Black Women’s Leadership in U.S. Politics, 09/24/2019, #4
Shirley Anita St Hill was born on November 30, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York. She spent part of her childhood living in Barbados with her maternal grandmother as her parents tried to secure financial stability in Brooklyn during the Depression. Eventually she reunited with her parents and attended public school in Brooklyn. Growing up, she cited the expectation placed on her and her sisters to become a “poised, modest, accomplished, educated and graceful, prepared to take our places in the world.” This expectation was placed by her mother, who also was the leader within the family unit – she was the one who was usually concerned with the family’s financial decisions and tried her best to shape her daughter’s social personas.
Forwarding to the 1940s, Shirley Chisholm decided that she would pursue a teaching career, after coming to the conclusion that there was no other road open to black women in other fields, such as law and medicine. “No matter how much I prepared myself, society wasn’t going to give me a chance to do much of anything else.” Early on, she was aware of the social limitations under which she was constrained. As she developed, however, she created her own style of leadership that tackled these constraints (at times to the detriment of herself), eventually allowing her to become the first black woman elected to the US Congress.
In “Writing Black Women into Political Leadership: Reflections, Trends and Contradictions”, Carole Boyce Davies notes that the rise of Black women to positions of power reflects decades of feminist, decolonialist, and civil rights activism, yet the path to these positions has become obscured, due to black women’s historic erasure in these processes. She cites Shirley Chisholm, among others, as a primary example of this erasure: someone who is usually not referenced in mainstream discussion of politics. This reflects the struggle of occupying intersections of identity, which Chisholm discusses a lot in her book. Nonetheless, there are valuable lessons to be learned from her political ascension and failures, particularly regarding her attitudes about existing white and male power structures.
Chisholm’s congressional campaign slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed”, was not just a political mantra. It was a system of operation, which she applied to many areas of her political career. One distinguished attribute about Shirley Chisholm is that she did not wait for people’s permission or support to take her own course of action. She was independent, outspoken, and maintained her integrity – this integral feature about her personality and leadership style was the source of tension in a lot of situations, but also contributed greatly to her successes. When gerrymandering opened the opportunity to run for New York’s newly carved black Twelfth District, Chisholm was unanimously selected by the citizen’s committee to be the nominee. She was also the only candidate who disagreed with them about some of their opinions and expectations during her interview. She indicates, “I did not go there with my hat in my hand, and that was what they liked.”
At the same time, Chisholm’s style of operation also posed challenges – especially in the black community. She highlights black men’s sensitivity about female domination, despite the fact that many homes in black neighborhoods are headed by women and the fact that no political organization could function without them. This can be attributed to the fact that submission is embedded into the experience of being a woman. This is compounded by the submission that black people are expected to display in white society: the same submission Chisholm observed in black men who sold themselves out to keep their political power. Any departure from these defined roles constitutes a violation of the social order (even in apparently progressive settings) and could result in the removal from political society altogether. One of Chisholm’s most commendable accomplishments is that she did not crack under this pressure: “I did not come to Congress to behave myself and stay away from explosive issues so I can keep coming back.” She knew the risks and was able to reconcile that she may potentially have short political career.
These experiences are what need to be emphasized in modern discussions about the progression of black female leadership. In “Writing Black Women into Political Leadership…”, Carole Boyce Davies phrased this as “moving beyond the visual, from seeing Black women in leadership, to the intellectual – hearing, reading, and understanding the ideas of Black women as creative and political subjects.” Though many black female political leaders, like Shirley Chisholm, were erased from political history, I am hopeful that we will learn to center them as impactful political leaders.
Carole Boyce Davies, “Writing Black Women into Political Leadership: Reflections, Trends and
Contradictions” in Black Women and International Law. Deliberate Interactions,
Movements and Actions. Ed. Jeremy I. Levitt. Cambridge University Press, 2015): 23-36
Chisholm, Shirley. Unbought and Unbossed. Washington, D.C.: Take Root Media, 2010.
Deborah George, “BLACK HISTORY MONTH: Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm,” MCSM Rampage, Feburary 2018. https://mcsmrampage.com/2018/02/black-history-month-congresswoman-shirley-chisholm/