On Women’s History Month, books about Shirley Chisholm and by Stacey Abrams, The Boston Sunday Globe
March 27, 2022
Fifty years ago, Shirley Chisholm announced her candidacy for president of the United States. The response was widely, unalterably dismissive. A woman president? A Black president? Neither idea flew. Combined, they were as earthbound as a Christmas goose.
That was then. Today, watching Vice President Kamala Harris stride across various stages can feel unremarkable. Nor does it seem strange that by last autumn, seven Black women were serving as the mayors of large US cities (Atlanta, San Francisco, New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, Charlotte, and Washington, D.C.). None of it would have happened without Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first, and sole, Black woman elected to Congress. (The current Congress seated 26.)
If the story of Black women in politics suddenly seems writ large, the long version nevertheless remains under-chronicled. The shelves still have room for a full-fledged biography of Chisholm, for instance. And maybe it figures: Throughout her career, she had to do most things for herself.
Her 1970 memoir, “Unbought and Unbossed,” describes a domineering wisp of a child with roots in Barbados and drive to spare. After completing Brooklyn College, Chisholm worked in the fields of child welfare and early education. She would become a consistent champion of investing in human capital.
In “The Good Fight” (1973), which describes her presidential run, Chisholm brings a fractious time back to life. Decrying the incivility of the era, she recalls how some congressional debates (school busing among them) would leave her feeling physically ill.
Nor did she always feel safe. When segregationist candidate George Wallace was shot, she so feared retaliation that she considered leaving the race. Instead she visited her rival for the Democratic nomination in the hospital. She notes that Wallace wept at the sight of her.
She came to understand that she and Wallace both spoke for people who felt dispossessed and alienated, an insight that will resonate for many readers amid today’s populist clashes.
Chisholm insisted that she was not running as a woman candidate or a Black candidate but as a person broadly focused on the nation’s well-being. Despite the disdain she endured, she won 152 delegates in the first round of convention voting. As she would write, she did in fact know she had no chance — the presidency was for white men. Nevertheless, she ran “because someone had to do it first.”
If Shirley Chisholm seemed an unlikely trailblazer, it may be because so many who toiled before her seldom made it into the record. That has been changing thanks to books such as “Vanguard: How Black Women Broke Barriers, Won the Vote, and Insisted on Equality for All.” Written by Martha S. Jones, it positions itself as a new history of African American women’s political lives.
As early as the 1830s, Jones notes, free Black women in the north were organizing conventions and debating issues such as the abolition of slavery. Already some were questioning men’s expectation that they confine themselves to the role of helpmeet. Particularly striking is the example of Jarena Lee, a Philadelphia woman who felt called to preach and did, defying the traditional hierarchy of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
In fact, as Jones argues, much of Black women’s activism can be traced to the organizing work they first did within and through the church. Particularly with respect to suffrage, efforts to broaden their rights did not always align with white women’s. Even once the 19th Amendment had passed, too many Black women encountered the same barriers to voting as Black men. In the 20th century, they shaped a new movement linking women’s rights to civil rights.
If too few names that Jones mentions are familiar, the same cannot be said of Stacey Abrams, whose 2018 run for Georgia governor lifted her to national prominence. Abrams’s noteworthiness rests as much on her phenomenal efforts to expand the vote as her bid to become the nation’s first Black woman governor.
Inspired by Martin Luther King’s emphasis on the importance of voter registration, Abrams began a drive of her own while still in college. In “Our Time Is Now,” she lays out the multiple ways in which voter suppression is taking place, and increasing.
Abrams notes that after the governor’s race went to former secretary of state Brian Kemp, her campaign received more than 80,000 complaints alleging suppression. Prior to the election, she asserts, Kemp self-servingly suspended 53,000 registrations. She has since sued, and is running for a rematch in 2022.
Georgia is not alone. In many states, new rules have made it harder to register and, once on the rolls, to stay there. Absentee ballots are more easily thrown out, and polling sites have been closed. Abrams fears that suppression methods, combined, will ultimately discourage participation. Her book offers a guide for those who would fight back.