Shirley Chisholm’s historic presidential run helped lead to this moment

Sen. Kamala Harris’s nomination for vice president marks a historic first. As Joe Biden’s running mate, Harri

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Sen. Kamala Harris’s nomination for vice president marks a historic first.

As Joe Biden’s running mate, Harris is the first Black woman and the first South Asian American woman to be named a vice presidential nominee on a major-party ticket.

In a speech announcing her candidacy, she acknowledged the legacies of the women who’ve run in the past. “Joe, I’m so proud to stand with you,” Harris said Wednesday. “And I do so mindful of all the heroic and ambitious women before me whose sacrifice, determination, and resilience makes my presence here today even possible.”

Harris’s nomination follows the groundbreaking efforts of several women who’ve pursued the presidency including Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to run in 1972 for the Democratic nomination; Patsy Mink, the first Asian American woman to do so that same year, and Hillary Clinton, the first woman to win a major-party nomination in 2016. (Harris is the third woman to be on a major-party ticket as vice president, along with Sarah Palin in 2008 and Geraldine Ferraro in 1984.)

Miami University history professor Tammy Brown sees Chisholm’s candidacy in particular — and the intersectional policies she promoted — serving as a key milestone that led to this moment.

“She bridged so many different constituencies and she was an excellent model of the power of grassroots campaigns,” Brown told Vox.

In 1968, Chisholm was the first Black woman to win a seat in Congress, and four years later, she ran for the Democratic presidential nomination against Sen. George McGovern, pushing a platform focused on racial and gender equity.

“In the end, anti-black, anti-female, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing: anti-humanism,” Chisholm wrote in her book, Unbought and Unbossed, which was titled after a campaign slogan she used to signal independence from party bosses. Harris, during her presidential run in 2019, honored Chisholm in her own campaign messaging as well.

Brown spoke with Vox about how Chisholm’s challenges with sexism and racism mirror those that many candidates continue to face and how the effects of her run for the presidency continue to be felt today. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Li Zhou

When you look at the history of women running for president, what milestones stand out to you?

Tammy Brown

The most famous woman to seriously run for president, historically, before Hillary Clinton — the first name that comes to mind is Shirley Chisholm in 1972.

But, there are [less] famous women, like Victoria Woodhull who ran for president in 1872, who get lost in the historical record. I think they get lost in the historical record for several reasons: [In Woodhull’s case], 1872 is so far ahead of even women getting the right to vote and that campaign for suffrage.

Li Zhou

How do you see Shirley Chisholm’s candidacy leading to this moment?

Tammy Brown

I was hoping I would hear more acknowledgment of Shirley Chisholm’s contributions when President Barack Obama ran for the Democratic Party nomination because I believe she paved the way for him. I was also hoping I would hear more discussion of Chisholm when Hillary Clinton ran for president because she also paved the way for her.

Chisholm is best known out of the women who’ve tried to gain the candidacy for president, I think, because of two main reasons. One, her fierce intellect and her oratorical skills. She could give a speech. She could bring the house down. And I think because she was so smart, and also persuasive, she got attention.

Another reason, I think, is literally the historical moment. So, being in the right place at the right time.

At the start of her political career, the African American civil rights movement and various institutions within it, they are gaining momentum, as well as the National Organization for Women, which supported Chisholm. The organization is predominately white women, so there was criticism when she accepted the endorsement of the Black Panther Party. Her rationale was that she wanted to receive support from anyone who would support her.

Because of that historical moment, she was able to reach a cross-section of constituents like no other woman had before.

One thing that’s not well-known about Shirley Chisholm is that she’s actually of Caribbean descent. So, her parents are from Barbados, and she’s very proud of her Caribbean ancestry.

When people think of Shirley Chisholm, often they think of her as Black American, but her Caribbean heritage really reveals the diversity within Blackness — cultural, ethnic diversity that is too often lost. And she capitalized on that diversity to gain support.

So she had support from Caribbean immigrants in New York when she ran for office and when she ran for president in 1972. She had support from immigrants across various backgrounds including Italian immigrants and Polish immigrants. She had support from white American women because of her feminist politics. She had support from working-class African Americans because of her commitment to working-class people. She had support from mothers and women across racial lines because of her commitment to education.

She bridged so many different constituencies and she was an excellent model of the power of grassroots campaigns because she would meet people in their homes and meet them where they were. She knew her candidacy would pave the way for future candidates of color and women.

Li Zhou

What are the policies that Chisholm was best known for?

Tammy Brown

She was committed to improvements in child care access for working mothers and greater educational opportunities for all Americans, especially women.

In a 2002 interview, Chisholm said she was most proud of her work to increase the minimum wage for domestic workers and her work to make scholarships available for female college athletes.

When she first entered Congress, the powers that be tried to force her to serve on a forestry committee, but Chisholm refused because her constituents lived in an urban area and had very different concerns.

She often joked that perhaps she was assigned to that committee because someone had read the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but her serious and determined demand to be moved to a committee that better suited her constituents should not be understated.

She courageously confronted deeply entrenched racism and sexism in Congress and paved the way for representatives of color and women to this day.

Li Zhou

How did you see Shirley Chisholm confront the sexism and racism she faced?

