On January 25, 1972, Shirley Chisholm announced her bid for president at Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn. She told a crowd of supporters, “I stand before you today, to repudiate the ridiculous notion that the American people will not vote for qualified candidates, simply because he is not white or because she is not a male. I do not believe that in 1972, the great majority of Americans will continue to harbor such narrow and petty prejudice.” Thirty-six years later, the United States elected its first Black president. This week, we moved one step closer to electing a woman to the nation’s top office.
When Hillary Clinton took the stage at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on June 7, 2016, she began by placing her nomination for president into historical context. She explained, “Tonight's victory is not about one person. It belongs to generations of women and men who struggled and sacrificed and made this moment possible.” Shirley Chisholm was one of those women who was motivated to run to prove to others “it can be done.” Over seven months, Chisholm competed in primaries nationwide, ultimately receiving nearly 431,000 votes in 14 states. Her support was dwarfed by the party frontrunners that year, who each received close to ten times the votes that Chisholm did. But she was not deterred by her long odds of victory. She campaigned heavily in at least seven states and fought for a place in televised primary debates, emphasizing her role in keeping her opponents honest. Importantly, Chisholm fought for her voice to be heard in a field of white men.
In spite of the many obstacles she faced, Chisholm’s voice was heard when the Democratic Party met for their nominating convention in July 1972. After receiving 151.95 delegate votes – the first Democratic woman to ever do so, Chisholm took to the convention stage to commend her delegates for making history. She went on to concede and to call for unity against Richard Nixon, committing to crossing the country to register Democratic voters and support the Democratic nominee.
Speaking at the DNC, Chisholm proclaimed, “In unity, there is strength.” That message of unity was not limited to party, however. Seven months prior, she launched her campaign by citing Abraham Lincoln’s reminder that “a house divided cannot stand.” She went on to say:
We are all God’s children and a bit of each of us is as precious as the will of the most powerful general or corporate millionaire. Our will can create a new America in 1972, one where there is freedom from violence and war, at home and abroad, where there is freedom from poverty and discrimination, where there exists at least a feeling, that we are making progress and assuring for everyone medical care, employment, and decent housing. Where we more decisively clean up our streets, our water, and our air. Where we work together, black and white, to rebuild our neighborhoods and to make our cities quiet, attractive, and efficient and fundamentally where we live in the confidence that every man and every woman in America has at long last the opportunity to become all that he was created of being, such as his ability.
Chisholm’s message reverberates in Hillary Clinton’s campaign today. Clinton frequently expresses her commitment to “breaking down barriers and [imagining] what we can build together when each and every American has the chance to live up to his or her own God-given potential.” Breaking down those barriers requires the unity that Chisholm similarly viewed as so essential to American progress. Celebrating her nomination in Brooklyn this week, Clinton told supporters, “We all believe that America succeeds when more people share in our prosperity, when more people have a voice in our political systems, when more people can contribute to their communities. We believe that cooperation is better than conflict, unity is better than division, empowerment is better than resentment and bridges are better than walls.” The principles of unity, inclusion, and empowerment are not uncommon themes in electoral politics, but there is power in hearing them expressed by individuals like Chisholm and Clinton whose own identities – race and/or gender – had long kept them excluded and disempowered in a political system dominated by white men.
In reflecting on Clinton’s historic milestone this week, it’s important to recognize the shoulders on which she stands. Shirley Chisholm was among the trailblazers and ceiling-breakers willing to confront racism, sexism, and disregard by many in order to disrupt perceptions that the presidency was a space entitled only to white men. She challenged expectations about the face and voice of American politics, and embodied the inclusivity and empowerment upon which her candidacy was founded. Clinton continues Chisholm’s work this year by further disrupting the image of U.S. president while embracing principles that Chisholm emphasized 44 years ago.
Upon clinching the Democratic nomination for president this week, Clinton rejected the idea that “great things can't happen in America.” She added, “Barriers can come down. Justice and equality can win. Our history has moved in that direction slowly at times but unmistakably, thanks to generations of Americans who refused to give up or back down.” Shirley Chisholm, an unbought and unbossed pioneer in women’s presidential history, wrote one important chapter in that history. Clinton reminded her supporters on Tuesday, “Now you are writing a new chapter of that story,” and it is another one that starts in Brooklyn.
Kelly Dittmar is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers-Camden and Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers. She is the author of Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns and manages Presidential Gender Watch 2016, a project of CAWP and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.