Almost 40 years ago, Shirley Chisholm boldly declared her candidacy for president and changed the face of leadership by challenging the status quo. She once said, “I am, was, and always will be a catalyst for change.” She made an enormous impact on women (particularly Black women) and the way they perceived political power and leadership.
If she were alive today, November 30th would mark Chisholm’s 87th birthday. A daughter of immigrants – who not only aspired to transform her community but a nation – became the quintessential leader that inspired a generation of women to think and lead boldly.
As the first Black woman to serve in Congress, Chisholm planted a seed of political activism that transcended race inAmerica. Her legacy inspired leaders like Congresswoman Barbara Lee to run for office and created a coalition of women like journalist and political activist Gloria Steinem and Congresswoman Bella Abzug who believed that a woman could and should be president.
An outspoken feminist, Chisholm provided a comprehensive voice for women’s equality and civil rights. She fought tirelessly on the same issues that we as a nation are still grappling with – from the inequities in public education to unequal access to affordable health care.
More than three years before the Supreme Court’s historic Roe vs. Wade decision, Chisholm made what some would have considered political suicide and decided to take a very vocal role in the abortion debate. In 1968, she became the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws’ (NARAL) first honorary president joining her white counterparts by providing a Black woman’s perspective. She believed that her leadership on this politically-divisive and controversial issue would ensure that every woman had access to a full range of family planning services, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.
With just 341 days until the 2012 Presidential Election, the issue of choice continues to be a top-tier issue in federal and state elections. Earlier this month,Mississippi voters defeated a “Personhood Amendment”; a ballot initiative that sought to launch a legal challenge to abortion rights nationwide. Chisholm’s leadership on this issue was transformative when she lived and is still relevant today; not only inWashington,D.C. politics but across the country in urban and rural communities.
In addition to her tireless work on behalf of women’s equality, Chisholm worked to ensure that the most vulnerable among us (i.e., senior citizens, children, and those living below the poverty level) were protected. In her 1970 memoir Unbought and Unbossed, she wrote “Our representative democracy is not working because the Congress that is supposed to represent the voters does not respond to their needs.”
Chisholm’s decisions were never based on a re-election strategy. Rather, they were centered on the merit to advance sound public policy. Policymakers in Washington ought to be less concerned about approval numbers and the latest poll results and instead focus their attention on advancing the very policies that citizens across the country elected them to do.
There is a fast growing cancer that has paralyzed Congress with an increasingly partisan debate on healthcare, tax reform and the role of government. Washington should take a page out of Chisholm’s leadership manual and exercise the courage needed to boldly defeat the lackluster efforts of the status quo.
Chisholm believed that the key to an effective democracy rested in an engaged citizenry. Women have a pivotal role to play in not only the 2012 Election, but also in advancing progressive policy all year long. Chisholm once said, “At present, our country needs women’s idealism and determination, perhaps more in politics than anywhere else.”
What would Chisholm’s birthday wish be if she were still among us? One might think that she would still be “unbought and unbossed”, vibrantly leading the way for women to catalyze social, economic and political change for all.
Glynda C. Carr is a Principal at Liberty Street Capital, Inc. a New York based public affairs, community relations and political strategy consulting firm. In 2011, Ms. Carr co-founded Higher Heights for America a national organization focused on elevating Black women’s voices to shape and advance progressive policies and politics.