness and close ties to the corporate elite. Much of Bernie Sanders’ politics – expansion of the welfare state, free college tuition, opposition to the Citizen’s United Supreme Court ruling (I am not sure about breaking up the banks) – are closer to Chisholm’s politics. However, Chisholm was a very loyal Democrat and equally loyal to the Democratic political machine, and she may not have liked Sanders’ professed socialism and independence. I can only believe that she would support Sanders’ role in pushing the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton to the left.
Chisholm’s 1972 campaign was not entirely quixotic. She hoped to create a coalition of the disaffected and to bring them into the electoral arena, and one could argue she was somewhat successful. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a liberal Democrat from California, got involved in Chisholm’s campaign and carries on her legacy in Washington today. Many others who supported and worked on Chisholm’s presidential campaign include Rosa Parks, Gloria Steinem, the Reverend Al Sharpton, Basil Patterson, the honorable David Dinkins and Charles Evers. This list goes on and on.
Equally important, Chisholm challenged the exclusive all-white male club that was once the U.S. presidency.
But it came at a great price. She was ignored, mocked, vilified and written out of history for being working class, the daughter of immigrants, an African American, and a woman.
Chisholm’s erasure from the public memory hinders a deeper understanding about the intersections of race, gender and ethnicity in the American political arena. During the hotly contested 2008 Democratic presidential primary between an African American man, Barack Obama, and a white woman, Hillary Clinton, when issues of gender and race were fiercely and bitterly debated, there was virtually no mention of Chisholm. Very few pundits referred to her campaign as opening the door for Clinton or the eventually successful Obama.
And Chisholm’s most famous statement, “Of my two handicaps, being female puts more obstacles in my path than being black,” continues to be hotly debated, in part because the historic schism between white feminists and black activists has not been resolved. During the heated 2008 Democratic primary between two potential “firsts,” the media as well as Obama and Clinton supporters took this quote out of its historical context. Obama supporters claimed that Obama was victimized because of race, while Clinton loyalists claimed that gender was the most restrictive force in American politics. One side privileged race over gender, the other gender over race, in a struggle to claim its candidate was the most victimized. By pitting one against the other, they missed the opportunity to examine how race and gender intersect. A true espousal of Shirley Chisholm’s lifelong radical legacy would be building a multiracial, intergenerational, inclusive coalition as a powerful force for social change.
*The trailer to the 2005 PBS documentary, Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, captures her spirit.
Barbara Winslow, professor emerita, Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, is the founder and director emerita of the Shirley Chisholm Project of Brooklyn Women’s Activism, 1945 to the Present. She is the author of Shirley Chisholm: A Catalyst for Change.
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