Theater In Dialogue
The Sick, Ugly Brilliance of Gina Gionfriddo
Writing in the January 1973 issue of Ms. Magazine, Gloria Steinem reflected on Shirley Chisholm’s recent run for the White House. “The months of feverish work and hard-earned dollars that went into the presidential candidacy of Shirley Chisholm are only memories now,” Steinem wrote in the month Richard Nixon was sworn-in for his ill-fated second term:
“Sometimes it seems they are discussed seriously only when veterans of her campaign happen to get together and reminisce. In fact, there is some uncertainty and even disappointment in those discussions, too. What effect did the Chisholm campaign have on the country? On the excluded groups it was meant to help and encourage? What ideas did it launch or lives did it change? And finally, the heart of all the questions: was it all worth it?”
This may appear to be just another bout of post-election grouchiness from a very disappointed voter (lord knows we can sympathize), but in fact, Steinem was having a bit of fun with her readers. Chisholm’s historic campaign for the presidency—she was the first person of color to run, and a woman at that—was largely overlooked at the time by the press and the political establishment, a fact that often raised the ire of Chisholm’s supporters. Few journalists spent time on her candidacy, and some even believed her to be a spoiler. She was allowed to participate in a televised debate with Senator George McGovern and former Vice President Hubert Humphrey only after winning a federal court order under the equal time provisions of the Federal Communications Commission.
Perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that people failed to give a whole lot of credence to this black woman from Brooklyn who herself didn’t seem to truly believe in her chances for success. “I ran for the presidency, despite hopeless odds,” she later wrote, “to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.” What is surprising, however, is that Shirley Chisholm wasn’t doing too badly. As Steinem remarked, the February 1971 Harris poll found Chisholm getting 35 percent of the vote among black Independents and black Democrats, and overwhelming support from women voters, regardless of race. This led the Harris pollsters to conclude, “Ms. Chisholm must now be considered a distinct threat to Mayor Lindsay, Senator McGovern, and former Senator Eugene McCarthy in vying for the liberal and left-of-center vote.” When Chisholm withdrew from the race after the Democratic convention, she had secured 151 electoral votes.
After leaving politics in 1983, Chisholm largely faded from public attention. She moved to upstate New York to care for her ailing husband and, after his death, eventually retired to Florida. It wasn’t until recently, when newspapers around the country announced that she had died on January 1 at the age of 80, that many people first became acquainted with Chisholm’s astonishing accomplishments.
Chisholm was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in 1924 to parents who had emigrated to the United States from the West Indies. Her father worked in a factory that made burlap bags and her mother was a domestic worker and a seamstress. They sent Chisholm, the eldest of four daughters, to be educated in Barbados and she later returned to New York and attended Brooklyn College, graduating in 1946 with honors. She went on to get her master’s degree in childhood education at Columbia and worked for several years in day care centers in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Chisholm got her political start in the local Brooklyn Democratic Club, helping to raise money for candidates. In 1964, she became a candidate herself and was elected to the New York State Assembly, representing Bedford-Stuyvesant. As the first black woman to hold an Assembly seat in New York State, she made her mark fighting for programs to assist domestic workers and underprivileged students.
Four years later, in 1968, Chisholm became the first black woman elected to the United States Congress when she defeated James Farmer, a nationally recognized civil rights leader and founder of the Congress of Racial Equality. In Congress, where she represented the newly created 12th Congressional district, encompassing much of central Brooklyn, Chisholm was anything but demure. After being assigned to the House Agricultural Committee, a post she considered irrelevant to her urban constituency, Chisholm observed that “apparently all they know here in Washington about Brooklyn is that a tree grows there.” In a highly unusual move, she was reassigned to the Education and Labor Committee, where she felt her expertise in child education would be better put to use.
Chisholm’s brusque manner and tendency to say exactly what she believed often put her at odds with her colleagues. When she announced her candidacy for President in 1972—to the great shock of the Congressional Black Caucus, with whom she did not consult before her announcement, and who were themselves debating whether to run a candidate—even many minorities shunned her. “I appreciated her more after I matured,” says City Councilman Charles Barron, who was then a member of the Black Panthers in Harlem. “But at the time, we didn’t think too highly of those that chose the avenue of electoral politics.” (As Shola Lynch’s documentary Chisholm ’72 illustrates, the Oakland chapter of the Panthers actually supported her campaign.) Chisholm, however, was not easily intimidated. “I’m the only one in here who has the balls to work for black people,” she told a roomful of black delegates.
