Born on November 30, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York, Shirley Chisholm was the first African American to run for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States. She was elected to US Congress in 1968 and was assigned to the House of Agriculture committee, an appointment which she strongly rebelled against as she believed it did not concern her lower class people.
She founded the Congressional Black Caucus a year later, in 1969, an organization embodying the black members of the United States Congress. Shirley was known to brave, rebelling endlessly against a system that was keen on stifling her, lashing out against the Vietnam war, ridiculous bills and the organization was one of the steps in that direction.
She was different from the usual Congress woman, she was maybe a little too black, a little too informal with her curly hair and big glasses and so when she published her Novel Unbought and Unbossed in 1970, a compelling account of how she rose to becoming congress woman, it was one further step at changing the perception of women, of black women.
In Barbara Winslow’s “Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change” She writes about Shirley’s observations when she ventured into politics as a Democrat: “She noticed that club leaders were men; the women, mainly wives of members, were expected to fulfill traditional gender roles – to organize socials, raffles and other fundraising events.”
A few people assign Shirley’s bravery to growing up away from her parents and with her Grandmother, being the oldest of four daughters and learning early to survive on little money. But Shirley at numerous times and in sometimes subtle ways lets us know that she is one soul who would have been brave nonetheless, one soul who understood that her greatest power was her strong voice, her literally strong voice which she believed was a tool to speak against every form of injustice.
“Gender” and “Race” were two forms injustice was wrapped in that interested her, particularly because they were the two forms that directly concerned her. She is known to have said “Of my two handicaps, being female put many more obstacles in my path than being black” and when she in 1972 – fueled by the loss in that quote, by a desire to correctly define herself and every other woman- decided to run for Presidency, the world was stunned.
It was something they had not been groomed for, something they wouldn’t be prepared for in a long time coming. They were not terrified of a woman becoming President – they certainly knew then that it was impossible – they were stunned rather by the mere idea of it, by the mere concept that it was considerable by a woman, by a black woman, that it was something conceivable and Shirley knew this.
Here She was, wrong by the standards of race and gender (which is quite about all the ways the world defines wrong anyway) vying to be President, carrying out a Presidential campaign in a major party as a woman, as a black woman knowing even before declaring candidacy that she could never win.
“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 am equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or special interests. I am the candidate of the people.” was what she said when she announced her nomination, she debunked labels, because she understood that trying to break labels through further labeling does no good, because she understood that if she was going to be taken seriously, she had to be a person, not a black person, or a woman, simply a person proud of her feminism.
Shirley did not win the nominations as expected receiving only 152 delegate votes, but it had been a necessary journey, one which taught her as she said later that “Black male politicians are no different from white male politicians”, that the pandemic idea of gender was what it was, the pandemic idea of gender and that it was irrespective of race.
And so the beautiful thing about Shirley’s decision to run is that it made a statement, is that it told women that these things were possible, that they were not designed only to exist in the rear, that they too could be in the limelight no matter how challenging and most importantly that it is always not about winning, but about doing the needful.
Shirley dreams of a society where a woman achieving feats previously attained by males is not accompanied by surprise and intense admiration in a condescending way, where it is no more puzzling that a woman drives a bus or performs hard labor, a society where a woman is a person.
Because for Shirley and us all feminism is not about applauding the woman, it is about not downplaying her, about treating her as an equal.
In 2016, forty four years later, a woman attempts again from the same party, builds a strong campaign, and after amassing most of the popular votes, fails, the woman is Hillary Clinton and half the world is unhappy.
But Shirley teaches us more importantly now than ever that it is not always about winning, but it is always – without doubts – about making a statement.