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Unbought and Unbossed

Throughout her life, Shirley Chisholm publicly defied conventional notions about race, gender and class.
 
 
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"Tremendous amounts of talent are being lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt." - Shirley Chisholm

When Carol Moseley Braun ran for president in 2004 few in the media or in the U.S. electorate took her candidacy seriously. The dignified Braun did not articulate either the bold policy positions or the fiery rhetoric that garner headlines or followers. In comparison Sen. Joe Lieberman and Rep. Dick Gephardt were equally bland but they were nonetheless considered viable candidates. The former U.S. senator from Illinois and former ambassador to New Zealand possessed a paltry war chest and a ragtag campaign operation, but so did fellow candidates, Rep. Dennis Kucinich and the Rev. Al Sharpton. Unlike Braun, who was quietly dismissed, these two contenders were labeled as grassroots candidates who spoke for millions of marginalized citizens. What made Braun’s run implausible to millions of voters and to the pundits seems to have had more to do with her gender than with her politics or her finances.

Anyone who has spent any length of time in black communities knows that despite highly visible male leaders, it is the women who are chiefly responsible for organizing and maintaining the numerous ad hoc programs and committees that benefit, children, women and the disadvantaged. Particularly in churches, which remain important social centers for millions of black Americans, it is the women who regularly cook sumptuous meals that are distributed to the needy in their neighborhoods. Black women around the country can still be found teaching the next generation in Sunday schools and arranging for their churches to participate in free lunch programs for children during the summer. In an earlier time when black churches were local command posts for the civil rights movement, thousands of unsung black women performed the unglamorous work of canvassing neighborhoods, making photocopies, passing out flyers and proofreading speeches. By playing supporting roles to male leaders, women helped organizations such as the Montgomery Improvement Association, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) to have the capacity to be strong advocates for political and social change. Later when many black Nationalist organizations, on ideological grounds, discouraged black women from assuming leadership roles, they still undertook the administrative tasks and field duties that were crucial to the development of the Black Power movement.

In 1968 Shirley Chisholm officially stomped on the idea that leadership was the sole prerogative of black men by becoming the first black women elected to the U.S. Congress. Three years later, by announcing her intention to seek the Democratic nomination for president, Chisholm publicly defied conventional notions about race, gender and class in asserting her right to run for the nation’s highest office. In her 1972 presidential bid Chisholm failed to win one primary and the Democratic nomination subsequently went to George McGovern. However, Chisholm’s then quixotic candidacy opened the door for future presidential aspirants: the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, former Ambassador Alan Keyes and Carol Moseley Braun.

Not surprisingly, in 1968 many black nationalists opposed her candidacy stating that the first black president should be a man. In a December, 1981 interview with the Associated Press, Chisholm reflected on the impact of race and gender on her political career sayings, "When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men."

Chisholm, who served seven terms in Congress, died this week in Florida at the age of 80. In 1982 she decided not to seek re-election in a political environment that was becoming increasingly conservative. In a scene that could have played out in the 2004 election cycle, Chisholm left Washington after saying that moderate and liberal legislators were "running for cover from the new right." Chisholm retired to Williamsville, N.Y. and in 1984 she was elected the first chairperson of the National Political Congress of Black Women.

Born Shirley Anita St. Hill in Brooklyn, N.Y., Chisholm worked as a nursery school teacher before being elected to New York State Assembly in 1964. In 1968, Chisholm ran for Congress in New York’s 12th Congressional district in Brooklyn. In the Democratic primary, as a slap to her opponents she used the slogan, “Fighting Shirley Chisholm: UnBought and UnBossed.” In the general election she would defeat the well-known civil rights leader, James Farmer, who ran as an independent on the Republican and liberal lines, and Ralph Carrano, who ran as the conservative candidate.

Chisholm’s slight frame and demure appearance camouflaged the blunt and unflinching politician that she was. As a freshman representative, Chisholm challenged the House’s seniority system, which had relegated her to its Agriculture Committee, an assignment she considered irrelevant to the Bedford-Stuyvesent district that she served. Rather than quietly going with the program, Chisholm instead issued a parliamentarian assault on Wilbur D. Mills, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee (who would later be toppled in a sex scandal), who parceled out the committee assignments. Soon thereafter Chisholm was reassigned, first to the Veterans Affairs Committee, and eventually to the Education and Labor Committees.

Chisholm was an outspoken advocate for labor, women and children. As a member of the House of Representatives she constantly fought for increased funding for education and childcare services. Chisholm sought to include domestic workers in minimum wage legislation, and delivered a passionate speech to her congressional colleagues about her own mother's experiences as a domestic worker. She also co-sponsored the Adequate Income Act of 1971, which would have guaranteed a minimum income to all families. Chisholm was also an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War. She joined a group of 15 U.S. Representatives who introduced a bill to end the draft and replace it with an all-volunteer military. Chisholm also publicly called for the U.S. to end arms sales to apartheid-era South Africa.

In her 1970 autobiography, “UnBought and UnBossed” Chisholm stated, "Our representative democracy is not working ... because the Congress that is supposed to represent the voters does not respond to their needs. I believe the chief reason for this is that it is ruled by a small group of old men."

It is not easy to assess how Chisholm’s career impacted the political landscape for black or female candidates. Braun is only the second black woman to run for president and although Geraldine Ferraro joined Walter Mondale’s presidential ticket in 1984, no white woman has run for president since Victoria Woodhull in 1872. The presidential prospects for white women however are distinguished from those of black women by the fact that there are several white female senators and governors in the pipeline, but not one black woman is similarly positioned.

In assessing her legacy Shirley Chisholm was quoted in the 1990 book, "Shirley Chisholm: Teacher and Congressman," as saying, “I’d like to be known as catalyst for change, a woman who had the determination and a woman who had the perseverance to fight on behalf of the female population and the black population because I am the product of both being black and a woman.”

The lesson of Chisholm’s political career is that a black woman running for political office must be both intelligent and audacious in her belief that she is best person to do the job. Moreover she must be willing fight the fights necessary to wrest power from the establishment as a means to improving her constituents’ lives. Gender and its potentially hindering affects, therefore, was not the main theme of Shirley Chisholm’s journey, but rather it was the futility of playing the old boy game unless you are an old boy.

Yvonne Bynoe is the author of "Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip Hop Culture." She is also the former president of Urban Think Tank Institute.

 
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