Since 1971, I’ve had on my wall a framed political flyer. Under a photo of 11 ragtag people–including activist Flo Kennedy, poet Sandra Hochman, lawyer Brenda Feigen and me–there is the headline “Vote for the Chisholm Delegates–Keep the Politicians Honest.”
Our slate lost to George McGovern, as we knew we would. He was then defeated in every state but Massachusetts by a soon-to-be impeached Nixon. Given the resources to reach voters, Chisholm might have done better than either one.
But her historic campaign as the first African-American woman to run for a major party presidential nomination–though serious, aggressive and devoted to issues–was never about winning. She ran in only 12 state primaries. Indeed, her candidacy was treated with so little seriousness that she had to bring an FCC challenge in order to join in even one presidential debate, and to mount public protests to get one speech televised. (As coined by the irrepressible Flo, our slogan was “Protest the white-out!”)
After her campaign, she wrote, “I ran … to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo. The next time a woman runs, or a black or a Jew … I believe that he or she will be taken seriously … I ran because somebody had to do it first.”
But she was not just any “somebody.” Born in Brooklyn to a father who worked in a burlap factory and a mother who was a seamstress and a domestic, she spent her early childhood in Barbados with her grandmother. By 3 1/2, she was reading; by 4, she was writing; and she later chose a career in education to fight the waste of those early years for other children.
She also challenged the all-white Democratic machine in Brooklyn and the all-black male leadership of the alternative. After two terms in the New York State Assembly, she became the first African-American woman in the U.S. Congress. There, she bucked the seniority system by refusing her freshman assignment to the Agriculture Committee. “Apparently,” she told the press, “all they know here in Washington about Brooklyn is that a tree grew there.”
It was during her co-founding of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971 that we worked together. I remember her clarity of speech, her impeccable dress in contrast to our casual clothes, and her air of dignified distance, as if being the “first” and “only” had accustomed her to being alone.
She could demand that she also be alone in her supporters’ loyalties, as I discovered when she rebuked me for advocating McGovern, though only in states where she wasn’t running. Yet she expressed too much gratitude for the speech writing and campaigning I was honored and lucky to do. It was as if she anticipated opposition, and so assumed she had to do everything herself.
Much later, I glimpsed her humor when, at the 25th anniversary of the National Women’s Political Caucus, she leaned over to whisper in my ear what I assumed would be a political observation. “You and I,” she said, “are the only ones who have kept our figures.”
Thanks to the spirit of Shirley Chisholm, there is somewhere right now another straight-backed, brilliant, out-spoken little girl planning to become president. We’ve never needed her more.
This article first appeared in New York magazine.