For young women it may seem like we are in a new age of feminism. They may feel like the most radical chics on the planet and in history. Standing up to assault. Taking over long held corporate bastions of manhood. Seizing control of our wombs and redefining motherhood. Certainly one of the more notable areas where we have made strides is in the political arena.
When you are blessed to see life progress over decades you begin to see life isn’t a smooth trajectory of progress. You have times when you progress quickly and other times when it feels like a slog through the muck. Every once in a while, we take a giant leap forward and it is in those moments that our heroines appear.
Yes, we are living in transformational times. But we have been here before. We have made great leaps in progress due to the effort, idea or sacrifice of a heroine who stepped up. This Black History Month we will look at four women who made their mark in politics and changed the trajectory of the country and these islands. We start with a woman who’s name is not mentioned as often or with the weight it always deserves. The Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm.
Do you love “Auntie” Maxine Waters for her outspoken courage? Do you respect Mia Love for her practical willingness to compromise on issues but not on her principles? Are you excited by the blossoming career of Stacey Abrams? Then you should say a word of thanks for Sister Chisholm.
“Fighting Shirley” was the first African American woman in Congress and the first woman and African American to seek nomination for president of the United States from one of the two major political parties. At a time when a lot of people would tell you a woman’s place was barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen, Chisholm was demanding the laws and rights of this country be equally and equitably applied to women and men. 44 years before HRC, Chisholm kicked in the door to the old boys club of presidential candidacy and brought the issues of African Americans, women, veterans and working poor to the national stage.
Born in Brooklyn, NY to a factory worker immigrant father from Guyana and a seamstress immigrant mother from Barbados, she was a studious child who grew up to graduate with honors from Brooklyn College. She began her career in early childhood education. She eventually got her master’s degree from Columbia University and went on to work for the NY Division of Day Care. In 1964 she ran for and won a seat in the NY state legislature, becoming only the second African American to serve.
When redistricting created an opportunity to head to Washington, Chisholm ran for and won a congressional seat, against three heavily favorited African American men challengers in the primary. Her tough talk and up close and personal campaigning style earned her win against a liberal leaning Republican who confounded CORE and organized Freedom Riders in the general election. Her campaign slogan “Unbought and Unbossed” was a direct attack on her opponents strategy of trying to paint her as just a “little schoolteacher.”
As a freshman congresswoman she fought her way on to the influential Veterans Affairs Committee. In 1977 she became the first African American woman and the second woman to serve on the Rules Committee. She was also a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus. Over her seven term career in the House she introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation and was a warrior for racial and gender equality and the poor. She was especially adamant about bringing an end to the Vietnam War.
Chisholm’s greatest claim to political fame was in her 1972 candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president. She was blocked from participating in televised debates and had to take legal action to get permission to give the one speech she did do. Chisholm campaigned across the country in 12 primaries, meeting up close and personal with voters. Her efforts earned her 152 delegate votes which was 10 percent of the total despite being under-financed and weakly supported.
Her run for the highest office broke down long standing gender and racial barriers. She stood toe to toe with titans of Washington and delivered for her constituents. She took the heat for wanting to find areas of compromise with Republicans and whites but insisted that to get anything done we had to build bridges between the two communities. She was ahead of her time in working with the Latino community and bringing their issues to the forefront.
When Chisholm eventually left office she returned to education as a professor at Mt. Holyoke College. She also remained engaged by cofounding the National Political Congress of Black Women and campaigned for Jesse Jackson during both of his presidential bids. She settled in Florida and wrote and taught until her death in 2005.
The influence of Chisholm reaches far and wide. For generations of black women she was the motivation behind their careers and efforts in politics and public service. She defied convention, gender roles and racial boundaries to be a transformational figure in American History. Chisholm said her legacy was that she was a woman who “dared to be a catalyst for change.” As we continue to push through the barriers to equality that remain we must remember to look back at those who have fought tough battles, taken the hits and propelled us forward.