Shirley Chisholm: The Original Boss Lady of American Politics

SASWAT PATTANAYAK
Feb 11 · 10 min read

By Saswat Pattanayak

Shirley Chisholm became the first black Congresswoman in 1968 and shocked voters again when she sought the Democratic nomination for presidency four years later. She went beyond the gender and racial identities while saying -

“I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States. I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country although I am a woman, and I’m equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses, fat cats, or special interests…I am the candidate of the people…and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history. Americans all over are demanding a new sensibility, a new philosophy of government from Washington. Our will can create a new America in 1972 — one where there’s freedom from violence and war at home and abroad; where there’s freedom from poverty and discrimination; where there exists, at least, a feeling that we are making progress in assuring for everyone medical care, employment, and decent housing. Those of you who can now vote for the first time, those of you who agree with me that the institutions of this country belong to all of the people who inhabit it, those of you who have been neglected, left out, ignored, forgotten or shunned aside for whatever reason give me your help at this hour. Join me in an effort to reshape our society and regain control of our destiny as we go down the “Chisholm Trail” for 1972.”

Chisholm led initiatives in education, anti-poverty programs, and in ending the Vietnam War. She co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC). As Yveline Alexis writes in “Transatlantic Feminisms: Women and Gender Studies in Africa and the Diaspora”, “Chisholm was Obama’s direct political predecessor as he sought the Democratic nomination in 2008…However, public discussions often linked Senator Obama to male figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Abraham Lincoln…In spite of Chisholm’s pioneering role in politics and influence on Senator Obama, she was a footnote and not the main story.”

As we celebrate Black History Month, it only becomes imperative to locate the erasure of Chisholm’s contributions as a pattern — of how dominant party nominations have systematically fallen short of according the rightful spaces to women and people of color. Since Chisholm consciously went beyond the racial and gender identities, it makes even more sense to interrogate today’s political climate in terms of special interests funding. As Chisholm pioneered grassroots political movement back in her days, it is only appropriate to investigate the extent to which mainstream politics still continues operating in the shadows of big money. Likewise, betrayal by the white feminists of her time also resonates with today’s pessimism which surrounds women’s movements while they remain shrouded by suppressed intersections.

Chisholm’s formative years drew from her father Charles St. Hill’s political identification with Garveyite movement. In the meantime, her mother Ruby Seale’s influence on her was shaping her love for education and of her understanding of segregation. Family upbringing aside, her own experiences in Brooklyn while she was joined by her husband Conrad Chisholm, furthered her involvement in her community. She became a member of the League of Women Voters and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Her subsequent electoral presence as Assemblywoman and later on as Congresswoman with the motto “Fighting Shirley — Unbought and Unbossed” were absolutely, and experientially, unique. She said in 1970, “I was the first American citizen to be elected to Congress in spite of the double drawbacks of being female and having skin darkened by melanin. When you put it that way, it sounds like a foolish reason for fame. In a just and free society, it would be foolish. That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black, and a woman proves, I would think, that our society is not yet either just or free.”

Even while positing herself as a candidate beyond gender and race identifications, the way she managed to constantly draw national attention to problems of sexism and racism perplexed many. This extraordinary ability to navigate mainstream party politics while keeping the focus on issues impacting minorities led her to be criticized as a maverick and a boat rocker, to which she responded “I never entered Congress to behave myself.”

Her messages were unequivocally progressive and her methods of organizing even more so. Her campaign donations totaled $95,000 with supporters contributing as low as $10. She was committed to practicing her preachings. Her “Chisholm Trail” was one that bent to no one, and had a remarkable campaign song that summed it up -

“If you’re looking for a road to freedom,
Take the Chisholm Trail
If you’re looking for peace and equality
Take the Chisholm Trail
Proposition coalition,
Students, brothers, black & white
She will get us out Vietnam
She will set our women free
Reach out to the minority.”

For her, the minorities were not a passive vote bank — they were the empowered. She addressed to them with such words, “Think of what the people want from you. The people want a black man for the vice-presidency of this country on that ticket. The people want a woman to be the head of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The people want an Indian — and there are educated Indians in this country — to be the head of the Department of the Interior, the department which controls the lives of the Indian people on their reservations. What we are saying is that, if you understand power, you will know what it is that I am trying to put together.”

She put together coalitions to fight the White Establishment, to fight the sentiments that favored the Vietnam War, to support the Head Start, Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act, and most importantly to mobilize a grassroots movement — indeed the very first grassroots movement that brought together people who had never before participated in political thoughts and actions.

Chisholm was staunchly opposed to the war and was unafraid to declare it immoral. “Over 75% of our budget is being spent to continue an immoral war in Vietnam and yet we have a domestic war here at home, in terms of the crisis in our cities — there is something wrong in our nation,” she said.

Domestic war at home were clearly racist — so much so that they stifled the imaginations of the minorities. Her running in the election was not merely to win, but to score a much bigger point in favor of the courage to imagine. She said, “Whether or not black people are politically sophisticated enough to be aware of the fact that my candidacy is not to be regarded as a candidacy from which I can win the presidency of this country at this moment, but a candidacy that is paving the way for people of other ethnic groups, including blacks to run and perhaps win the office. Or do we — are we suffering so much from the inculcation of certain values in America that even black people cant even conceive at this point that a black person should even run for president.”

