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Thinking about Shirley Chisholm during the Current Presidential Primaries


A professor emerita at Brooklyn College, Barbara Winslow is a historian of women’s activism as well as the founder and director emerita of the Shirley Chisholm Project. She is the author of Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change (2013) and a coeditor of Clio in the Classroom: A Guide for Teaching U.S. Women’s History (2009). She is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

“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 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. Today 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 time in Congress (1968-1982) 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.

chisholmContrast these positions with those of the current contenders for the American presidential nomination. None of the Republican candidates supports women’s reproductive rights, equal pay, a higher minimum wage, or Title IX. Carly Fiorina, the only Republican woman running, positions herself as her party’s alternative to Hillary Clinton, the only Democratic woman running. “If Hillary Clinton were to face a female nominee, there are a whole set of things that she won’t be able to talk about,” Fiorina told reporters last year. “She won’t be able to talk about being the first woman president. She won’t be able to talk about a war on women without being challenged. She won’t be able to play the gender card.” Fiorina opposes a woman’s right to abortion and dismisses the consequences of restrictive access to women’s contraceptives. In addition she opposes governmental action on equal pay for women or raising the minimum wage.

While the Democratic contenders, including Clinton, 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 attacking teachers and teachers’ unions and supporting 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 so many Democratic candidates support 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, she 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.

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 that 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, Charles Evers, and 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 as 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.