Shirley Chisholm

Women in Politics - Feb. 9, 1973

Shirley Chisholm
February 09, 1973— Houston, Texas
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This speech was delivered at the National Women's Political Caucus Convention, in Houston, Texas, on February 9, 1973.

When it was arranged that I should speak to you today, Liz Carpenter wrote me a note and suggested my speech should be, “Can a Woman Become President?” Knowing Liz, she probably thought this would be a wonderful occasion for me to exhort an audience of potential candidates to plan their own onslaughts on the pinnacle of elective office.

As I look back on the past year and a half, I think my campaign did help to break the harrier against women seeking the presidency and other elective offices but, my experiences also made me acutely aware of some of the problems women candidates face as well as particular problems which the women's movement, and especially the National Women's Political Caucus, must face up to.

One of my biggest problems was that my campaign was viewed as a symbolic gesture. While I realized that my campaign was an important rallying symbol for women and that my presence in the race forced the other candidates to deal with issues relating to women, my primary objective was to force people to accept me as a real viable candidate.

Although many have compared my race to that of Victoria Woodhull, I specifically rejected that comparison. Mrs. Woodhull was a feminist candidate running on a feminist party platform. I specifically rejected this feminist candidacy as I did the projection of myself into a black candidacy or an antiwar candidacy, I chose to run for the nomination of one of the major national parties.

I did this because I feel that the time for tokenism and symbolic gestures is past. Women need to plunge into the world of politics and battle it out toe to toe on the same ground as their male counterparts. If they do not do this, they will not succeed as a presidential candidate or in any other campaign for political office.

First and foremost, it is essential that you believe in yourself and your ability to handle the job you are seeking. If you don't, it is difficult to persuade others to support you. While pretty obvious to anyone who has run for office, I found that the press, the public, and even those in the women's movement found it difficult to understand this key point. Over and over in the campaign, I was asked, “But why are you running, Mrs. Chisholm?” Over and over I would reply, “Because I think I can do the job,” “Because I think I am better than the rest of the candidates in the field.”

One of the stumbling blocks I encountered was the fact that many people, including feminists, thought that since I “didn't have a chance” it was foolish to work for me.

For those who genuinely preferred another candidate, one can have no quarrel. But for those who thought I was the best candidate but chose to work for someone else because they viewed my campaign as hopeless, they will need to reexamine their thinking for truly, no woman will ever achieve the presidency as long as their potential supporters hold this view.

As the effect of the Wallace phenomenon in this last election points out, a campaign becomes truly effective when those who believe in their candidate pull out all the stops.

One of the other most difficult problems I faced was that many of my wonderful women's movement supporters did not understand that I both wanted and needed to talk about issues other than equal rights, abortion and child care. As you know, I am a strong supporter of all of these issues but in a campaign, there is a great deal of other ground to cover. Senior citizens don't really give a hang about abortion and homosexuals are more concerned with their own situation than the status of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Further, and this is critical to the discussion we will enter into at this convention, different women view different segments of the women's movement agenda as priority items.

The movement has, for the most part, been led by educated white middle-class women. There is nothing unusual about this. Reform as movements are usually led by the better educated and better off. But, if the women's movement is to be successful you must recognize the broad variety of women there are and the depth and range of their interests and concerns. To black and Chicano women, picketing a restricted club or insisting on the title Ms. are not burning issues. They are more concerned about bread-and-butter items such as the extension of minimum wage, welfare reform and day care.

Further, they are not only women but women of color and thus are subject to additional and sometimes different pressures.

For example, the black experience in America has not been one of unbridled success for black men. Indeed, there have been times when discrimination and the economic situation were such that it was easier for a black woman to get a job than her husband. Because of this, anything that might be construed as anti-male will be viewed skeptically by a black woman.

Indeed this is a problem not only for black women but most women.

If this caucus is to have a real impact, we must have a broad base and appeal to the average woman.

Unfortunately, the movement is currently perceived as anti-male, anti-child, and antifamily.

Part of this is bad press. The media does not concentrate on the blue-haired lady in pearls testifying on behalf of the equal employment opportunities bill. It trains its eyes on the young girl shaking her first and screaming obscenities at an abortion rally.

Part of it is that many of the leaders of the movement have down-graded traditional roles in their attempts to show abuses and to affirm the right of a woman to have a choice of roles to play.

Finally, there have been excesses. Not all sexual advances are sexist. Children are more than a pile of dirty diapers, and families while they have often restricted women, have also provided warmth, security, and love.

If we are to succeed in uniting ourselves and in attracting the typical woman who is likely to be a housewife and mother who likes living in suburbia, we are going to have to make a concerted effort to articulate issues so that everyone will want to be identified with and active in the movement.

With this in mind, the function of the National Women's Political Caucus is not to be the cutting edge of the women's liberation movement but the big umbrella organization which provides the weight and muscle for those issues which the majority of women see as concerns.

One of the critical items on the convention agenda is to put the National Women's Political Caucus on a sound financial basis. I don't know if you realize it or not but most of the time the women in our national office have to pay for the privilege of being screamed at, accused of doing things without authorization, or not doing enough. Yet, in a real sense these gals are the Caucus. They get the mailings out, they do the nitty grittying of organizing meetings and conventions. Most of the time they work long hours and are lucky to get reimbursed for carfare. If we accuse others of ripping off and abusing women, we should begin by rectifying our own house.

It is time we rose above the cake sale mentality of financing. In this country we spend $6.4 billion on cosmetics. If we can spend that much on our faces, we can spend ten dollars a year for a membership fee—that is less than one dollar a month. Newsletters are also an enormous expense and should be put on some kind of paying basis.

Finally, we should set aside money to hire one full-time paid legislative lobbyist for the Caucus, and set up legislative lobbying leaders in every state and major subdivision. What is the point of having a National Women's Political Caucus and working at electing women to office if we ignore the simplest and most obvious methods of effecting this political process—that of lobbying? Without this we will lose everything we have gained. Right now the Equal Rights Amendment is stalled in the ratification process. Without effective lobbying, it will die after over a half a century of effort. The minimum wage bill, which affects a vast number of women was killed last year for a want of five votes to send it to conference committee. The National Women's Political Caucus could provide the margin of votes necessary for passage. After we passed a child care bill, the President vetoed it saying that day-care centers were destructive to families. The White I louse needs to know this is a vital issue for women all over America and that we disagree.

Another issue this convention must grapple with is the form and format of this organization and the composition of the new policy council. I, for one, believe that the Caucus will never be completely effective unless we develop a strong grass roots organization.

As I traveled around the country, I met hundreds of bright, capable, articulate women. These are the people who ought to be projected into the positions of authority and leadership.

We don't need any more of the “superstar” syndrome. Indeed, I am sure that Betty, Gloria, and Bella are as sick of seeing their faces as I am of seeing mine. What we need is to thrust new people into the limelight and to show the range and breadth of talent among women all over the nation.

I, therefore, propose that you do not place my name in nomination for the policy council and I hope that the others in the policy council, who are in the same position, will do likewise. This does not mean breaking our association with the Caucus. You can establish some sort of honorary advisory council or hall of fame or something and we can remain “on call” when we are needed but, what is necessary now are new faces.

In closing, I would like to make one observation: normally our meetings go on endlessly with much shouting, haranguing, grandstanding, and discussion of extraneous issues. Could we all try to be respectful and understanding of each other's views, concise, to the point, and mindful of the clock.

Chisholm, Shirley. 1973. "Women In Politics1." In Katie Keeran (Ed.), The Reference Shelf: American Political Speeches. Salem Press.