In July 1971, Shirley Chisholm began to talk about it. Chisholm, who in 1968 had become the first African American woman elected to Congress, would run for president. The congresswoman from New York announced her intentions to secure the Democratic nomination in September, and formally announced on Jan. 25, 1972. The Democratic candidates who sought to oppose President Nixon’s bid for a second term counted “Fighting Shirley” and nine white men, all of whom had higher degrees, like Chisholm. Of the 10, all but Chisholm, Wilbur Mills, and Hubert Humphrey had served in the military. Chisholm was the first African American to contend for the presidential nomination of a major party.
On the 50th anniversary of Chisholm’s protest-era run, America is again reassessing itself and its history; the lesson of historical re-evaluation is seemingly how well we forget, and how fallible we are in remembering. Chisholm taught at the New School from 1971-75. “Black Power and White Politics,” her inaugural course (eight sessions for $40) posed the question: “Can the political system be made responsive to the needs of minorities?”
The issues are familiar, as is the broil of her audience and a citizenship that feels unheard. Chisholm, in 1972, is already a celebrity — simultaneously a voice of the people and a spokesperson for a lying, thieving political system manipulated by Ivy League elites. The Chisholm audience, as well as the camera crew, chuckles uncomfortably as one questioner takes the soapbox, picking up “the hot coal” and imploring listeners to consider: “Why do we fail as a country to address these urgent needs … what is basically wrong with America that we can keep talking and everything gets worse?”
“The American public as a whole is too complacent,” Chisholm answers. “Not only is it complacent but it’s also gullible…. We don’t question enough. We don’t concern ourselves about things until they hit us on our front doorstep…. For a long time we had been taught in America about the need to bring about ‘social justice’ that nobody worried about before in this society. But all of a sudden, middle-class America woke up about six years ago, when we began to have riots and conflagrations in the big cities of this country. Prior to that, nobody wondered what was happening to the Indian, the African American, or even the Puerto Rican, or even the Black because we were getting along as a whole and it didn’t touch us on our front doorstep.”
Tracking back to 1969, we find Chisholm empaneled at the New School with Gloria Steinem, author, feminist, and activist, and Jacqueline Grenenwexler, the former president of Webster College. The three women, inaugurating the Human Relations Center at the New School, considered the provocation “Do Women Dare?” (“Do Women Dare” and other materials referenced here, are available through The New School Archives and Special Collections.)
In the wake of the social upheavals of recent years, the speech, which is not known to have been published or broadcast since the event 50 years ago, feels as vital today as it did half a century ago. Through the discussion, Chisholm pointed to what we would now call intersectionality; the term was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to describe the ways in which identity is nuanced and individual experience is not based on skin color or class alone. Intersectionality makes the invisible visible. It adds dimensionality to a type of racism that can be one-dimensional. What is diversity without diverse socioeconomic backgrounds?
Recorded via a WBAI broadcast, and newly digitized and transcribed here, Chisholm’s opening remarks for the 1969 panel are expansive, yet immediate. She’s radical in one moment, citing the divisive author Eldridge Cleaver, and pronouncedly centrist in the next, pointing back to personal responsibility: “The law cannot do it for us. We must do it for ourselves.”
Chisholm’s words are charged and nuanced and controversial, she is hearing the unheard, endeavoring to listen and to keep listening and vowing to fight. Here are her remarks.
The topic this morning of course is, “do women dare?” And I have said, of course women dare. Do women dare? I assume that the question implies do women dare take an active part in society and, in particular, do they dare to take a part in the present social revolution? And I find the question as much of an insult as I would the question, “Are you, as a Black person, willing to fight for your rights?” America has been sufficiently sensitized to the answer, whether or not Black people are willing to both fight and die for their rights. To make the question itself is asinine and superfluous. America is not yet sufficiently aware, but such a question applied to women is equally asinine and superfluous.
I am, as is obvious, both Black and a woman. And that is a good vantage point from which to view at least two elements of what is becoming a social revolution. The American Black revolution and the women’s liberation movement. But it is also a horrible disadvantage. It is a disadvantage, my friends, because America as a nation, is both racist and antifeminist. Racism and antifeminism are two of the prime traditions of this country that we have to face objectively. For any individual, therefore, challenging social traditions is a giant step. A giant step, because there are no social traditions which do not have corresponding social sanctions, the sole purpose of which are to protect the sanctity of the traditions.
Then when we ask the question, “do women dare?” we are not asking are women capable of a break with tradition so much as we are asking, are they capable of bearing with the sanctions that will be placed upon them? Coupling this with the hypothesis presented by some social thinkers and philosophers that in any given society the most active group are those who are nearest to the particular freedom that they desire, it does not surprise me that those women, most active and vocal on the issue of freedom for women, are those who are young, white, and middle class. Nor is it also too surprising that there are not more from that group involved in the women’s liberation movement. There certainly are reasons why more women are not involved, and this country, as I said, is antifeminist. Few, if any Americans, are free of the psychological wounds imposed by racism and antifeminism.
