An Analysis of the Life and Work of Shirley Chisholm
In light of the fact that black feminism has gained more of a voice in the last few decades it is important to remember the people who first brought the plight of the black woman, specifically, to the forefront of national public and political discourse. One of these women was Shirley Chisholm. She was the first black member of the New York State Assembly and the United States House of Representatives. Many black women may not have regarded her ventures into the political realm as wise, her voice was could have been dampened by the need to remain diplomatic, because she could have done more good advocating the cause as just an activist. But, Chisholm used her platform to change the way many, both black and white, viewed African-American women. Her personal story was one of rising to great heights despite the challenges that she had to deal with, and she was not cowed by the discouragement she received from many quarters. This essay looks at how Shirley Chisholm promoted the ideas of black feminism and black nationalism via the platform she established, and secondarily how the work of Patricia Collins has affected a personal journey of critical thinking.
Shirley Chisholm was a strong leader in the black feminist movement, but she was that more for her actions than for her presence. Many described her as "unassuming" (Lynch, 2005), but she was a force for black women, something Congress had never witnessed before. She advocated for civil rights in way that was foreign to many, even liberal black male, members of Congress. Her fight was for the goals of the feminist movement which were equality for all people who are oppressed no matter the reason (Collins, 2006, 190). The main way that this focus differs from that of white feminists is that black women "reject not the ideas of feminism but the label of feminism" (Collins, 2006, 190). This means that while white feminists are concerned with becoming independent from what they believe is oppression perpetrated by white males, black women look at it as not a fight between genders, but more as a fight to be relevant as an individual. Since black women are among the most marginalized people in American society, they can see the difficulties of all people who are oppressed and the goal of black feminism is then to help all oppressed people no matter their color or creed.
Chisholm was primarily an advocate of education for the oppressed classes of people who had not been allowed, by edict or poverty, to get a good education in the past. She did not just stand for the education of black women, but for black men as well. Her early career, and her college degrees, were in education. A short biography of her life gives the following timeline of her activities prior to entering politics:
"1943: Received B.A. degree cum laude in sociology from Brooklyn College…946-1953: Nursery school teacher in Metropolitan New York City area. Also director of Friends Day Nursery in Brownsville, New York…1952: Received M.A. In education from Columbia University. 1953 -1959: Director of Hamilton Madison Child Care Center in lower Manhattan. 1957: Received Alumna of Year Award from Brooklyn College. Outstanding Work in Field of Child Welfare Award received from Women's Council of Brooklyn. 1959 -1964: Educational consultant in Division of Day Care of New York City's Bureau of Child Welfare" (Hill, 1993).
It is no surprise that her educational achievements, both personal and as a teacher, are impressive, but it is a surprise that she, a black woman, was so lauded for her efforts at the time she achieved them. She was a well-educated woman who could have chosen to leave behind the realities of the neighborhoods she grew up in for "greener pastures" in suburban schools, but she chose instead to be a force for black education.
Her educational attainments are also noteworthy because she was not just acting in the traditional role of a feminist, trying to advance the cause of women to the exclusion of all else, she was an advocate for men and women who needed an education. Her special focus was children. In the forward to her book "Unbought and Unbossed" it is said that "By changing the way America thought about women, minorities, and poor children, she changed the course of our nation's history" (Chisholm, 1970, xiii). Her close alignment with black feminist goals was also demonstrated in an article printed just after her death regarding her run for president in 1972. Chisholm said "I do not want to be remembered as the first black woman elected to Congress. I do not want to be remembered even as the first to run for president. I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the 20th century. That is what I want" (Lynch, 2005). This goal sets her apart from the many feminists who have a legacy of feminism. The fact that she wanted change for all levels of oppressed people through education and by demonstrating what can be achieved is the primary legacy of Shirley Chisholm.
She was also distinct from white feminists in that she was willing to work with black men to achieve her goals. However, this is not surprising because this is also a feature of black feminism that separates it from traditional feminist thought. Although men were included in marches and campaigns for traditional feminism, these men were regarded with suspicion. In the case of black feminists, they realized that the major oppressor was not racism but the fact that they were not recognized at all. Patricia Collins (2006) makes the statement that black men are the face of the black race. She says that "white women have trouble seeing black women as agents of culture and community; back men do not want to admit that black women are effective agents of culture and community" (Collins, 2006, 148). Thus, the women in the black community worked with black men as much as possible, but they also realized that they did not have to. Black men did not give meaning to "their' females, the women achieved there meaning the from a belief in who they were. This message in the accomplishments of Shirley Chisholm who, despite being married twice, did not depend in any way in her husband s to define who she was.
Collins writes that the black feminist movement was also part and parcel with black nationalism. She writes
"Historically, because African-American women lived racially segregated lives, black feminism found expression within the confines of black community politics. This meant that African-American feminism had a dialectical and synergistic relationship with black nationalism as a "Black National Feminism" or a "Black Feminist Nationalism" (Collins, 2006, 12).
This identification meant that these women believed that they were members of both movements, and the their cultural, economic and political goals were the same. Basically this was to share the same American Dream that all were promised and that they realized was denied to them. Collins (2006, 4) states that
"The vision of American democracy is remarkable -- namely, a belief in the equal treatment of each individual citizen over differential group treatment; the guarantee of basic fairness in jobs, education, housing, and consumer marketplaces; and the promise that, if one works hard, one can have a promising future."
The problem, she says is that these are not truisms for the average African-American. Thus, the reason for the black nationalist movement. And the fact that this has not materialized for many black families is the reason that black nationalist feminism has taken such extensive roots. Since the black feminist is very interested in the welfare of her community (and to a large extent the welfare of the African-American community as a whole), she has a greater vested interest in reaching for that dream by whatever means necessary. Whereas the black nationalists that are male have historically fought against the people they deem are oppressors, the black feminist finds ways around the oppression and improves her community's lot.
This also coincides with Collins' thoughts and Chisholm's actions on the part of the African-American role in community building. This was a central part of Shirley Chisholm's life. She was dismayed that when black people began to move in large numbers from the South to the city's in the North, they did not act like other immigrant people and build distinctive communities from which they could grow (Chisholm, 1970, 36). The people were more comfortable in the roles that had been established for them in society, and they "were passive and accommodating in the face of discrimination" (Chisholm, 1970, 36). The reason Chisholm advocated for community building on the part of all members of the African-American community was that there was no established community. Instead of having people who supported one another, there were factions of blacks who were trying to tear one another…
I have been volunteering lately with a church called Rod of God Ministries. I asked the Rod of God what they needed from me and they responded frankly with some embarrassment.
"We need someone to clean our toilets."
At first I thought the man was joking. Surely he took one look at me and did not see me with a toothbrush scrubbing toilet bowls. When he did not laugh, I knew