Tammy Brown

There was one story she told involving another older white male Congressman. Every time he saw her in the hallway, he would confront her and say, “I basically can’t believe that you’re making the same amount of money I make.” And what he was implying is, “Why in the world should a woman, and a black woman at that, make the same amount of money?”

He did this so many times that she finally said, “Any time you see me” — I think she used the word “vanish” — “Any time you see me, don’t say anything to me, just walk away, I don’t want to hear you repeat this again, I don’t want to see you.” It was a way of her very directly saying, “I’m here and I’m here to stay,” and, “I do make the same money as you,” and, “Deal with it.”

She famously said in her lifetime that sexism was worse than racism [in politics], and she talked about the sexism she experienced from Black men, including Black men in the Congressional Black Caucus.

She felt that the Congressional Black Caucus ultimately did not support her bid for the presidency in 1972 because of sexism. They said things like “Well, at the end of the day, we have to support the candidate that’s actually electable and we know you can’t get elected.”

So, that hurt her feelings because underneath that statement, she understood that to mean, “Well, we don’t think a woman is ready to serve.” Keep in mind this was a complicated issue: There were some Black men politicians who supported her and others who didn’t.

Li Zhou

Are there parallels you see in the sexist and racist treatment that Shirley Chisholm faced and the attacks that are being used against Kamala Harris now?

Tammy Brown

There are some similarities and some differences.

In the 1970s, 1972, of course there were racist whites who outright said they didn’t want a Black person elected, there were sexist people who said they didn’t want a woman elected.

But because it was the first time they had seen a woman make such a serious bid to become president — there had been previous women who ran, but Shirley Chisholm was the one, the first woman to gain a significant number of delegates at the Democratic National Convention — and I think, in some ways, white women, Black women, white men, Black men, Asian, Latino people, they just admired her gumption, they admired her audacity.

But let’s add to that, in 1972, those who might feel threatened by her just knew she didn’t have a chance to win. So they saw her as this symbolic, audacious outlier who would not win, so she wasn’t a threat.

Today, I think the difference is two-fold. We’re living in a post-Obama age and a current-Trump age that has brought racism and sexism to the surface like never before since the 1980s. Since the election of Donald Trump and his tendency to appeal to his base in a way with quite hateful, with destructive language about immigrants, about Black people, about women, it’s really stoked a type of racism and sexism that was more covert, that’s becoming overt again.

I think we are seeing, in an ironic way, a lot more overt racism and sexism against Kamala Harris compared to Shirley Chisholm, even though you might think it would have been the opposite because Chisholm ran in 1972 right after the civil rights movement.

But because Chisholm was not seen as a candidate who could win, people did not perceive her as a true threat. Now, because of the political work that Chisholm did — and other Black women in politics and women of color in politics, from Patsy Mink to Carol Moseley Braun, because of all that groundwork that’s been laid — now that a Black woman is truly on the ticket as a vice presidential candidate for a major party, I think you’re seeing this ugly, overt racism and sexism because people fear, “Oh, they can win.”

Li Zhou

How do you think Biden and Harris should respond to sexist and racist attacks?

Tammy Brown

I think that’s a tricky issue. On the one hand, a good characteristic of leadership is to always have your eyes open and to acknowledge the truth and the ugliness of what’s going on around you because it shows you are aware and have the strength to persevere.

On the other hand, it would be a total waste of her time for Kamala Harris to respond to every racist, sexist attack or comment directed at her. I think of this famous quote by the brilliant novelist, Toni Morrison. She has this quote in which she says, “Racism wastes your time.”

So if you’re an African American intellectual and you spend all of your time trying to prove your intelligence and your worthiness and your dignity, you could write an opus, and a white, racist person could read that book and still think you’re inferior, so what a waste of time, right?

This idea that racism wastes our time when we could be doing important work, that is the approach I’m leaning toward. If there’s something egregious and so huge and central of an attack on her character, if someone is mischaracterizing her political record and you can tell that mischaracterization is rooted in sexism and racism, I think she should set people straight. But more importantly, I think she needs to be forward-thinking and moving and focused on solutions for this country right now.

Li Zhou

Why do you think the US has not had a Black woman as president or vice president until this point?

Tammy Brown

My short answer is America has not yet had a Black woman president or vice president because of the racism and sexism that still persist in this country.

Systemic racism and sexism have contributed to the low number of Black women who served in politics on all levels. However, in the past few years, especially since Trump’s election, we’ve witnessed a record number of women of color run for political office.

Li Zhou

What is your reaction to former Vice President Joe Biden’s selection of the first Black woman to serve as VP?

Tammy Brown

It’s 2020, it’s about time. On the one hand, I’m happy he made the commitment, but on the other hand, I’m not doing somersaults because it’s 2020.

I keep hearing the phrase “representation matters.” I agree. But for me, it’s deeper than representation. When we’re talking about politics, when we’re talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion at universities, when we’re talking about the entertainment industry, it’s more than just representation.

The problem that I have with that idea is that the way that people talk about representation sounds so superficial, as if it’s a concept that’s literally and figuratively skin-deep, the idea that if we have a Black woman, it looks good. Beyond saying representation matters, I say presence matters, meaning what is this candidate’s character, what is this candidate’s personality in terms of her ability to negotiate for the good of the poor and working-class Americans — especially during a pandemic that’s exacerbating long-standing racial health disparities.

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