Not all black men were unsupportive of the idea. She was openly supported by black socialist Ron Dellums from California, whom she greatly admired. Parrin Mitchell and John Conyers too vocally came out in her support. Dellums wondered in Shola Lynch’s documentary, “Chisholm ’72” : “What made Shirely Chisholm frightening to you? Her ‘woman-ness’? Her blackness? Her black ‘woman-ness’? Her progressive thoughts? Did she have the audacity to take the historical moment that you were too slow to take? “You”, meaning whoever’s out there. What was it? What was the problem?”

The problem as Paula Giddings noted, was that “a lot of people were thinking she was undermining social movements that gained their power in some ways by the perception of a united front.” Chisholm wanted to unify all the black formations, from conservative NAACP to the radical Black Panthers. And she wanted to unify the women across various social locations, one of the factors that enabled her to co-found the National Women’s Political Caucus.

She reflected on it later on: “The women didn’t want me to discuss what the black people were talking about. The black people didn’t want any of the women’s programs. I was trying to bring everybody together. It was a hell of a position to be in. I wonder how I got as far as I did during the presidential campaign.”

The historical tensions between white feminism and black movements were too evident to be denied. And Chisholm was not giving into either of the those identities exclusively without acknowledging the intersections. Betty Friedan of NOW (National Organization for Women) was initially supportive of Chisholm, but when it came to Democratic nomination, she campaigned for Eugene McCarthy instead. Likewise, Gloria Steinem chose to support George McGovern while also saying she was for Chisholm- a step which Chisholm criticized as a “double strategy.” In her newly conceived Ms. Magazine, Steinem did not publish even a single article that exclusively highlighted Chisholm.

Despite running a tireless and just campaign while collecting delegates across the country, when all her perceived allies ended up supporting a couple of white men, and the liberal media kept on pressurizing her to quit, Chisholm finally ran out of patience and quipped, “Why is it, constantly quadrennially when politicians come out from every corner to get the most important thing you have — your vote — why is it that it has to always be white males, white males, white males, white males, white males? So, ladies and gentlemen, I conclude by saying if you cant support me or you cant endorse me, get out of my way. You do your thing and let me do mine.”

Like Malcolm X, Chisholm knew how to say like it is. And she was not giving up on any media establishment’s decisions to censor her. When she was not invited to take part in Presidential Debate in California, she did not just sit quiet. She went to the Court of Appeals, filed for an emergency appeal — a mandatory injunction ordering FCC to order the broadcasters to include her. She was finally awarded time. She took the media to the court. She won the case and sat across Herbert Humphrey, George McGovern — both of whom were the only ones to have been originally invited by ABC News.

Even after she had won the case to secure her right to be treated equally with fellow presidential aspirants, ABC News went on to treat her as an unequal, with a question, “Between McGovern and Humphrey, who would you support”? To that, she answered, “I am not supporting any one man just on the basis of supporting a man. I am sick and tired of promises and rhetoric, and a lot of people are in this country. I think its important to see what the team will be like. I will be very much interested in seeing who will be with Mr. Humphrey and who will be with McGovern in terms of the team.” While she was seriously articulating her position on the need to know about the team, both Humphrey and McGovern were laughing away on the camera. The journalist then asked her if she was thinking to run as vice president, to which she replied in no uncertain terms, “I can serve as the president of this country, believe it or not. That’s why I am running.”

And when the establishment and status quo was vocally undermining her, instead of making the concessions and compromises to woo them, she did not let go of her agenda to make structural changes. And if such changes were getting resonated through the most radical elements, then so be it, she declared. When Chisholm was criticized for embracing the support of the Black Panthers who were raising funds for her campaign, she countered by saying she was not going to distance herself from the Panthers. First of all, she said, there were a lot of people who were not going to vote for her anyhow. And secondly, she asked, “Why don’t you get behind the word ‘Black Panthers’? Why did we have the development of such a group as the Black Panthers in this country? Ask yourselves why they came into existence in the first place in this country. Then after you get past that stage, you should say, ‘Hallelujah’, because they (the Panthers) are now trying to use electoral politics.”

Black Panther Party conducted voter registration drive and precinct work for Shirley’s campaign; fundraising for her were done using a myriad of creative ways, including through fashion shows, tea parties, dinners, nightclub events, blintzes for Chisholm, coffee for Chisholm, etc. This was a grassroots political organizing that Black Panthers did for the first time for any candidate of a major political party, and taking a leaf off the Panthers’ commitment to the poorest, Chisholm said, “I don’t have any advance men. I don’t have any public-relations men. You know that not only am I literally and figuratively the dark horse, I am actually the poor horse. The only thing that I have going for me is my soul and my commitment to the American people.”

The poorest American people unfortunately do not determine the outcome of elections in our democracy. And just as it is true today, it was so during the time of Chisholm. Without the support of mainstream liberals and with the aid of Black Panthers and other marginalized underrepresented communities, Chisholm ran a vigorous, unprecedented campaign but it failed to win favors among the democrats. And the words of Chisholm following her defeat still rings true to this day, prompting us to reassess what our democracy really means.

In her words, “The term democracy sounds wonderful, sounds beautiful, but in real practice, it is not carried out in the real sense of the word. When you realize what goes on behind the scenes. When you realize how people bargain for votes, how people make a deal in order to get three more delegates to a convention, that’s not democracy, its participation. They are participating in the process, but at what a cost.”

As the primaries are underway, it is important we ask critical questions to find out if our electoral process merely calls for a ceremonious participation at a cost that trades away democratic values. Everything Chisholm stood for, and fought for (and fought against) remains relevant to this day. Aptly enough, she continues to have the last words: “You can’t wish me away. You can’t.”

(This article is published as part of the Black History Month Series run by the Women’s Rights NY).


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