Years ago I was sitting in the St. Louis airport when I heard a unique and familiar voice. Not sure whose voice I was remembering, I began to look around. My heart started to pound when I identified it and saw the little woman to whom it belonged. It was the voice of my idol and heroine, Shirley Chisholm. For those too young to remember, Mrs. Chisholm was the first black woman to be elected to Congress, in 1968, and one could not meet a more outspoken, honest, brave and effective politician.
I couldnt believe my eyes, so I stared at her. She became aware of me and knowing I was truly trying to identify her, put her newspaper down enough for me to get a good, long look. Finally I got up and moved slowly towards her because I didnt want to scare her. I simply asked if she was Shirley Chisholm and then, with a red face and almost in tears from excitement, I told her I had read her book, Unbought and Unbossed, and thought she was wonderful. Then I turned around and went back to my seat. How uncharacteristic of me- I couldnt talk.
Shirley Chisholms voice was high with a clipped and almost British accent. She came by it naturally, being the daughter of a father who came from Guyana and mother from Barbados. Her father was an unskilled laborer in a burlap bag factory and her mother a maid. Mrs. Chisholm, although having no fear of anyone or of expressing her opinion, was always a lady, dressed primly and wore high-heeled shoes.
She died on New Years Day, 2005.
After fighting the Democrat power structure in the tough Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, she was elected to be a State Assemblywoman in 1964, then Congress in 1968. "Another lesson I learned," she said, "was that if you decide to operate on the basis of your conscience, rather than your political advantage, you must be ready for consequences and not complain when you suffer them."
She continued, "There is little place in the political scheme of things for an independent, creative personality, for a fighter."
Mrs. Chisholm said her biggest hurdle in getting support from her political party was not being black, but being a woman. She was expected to make the coffee and sandwiches at the political meetings, not express her opinion or rock the boat. She even wrote speeches and answers to expected questions for male candidates. She finally decided to speak for herself.
When Mrs. Chisholm got to Congress for her first of seven terms, she was treated poorly by her own party members. As a representative from Brooklyn, she was assigned to the Agriculture Committee. She declined. Paul Greenberg of the Florida Today newspaper remembers her asking, why in the name of good sense would a Congresswoman from urban New York be assigned to the House Agriculture Committee? Greenbergs column recalls that aging speaker of the House, John McCormack, told her to "be a good soldier, go along; get along, all that guff. She raised some parliamentary hell," wrote Greenberg.
"Apparently all they know about Brooklyn," she complained, "is that a tree grew there." She was re-assigned to Veterans Affairs.
Chisholm moved up to the powerful Education and Labor Committee when she backed Hale Boggs for House majority leader. In 1972 she decided she didnt like the choice of Richard Nixon or George McGovern for President so she became a candidate and won 152 delegates before she withdrew.
Even though Mrs. Chisholm was feisty and independent, she worked well with her colleagues and had their respect. She didnt care about being popular. As a result, she was.
Always active in promoting the rights of minorities, Chisholm visited Alabama governor and segregationist George Wallace in the hospital after an assassination attempt. He said to her, "What are your people going to say?" She responded, "I know what they are going to say. But I wouldnt want what happened to you to happen to anyone." She later recalled, "He cried and cried."
Shirley Chisholm retired from the House in 1983. She told voters, "My greatest asset, which professional politicians fear, is my mouth, out of which comes all kinds of things one shouldnt always discuss for reasons of political expediency."
At her funeral, U.S. Representative Julia Carson, D-Indiana said, "Perhaps if there was not a Shirley Chisholm, I would not be a member of the United States Congress. She just did what was right and that is rare among politicians." Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes-Norton said, "She stood up and was the very first to make people understand that we were both black and women and we should own up to being both."
As for me, the life and example of Shirley Chisholm continues to give me the strength and direction to be a woman in politics.
Caroline Porter is a freelance writer and was the first woman on the Knox County Board in 1973.