Shirley Chisholm was central to that fight. The first black woman elected to Congress and the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination for president, she spent her life pursuing social equality and justice.
The third episode of “Mrs. America,” released this week, focuses on Chisholm’s historic bid for president at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, with the spotlight on her unforgettable speaking style. Her deeply resonant voice and delivery were among her strongest assets. Her sentences were carefully cadenced, her intonation impeccable.
That speaking style derived, in part, from the Depression years when she and her two sisters were sent to live with their grandmother on a farm in Barbados while her parents remained in New York. Chisholm studied in a one-room schoolhouse, where she picked up a British education and that distinctive accent.
Later, as a politician, she used her voice to promote her powerful agenda. Here are four speeches by Chisholm on The Speaking While Female Speech Bank:
“Campaign Speech,” January 25, 1972 — Concord Baptist Church, Brooklyn NY
With this thunderous announcement, Chisholm became the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President, and the first woman to run for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination.
I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political policies or fat cats or special interests. . . . I am the candidate of the people of America, and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history.
“It’s Time to Reassess Our National Priorities,” March 26, 1969 — US House of Representatives, Washington DC
Chisholm’s “maiden” speech was a rhetorical thunderbolt delivered directly to President Nixon and her fellow legislators. She lashed out against the Vietnam War and vowed to vote “no” against any defense appropriation bill until the country got its priorities straight.
I wonder whether we cannot reverse our whole approach to spending. For years, we have given the military, the defense industry, a blank check. New weapons systems are dreamed up, billions are spent. . . . but with social programs, what do we do?
“Introducing the Equal Rights Amendment,” May 21, 1969 — US House of Representatives, Washington DC
First introduced in Congress in 1923, the Equal Rights Amendment was re-introduced each following year after that. In 1969, it was introduced yet again by Congresswoman Martha Griffiths (D-Michigan), and Chisholm used her voice to support it, beginning with this all-too-common story:
When a young woman graduates from college and starts looking for a job, she is likely to have a frustrating and even demeaning experience ahead of her. If she walks into an office for an interview, the first question she will be asked is, “Do you type?”
“For the Equal Rights Amendment,” August 10, 1970 — US House of Representatives, Washington DC
The following year, Chisholm spoke again to her fellow Representatives, arguing that the US Constitution, written without input from the nation’s founding mothers or founding fathers of color, is an incomplete document.
The Constitution they wrote was designed to protect the rights of white, male citizens. As there were no black Founding Fathers, there were no founding mothers — a great pity, on both counts. It is not too late to complete the work they left undone. Today, here, we should start to do so.
“Discrimination Against Women,” July 1, 1970 — Special SubCommittee of the Committee on Education and Labor, Washington DC
As Chisholm shows in this Congressional testimony, she well understood the barriers she faced because her race and gender — but she did not perceive them as equal handicaps.
During my entire political life, my sex has been a far greater handicap than my skin pigmentation. From my earliest experience in ward political activity my chief obstacle was that I had to break through the role men assign women.
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