A few weeks ago, while testifying before the office of Federal Contract Compliance, I noted the antifeminism and every other form of discrimination is destructive both to those who perpetrate it and their victims. That males, with their antifeminism, maim both themselves and their women. In Soul on Ice, Eldrige Cleaver pointed out how America’s racial and sexual stereotypes were supposed to work. Whether his insight is correct or not, it bears close examination. Cleaver, in the passage “the primeval mitosis” describes in detail the four major roles. There is the White female who he considers to be ultra-feminine because she is required to possess and project an image that is a sharp contrast to the White male’s image as the omnipotent administrator, all brain and no body. And he goes on to to identify the Black female as sub-feminine or amazon by virtue of her assignment to the lowly household chores and those corresponding jobs of tedious nature. He sums up the role of the Black male as the super masculine menial, all body and no brain, because he was expected to supply society with its source of group power.
What the roles and the strange interplay between them have meant to America, Cleaver goes on to point out quite well. But what he does not say and what I think must be said, is that because of the bizarre aspects of the roles and the influence that nontraditional contact has on the general society, Blacks and Whites, males and females, must operate almost independently of each other in order to escape from the quick sands of psychological slavery. Each Black male and Black female, White male and White female, must escape first from their own historical trap before they can be truly effective in helping others to free themselves. Therein lies one of the major reasons that there are not more women involved in the women’s liberation movement: women cannot, for the most part, operate independently of males because they often do not have sufficient economic freedom.
In 1966, the median earnings of women who worked full-time for the whole year was less than the income of males who worked full-time for the whole year. In fact, White women workers made less than Black male workers and of course Black women workers made the least of all. But whether it is intentional or not, women are paid less than men for the same work, no matter what their chosen field of work. Whether it is intentional or not, employment for women is regulated still more in terms of the jobs that are available to them. This is almost as true for White women as it is for Black women.
Whether it is intentional or not, when it becomes time for young high-school girls to think about preparing for her career, her counselors, whether they be male or female, will first think of her so-called natural career—housewife and mother; and will begin to program her for a field for which marriage and children will not unduly interfere. And that is exactly the same as the situation of the young Black or Puerto Rican who the racist counselor advises to prepare for service-oriented occupations because he does not even think of them entering the profession. So the response of the average young lady is precisely the same as the response of the average young Black – passive agreement. Because the odds do seem to be stacked against them.
This is not happening as much as it once did to young minority group people. It is not happening, because they have been radicalized and the country is becoming sensitized to its racist attitudes and the damage that it does. Young women must learn a lesson from that experience. They must rebel. They must react to the traditional stereotype education mapped out for them by the society. Their education and training is programed and planned for them from the moment the doctor said, “Mrs. Jones, it’s a beautiful baby girl.” And Mrs. Jones begins believing mentally the things that she might’ve been and add the things the society says that she must be! And that young woman, for society begins to see her as a stereotype the moment that her sex is determined, will be wrapped in a pink blanket. Pink, because that’s the color of her caste. And the unequal segregation of the sexes will have begun. Small wonder, therefore, that the young girl sitting across the desk from her counselor, will not be able to say “no” to educational, economic, and social slavery. Small wonder, because she has been a psychological slave and programmed as such since the moment of her birth.
On May 20th of this year, I introduced legislation concerning the Equal Employment Opportunity for Women. And at that time, I pointed out that there are 3 and one half million more women in America but women held only 2 percent of the managerial positions. That no women sat on the AFCIO council or Supreme Court. That only 2 women had ever held cabinet rank and there were, at that time, only 2 women of ambassadorial ranks in the diplomatic core. I stated then, as I do now, that this situation is outrageous. In my speech on the floor that day I said, “it is true, the part of the problem is that women have not been aggressive in demanding their rights.” This is also true in the Black population for many years. They submitted to oppression and even cooperated with it. Women have done the same thing. But now there is an awareness of this situation, particularly among the younger segment of the population. And as in the field of equal rights for Blacks, Spanish-Americans, Indians and other groups, laws will not change such deep-seeded problems overnight. But they can be used to provide protection for those who are abused and begin the process of evolutionary change by compelling the insensitive majority to reexamine this unconscious attitude. The law cannot do it for us. We must do it for ourselves. We must refuse to accept the old, the traditional roles, and stereotypes. We must reject the great (or Greek?) philosopher’s thought, “it is thy place, woman, to hold thy peace” and keep us indoors. We must reject the thought of Saint Paul who said, “let the woman marry in silence.” And we must reject the Nietzschean thought which says that when a woman inclines to learning, there’s something wrong with her sex apparatus.
But more than just rejecting, we must replace those thoughts and the concepts that they symbolize, with positive values based on female experience. And a few short years ago if you called most negros “Black,” it was tantamount to calling them “n*****s.” Now, black is beautiful and black is proud. There are relatively few people, White or Black, who do not recognize what has happened. And Black people have freed themselves from the dead weight of the albatross of the Blackness that once hung around their neck. They have done it by picking it up in their arms and holding them out with pride for all the world to see. They have done it by embracing it.
