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Friday, January 14, 2022

January 14, 2022: Women in Politics: Shirley Chisholm’s Campaigns

[On January 12th, 1932, Hattie Caraway became the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate. So for the 90th anniversary of that historic occasion, this week I’ll AmericanStudy Caraway and a handful of other political women—share your thoughts and your own nominees for an egalitarian crowd-sourced weekend post, please!]

On two telling political efforts beyond Chisholm’s groundbreaking presidential campaign.

I started this week’s series with the first woman to run for president, so it’s only appropriate to end the week with the first to run for the Democratic presidential nomination (and the second woman to seek a major party nomination, after Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith in 1964), and the first African American presidential candidate to boot: New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Chisholm’s 1972 campaign was groundbreaking for both of those reasons, and was also quite successful, with the candidate achieving significant results (sometimes classified as wins, although each case is complicated) in the New Jersey, Louisiana, and Mississippi primaries, and eventually garnering 152 delegates (some symbolically released by the nominee George McGovern, but all real nonetheless) at the Democratic National Convention in Miami. Everything I said in Monday’s post about the symbolic significance of Victoria Woodhull’s 1872 campaign holds true for Chisholm’s campaign a century later, and I’d say Chisholm’s represented a significantly more serious contention for the nomination as well.

If that were Chisholm’s only contribution to national politics it would be more than enough to deserve collective memory—but it’s not, and her participation in a couple specific efforts helps us better remember the full scope of her half-century career in politics. Chisholm’s first political work took place in 1953, the same year that the 29-year-old Chisholm began directing a couple New York City child care centers (putting her MA in Elementary Education from Columbia’s Teachers College to work in the process). In that year she joined prominent local Democratic politician and power broker Wesley “Mac” Holder’s successful campaign to elect Lewis Flagg Jr. as the first African American judge in Brooklyn. That campaign became the basis for a more overarching organization, the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League (BPSL), which fought for civil rights, economic equality, and fairness in housing throughout the 1950s. While both those efforts were partly local in emphasis, they were also part of the burgeoning national civil rights movement—and that combination of local and national, targeted and broader political goals, is at the heart of all Congressional work, particularly in the House in which Chisholm would serve for seven groundbreaking terms between 1969 and 1983.

One of Chisholm’s many important efforts during those 14 years in Congress took place just a year before her presidential run. In 1971, she once again utilized her education and experience in early childhood education and care, teaming with fellow New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug to co-sponsor a historic bill that would allocate $10 billion toward child care services. Senator Walter Mondale came on board for the Senate version of the bill, which passed both houses in December 1971 as the Comprehensive Child Development Act. Unfortunately President Richard Nixon vetoed the bill, arguing not only that it was too costly but also that it would implement a “communal approach to child-rearing” and thus that it was “the most radical piece of legislation” to have crossed his presidential desk. The fight for federal support for child care has continued into this year, one of many arenas in which we still have a great deal to learn from the lessons and model of Shirley Chisholm.

Crowd-sourced post this weekend,


PS. So one more time: What do you think? Other political women or moments you’d highlight?

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