March is Women’s History Month and as the United States gears up for the 2016 election, I propose we salute a pathbreaking woman candidate for president. No, not Hillary Rodham Clinton, but Shirley Chisholm, who became the first woman and the first African American to seek the nomination of the Democratic Party for president. Announcing her candidacy in January 1972, she confronted her race and gender head on: “I am not the candidate of black America although I am black and proud. I’m 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 a candidate of the people and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history.”
And yet far too often Shirley Chisholm is seen as just a footnote or a curiosity, rather than as a serious political contender who demonstrated that a candidate who was black or female or both belonged in the national spotlight. Put another way, she anticipated the 2008 contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton by almost forty years.
It turns out there have been more women candidates for president than most people realize. According to political scientist Jo Freeman, more than fifty women have run for the highest office. The vast majority were candidates on third-party or fringe tickets, including free love advocate Victoria Claflin Woodhull way back in 1872. Women’s presidential credibility took a giant leap forward when Maine Senator Margaret Chase Smith campaigned for the top spot on the Republican ticket in 1964. Eight years later Shirley Chisholm broke another precedent by becoming the first serious female candidate for the Democrats.
Chisholm’s path to her presidential bid began in Brooklyn, New York. The daughter of Caribbean immigrants, she graduated with honors from Brooklyn College in 1946, and embarked on a career in early childhood education. Soon she found herself increasingly involved in local Democratic politics in her Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, a grass-roots entry into politics that was typical of many women, black and white, at the time. Recruited to run as a candidate, she served in the state assembly from 1964 to 1968 before winning election to Congress in 1968, the first African American woman ever to serve. Her campaign slogan was “Fighting Shirley Chisholm—Unbossed and Unbought.”
Chisholm’s political priorities focused on the connections between race, class, and gender long before feminist scholars coined the term “intersectionality.” She hoped to build coalitions and bridges between those who were too often on the fringes of the political process. She was a founder of both the Black Congressional Caucus (1971) and the National Women’s Political Caucus (1972). Yet she was always clear about where the greatest discrimination lay. “As a black person, I am no stranger to race prejudice. But the truth is that in the political world I have been far oftener discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am black.”
From the start, Chisholm’s campaign was hampered by lack of funding and poor coordination, which limited her ability to capitalize on grassroots support for her candidacy. Although Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem ran as Chisholm delegates in New York, her long-shot candidacy received less than robust support from feminist leaders or black politicians, who coalesced around anti-war candidate George McGovern. In the end she garnered just shy of 152 delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention. Chisholm went on to handily win re-election to Congress that year despite the Nixon landslide, and remained there until her retirement in 1982.
Shirley Chisholm saw her presidential bid as a spur to greater participation in American politics by a more diverse range of voters and activists. As she said when she announced her candidacy in 1972, “I stand before you today to repudiate the ridiculous notion that the American people will not vote for a qualified candidate because he is not white or because she is not male. I do not believe that in 1972, the great majority of Americans harbor such narrow and petty prejudices.” I suspect that more Americans than she let on did indeed harbor such prejudices back then, but her pathbreaking candidacy represented a glimpse of “a new kind of America” she heartily looked forward to. More than forty years later, we are still seeing how the story plays out.
Headline image credit: Photo by Texas State Library and Archives Commission. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.