Op-Ed

Hillary Clinton standing on the shoulders of Shirley Chisholm

Poster from Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign
Poster from Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign Smithsonian Museum

Hillary Clinton might not be the first woman to have her name placed into nomination at the Democratic Party’s convention, but she is the first in two generations.

In 1972, Shirley Chisholm — an early-childhood education teacher from Brooklyn — brought just over 150 delegates to the convention floor on the first ballot, making her the first woman and the first African-American to be entered into nomination for president for a major party.

Her delegate record was not broken by another woman until Clinton got about 1,000 delegate votes in 2008. Chisholm was the daughter of Caribbean immigrants from the heart of Brooklyn’s black and brown neighborhood, Bedford Stuyvesant. She had worked her way up through local Democratic politics to a New York State Assembly Seat in 1964 and then to a seat in Congress — the first black woman to do so.

Chisholm’s politics mirrored those of the black-freedom struggle and women’s-liberation movements she allied herself with. She criticized the Vietnam War on the grounds that it took resources away from needy Americans. She helped push the Equal Rights Amendment through Congress.

She got a bill that would have created universal child care through both houses, only to have it vetoed by President Richard Nixon. Such stances brought her a devoted following among a wide coalition of college students, black activists and women, and she decided to make a bid for the presidency.

She knew that victory was unlikely, but she undertook the fight so that she could bring pressure to bear on the Democratic Party’s platform.

Such a coalition didn’t hold together and, unsurprisingly, Chisholm did not win the nomination. George McGovern did, and went on to lose by a wide margin to Nixon.

But she had opened the door. Or had she?

Neither party has nominated a woman for president in the years since. Geraldine Ferraro was nominated for vice president a dozen years later by the Democrats; Sarah Palin was nominated for the same position by the Republicans in 2008 and Clinton made an unsuccessful bid for the presidency the same year.

Meanwhile, other nations have elected women heads of state: England, Germany, Switzerland, Brazil, Chile, Austria, Finland, Ireland, Malawi and Liberia, among others. Clearly, the gains of the 1970s stopped short of making Americans believe that women should live in the White House outside the role of first lady.

This will change this week, when Clinton will accept her party’s nomination for president of the United States. Why has she found success now? She has much in common with Chisholm: a willingness to forge ahead despite naysayers who don’t believe a woman’s place is in elected office; the imagination to believe that she can make a credible run; a focus on issues affecting children, women, and vulnerable citizens; and a refusal to be intimidated in general.

Like Chisholm, she sits at the head of a fragile coalition. But unlike Chisholm, she has held two high positions in the executive branch: first lady and secretary of state.

Speaking at her college commencement three years before Chisholm’s run, Clinton explained that “the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible.”

Chisholm accomplished that by making it to the 1972 convention. Now, women have spent 40 more years hard at work, building a political pipeline to the presidency. This time, it might lead all the way to the Oval Office.

Anastasia Curwood, a University of Kentucky associate professor of history and African American and Africana studies, is writing a biography of Shirley Chisholm.

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