2016 supposedly saw the hope of the first female President of the United States. Feminists all across the world had hope in their eyes for a symbol of changing times and a new era for women within the political sphere. But the 1st of January marks the sunset of a queen that embodied such hope over 40 years before Mrs. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Born in the cold winter of 1924 in Brooklyn, New York to immigrant domestic and factory service workers from the Caribbean, Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm rose from humble beginnings. Her parents like many immigrant parents dreamt of a life of hope and possibility bigger than their circumstances could’ve allowed and thus worked tirelessly for her and her three younger sisters to have the best opportunities they could. Her parents, like many hardworking immigrant parents had to deal with the harsh reality of both working tirelessly day and night to make ends meat whilst simultaneously raising their children the best way they knew how.
As a result of such pressures, similarly to my own grandmother, she decided to send her daughters back home to Barbados to be raised by their grandmother for a few years. Shirley would later go onto comment that the stringent, traditional Bajan system of schooling shaped her into the studious, passionate young woman she became.
On returning to the US she continued studying and worked in a nursery to support herself financially. Running the daycare center she grew increasingly involved in community activism which significantly sparked her fervent interest in politics. Little did she know at the time, that spark would transform into a fire that would later see her become a key figure in US politics.
From local to national, in 1969 Chisholm became the first African-American woman elected to Congress. Fighting tirelessly for women’s, children’s and African American rights in a time where such rights were almost nowhere to be seen, she was a beacon of hope. But she didn’t stop there. In 1971, Chisholm decided that she was going to run for President, making her the first African-American and the first woman to run for the democratic nomination of the President of the United States.
Pretty dope, right?
Many people across the globe don’t know the name Shirley Chisholm, which is no surprise, given the white supremacist, patriarchal nature of the world we live in.
White feminism and a patriarchal history have attempted to erase her from many history books, but she remains one of the most important female icons of the 20th century. Many argue the rise of white female political leadership across the western world in recent times, including the likes of Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton, suggests that gender no longer inhibits women’s abilities to make it to the top and thus feminist strides are being made. However, it is important to note that many of these female leaders often adopt a patriarchal femininity which mitigates much of these suggestions and in truth hides the reality that much hasn’t really changed.
When Angela Merkel calls for the banning of the burqa in attempt to appease white conservatives, whilst dripping away the dignity and identity of thousands of women across the country, she does nothing for revolutionary feminist progress.
When Theresa May enacts austerity measures which harm the most vulnerable women and children in our community, she does nothing for revolutionary feminist progress.
And when Hillary Clinton supports domestic policy that deport, separate and destroy families, most notably families of color, she does nothing for revolutionary feminist progress.
But when Chisholm came to the stage and told the world in her 1972 campaign that she was “unbought and unbossed,” she told us that she would not be controlled by the money-dominated political system which continues to let down the people. She told the world that her representation wouldn’t be tokenistic, but it would be something symbolic, historic and meaningful. In her fight to reduce military spending during a time when capitalist cold war narratives were being used to mask patriarchal imperialist desires to bomb the rest of the world into subordination, she said no. Whilst attempts were being made to prevent healthcare access being given to the most vulnerable, she worked to improve healthcare for the people of her community. And whilst underfunded segregated schooling was continuing to damage communities, she worked to raise the bar for education standards.
Shirley was one of the baddest to ever do it.
Facing both the oppressive systems of both sexism and racism, she embodies what overcoming the odds looks like. With a message of hope, compassion and transformation, she left a mark that can never be erased. She made no attempts to appease the system of male, white domination to make them more comfortable with her presence. She was unapologetic and screamed for justice despite the costs.
Her resistance, rebellion and radicalism have often been underplayed. But for me, she will never be silenced. With her curly perm, clean-pressed blouse and eyes lifted to the skies, I see the magic that pulsed through the veins of our foremothers and continues to ignite women across the globe every single day.
As a black Caribbean woman from a similar background to Mrs. Chisholm, I know that anything is possible. I believe I can be anything and everything I want to be and I am reminded that I am always good enough to be in the room.
So Shirley, rest in power and thank you for your light.
Published December 21, 2016
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