Though Chisholm is largely remembered for her role as the first black woman to run for president—with a second attempt only being made recently by Carol Mosley Braun in 2004—that is just a small part of her legacy. In the New York State Assembly, she secured unemployment insurance for domestic workers, and lobbied for financial assistance for poor students. A program she launched, known as Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge, or SEEK, still helps CUNY students today.
She was also a founding member of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the Congressional Black Caucus. As a Congresswoman, Chisholm helped to pass Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination in the funding of education and related programs. She proposed successful legislation to extend minimum wage requirements to domestic workers. She was a leading advocate for the establishment of a national holiday in recognition of Martin Luther King, Jr., and submitted legislation behind this every year beginning in 1969 until her retirement from Congress in 1983. The law was finally adopted in 1985.
In order to fully recognize Shirley Chisholm’s nerve, it’s important to remember the cultural moment in our history during which she entered politics. In 1964, when she was first elected to the State Assembly, the political climate was not one that welcomed minorities. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was adopted to combat racial discrimination at polling places, and racial tensions were high. What’s more, many minorities did not consider political involvement a legitimate path to real change. “We had been suspicious of elected officials, because they didn’t want to stir people up and get involved,” remembers Brooklyn Congressman Major Owens. “But all that eventually changed as a result of [Chisholm’s] efforts.”
Nor, of course, was the country all that friendly to women. In 1964, when Chisholm ran for the Assembly, women could generally not get credit in their own names, they were shunned in many professions and abortion was illegal. “Of my two ‘handicaps,’ ” Chisholm said, “being female put more obstacles in my path than being black.”
Rather than bowing to that conflict, Chisholm become a symbol of the growing desire to address it and her career was marked by a fierce determination to remedy those “handicaps,” especially for women. “At the beginning of the women’s rights movement, we thought we were going to change the world, and she was the most confident, articulate spokesperson for that dream we had,” remembers Barbara Winslow, a professor at Brooklyn College who spearheaded the recent dedication of the Shirley Chisholm Center for the Study of Women at the college. “She was a feminist, an internationalist, she was against the war in Vietnam, she supported gay and lesbian rights...I could never describe the energy and happiness behind the movement that she put a face to.”
While Shirley Chisholm’s name may have long fallen from many of the organizations and initiatives she spearheaded, her legacy lives on rather significantly through the individuals she influenced—many who represent us today. “She opened up the doors,” says Councilwoman Letitia James. “She was a trailblazer and a pioneer, and not just for women of color but for all women. Without a doubt, I think of her as my hero.”
And even many of Brooklyn’s political men credit her with opening doors for them (a fact that has surely brought an everlasting smirk to Chisholm and her supporters). These include Congressmen Ed Towns, who worked on Chisholm’s early campaigns; Congressman Charles Rangel, who, after Chisholm’s death, reminded his minority colleagues in Congress to “remember and appreciate Shirley Chisholm’s contribution to the growth of our numbers and influence in Congress and in American politics”; and even Major Owens, who did not support Chisholm’s bid for the presidency. “She was so popular and showed that the way to mobilize people was to go through the electoral process,” he now says.
Of course, remembering Shirley Chisholm causes us not only to realize how significant the advances for women and minorities have been over the last three decades, but also to recognize how far there still is to go. Chisholm’s district of Bed-Stuy, which is largely minority, still faces high levels of poverty, and the unemployment rate of all black men in New York City reached 50 percent last March, an all-time high.
And even considering that there are now 14 African-American Congresswomen, sexism in politics has not completely disappeared. “Women [in politics] feel it each and every day,” says Councilwoman Letitia James. “Men don’t take us seriously...As I struggle with the powers that be, and the developers trying to push us around, I realize her struggle is still being fought.”
“But,” James adds, “we’re still working. And eventually, we’re going to win.”
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