Women must come to realize that the superficial symbolisms that surround us are negative only when we ourselves perceive and accept them as negative. We must begin to replace the old negative thoughts about our femininity with positive thoughts and positive actions that affirm them more and more. What we must also remember, is that we’ll be breaking with tradition. And so when you break with tradition, you have to prepare yourselves educationally, economically, and psychologically in order that you’ll be able to accept and bear with the sanctions that society will immediately impose upon us.
I’m a politician. I detest the word because of the connotation that cling like slime to it. But for want of a better term, I must use it. I have been in politics for twenty years and in that time, I’ve learned a few things about the role of women in politics. The major thing that I have learned is that women are the backbone of America’s political organizations: they are the letter writers, the envelope stuffers, they are the speech writers and the largest numbers of potential voters. Yet, they are but rarely the standard bearers or elected officials. Perhaps it is in America more than any other country in this world that the inherit truth of the old bromide, the power behind the throne is a woman, is most readily apparent. And let me remind you, once again, of the relatively few women on the American political scene. There are only ten United States representatives, there’s only one Senator, no cabinet members that are women, no women on the Supreme Court. It is true that at the state level, the picture is somewhat brighter; just as it is true that the North presents a surface that is somewhat more appealing when compared with the South.
Secondly, I have learned that the attitude held by high-school counselors that I mentioned earlier is a general attitude held by political bosses. A few years ago, a politician remarked to me about a potential young female candidate, “why invest all of the time and effort to build up the gal into a household name when she’s pretty sure to drop out of the game to have a couple of kids at just about the time we are ready to run her for mayor?” I pointed out time and time again, that the harshest discrimination I have encountered in the political arena is anti-feminism. And when I first announced that I was running for Congress, both male and females advised me, as they had when I ran for the New York State Assembly, go back to teaching, a woman’s vocation, and leave the politics to men. And one of the major reasons why I will not leave the American political scene, voluntarily that is, is because the number of women in politics is declining. There are at least two million more women than men of voting age but the fact is that while we get out the vote, we often do not get out to vote.
In conclusion, I believe that women have a special contribution to make to help bring order out of chaos because they have special qualities of leadership which are greatly needed today. And these qualities are the patience, the tolerance, and the perseverance which have developed in us because of suppression. And if we can add to these qualities a reservoir of information about techniques of community action to help our society become the kind of society it must be, well then, we will have become effective harbingers of change. Women must participate more in the legislative process because even if the contributions that I have just mentioned, the single greatest contribution that women can bring to politics would be a spirit of moral purpose. But unfortunately, women’s participation in politics is declining, as I have noted. The decline is a general one but it is because it is a decline that I believe that the true question is not whether or not women dare – women have always dared! The question which now faces us is: will women dare in numbers sufficient to have an effect on their own attitude towards themselves and thus change the basic attitudes of males and the general society? Women will have to brave the social sanctions in great numbers in order to free themselves from the sexual, psychological, and emotional stereotyping that plagues us. It is not feminine egoism to say that the future of mankind may very well be ours to determine, it is simply a plain fact, the softness warmth and gentleness that are often used to stereotype us are positive human values, values that are becoming more and more important as the general values of the whole of mankind are put more and more out of kilter. And the strength that marked Christ, Ghandi, and King was a strength born not out of violence but of gentleness, understanding, and gentle human compassion. We must move outside the walls of our stereotypes but, we must retain the values on which they were built.
This is the reason that we must free ourselves. This is the reason that we must become revolutionaries in the fashion of Ghandi and King and hundreds of other men and women who held those as the highest of humane values. And working towards our own freedom, we cannot only allow our men to work towards their freedom from the traps of their stereotypes. We are now challenged in ways we have never been challenged before. The past 20 years with a decline for women in employment, in government, with the status quo in ‘preparation for young women for certain professions,’ it is clear that evolution is not necessarily always a process of positive forward motion. Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Nation, and Sojourner Truth were not evolutionaries, they were revolutionaries, just as many of the young women in today’s society and more and more women must join their rank.
In a speech made a few weeks ago to an audience that was predominantly White and all female, I suggested the following if they wanted to create change – you must start in your own homes, your own schools and your own churches. I don’t want you to go home and talk about integrated schools, churches, or marriages when the kind of integration you are talking about is Black with White. I want you to go home and work for, fight for, the integration of male and female, human and human. Franz Fanon pointed out in Black Skin, White Masks, that the anti-Semitic was eventually the anti-negro. I want to say that eventually both are antifeminist and even further, I want to indicate that all discrimination is essentially the same thing – anti-humanism. That is my charge to those of you in the audience this morning, whether you are male or female. Thank you.
John Reed is a culture writer and author who lives in New York City. He’s faculty in The New School MFA in Creative Writing. Natalee Cruz is a Poetry and Fiction MFA candidate at The New School and author of the upcoming chapbook, I Have Seen The Bluest Blue.