Thursday, March 01, 2007

Unbought and Unbossed: Following Shirley Chisholm's Path
by E. Faye Williams

As we celebrate Women's History this month, countless references will no doubt be made to the historic strides made by America's women politicians this year, when we saw, for the first time, the gavel of the Speaker of the House wielded by a woman, and a woman candidate emerge as the frontrunner for her party's presidential nomination. And it looks to be an historic year in Black political history, as well, as an African-American senator is touted as a serious contender for the same nomination. Indeed, these are historic precedents in all of American history.

But more than 30 years ago, one person embodied two "firsts," when Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York threw her hat into the ring of presidential politics when she announced her 1972 run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Her slogan spoke to neither her race nor her gender, but to the state of U.S. politics in her time (and ours): "Unbought and Unbossed."

Shirley was a woman of "firsts." She was the first Black woman to serve in the U.S. Congress, the first woman to run a meaningful campaign for the presidency of the U.S and the first to chair the National Congress of Black Women, the organization I am privileged to lead today. But to hear Shirley tell it, she'd rather be remembered as "a woman who had guts" than a "first."

I was blessed to meet Shirley while she was in Congress. Like so many young women, I was inspired and awed by her audacity in choosing to run for president. Unfortunately, 35 years later, a woman has yet to win the presidential nomination of either of our political parties, but the momentum generated by Shirley Chisholm assures us that the men-only presidential ticket is a state of affairs that simply can't last.

In 1968, when Shirley came to Congress, it was a lonely place for any woman, never mind one who wasn't white. Today, 87 women serve in the Congress -- 16 in the Senate and 71 in the House, of which 14 are Black. A woman serves as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, and many chair powerful committees. "Firsts" do matter when they serve so well that others are inspired to follow.

In 1972, Shirley explained her rationale for running a presidential campaign for an office yet unattainable by a Black person or any woman, as an act that "itself can change the face and future of American politics -- that it will be important to the needs and hopes of every one of you -- even though, in the conventional sense, I will not win."

Shirley was right about changing the face and future of American politics. Just think for a moment about all the women who are serving in state legislatures, as governors, as mayors of cities. Many of these victories are an extension of her races in 1968 and 1972.

Yet, as a nation, we have yet to fulfill the legacy of Shirley Chisholm. As I review the list of legislative priorities that inspire this month's Women's Equality Summit and Congressional Action Day, organized by the National Council of Women's Organizations and the Younger Women's Task Force, I find much of the work Shirley began still unfinished.

In 1970, Rep. Chisholm, a schoolteacher and nationally renowned expert on early childhood education, co-authored a comprehensive childcare bill that met the veto pen of President Richard Nixon, who called it the "Sovietization of American children." Shirley pressed Congress to increase the minimum wage and to provide funding for health care, battles we continue to wage today. She advocated equal pay for women and men; today, women still earn 76 cents for every $1 earned by men. She spoke boldly of a woman's right to reproductive freedom, rights that today are in peril.

Shirley Chisholm's 1970 floor speech introducing the Equal Rights Amendment is considered to be one of America's most important political speeches. And we have yet to ratify this simple statement of equality of the sexes.

So this March, more than simply celebrating women's history, we've got our eyes on the present and the future -- on women making history. Shirley Chisholm laid out an agenda for bringing freedom and justice to all Americans, women and men of all races. It's our task to fulfill.


Williams is the national chair of the National Congress of Black Women, Inc.