More Than a First: Shirley Chisholm as a Feminist and a Symbol

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 1:30 PM
Governor's Square 15 (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Anastasia Curwood, University of Kentucky
This paper explores the poltical life behind the iconic feminist symbol of Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005).  Chisholm achieved several tremendous firsts: the first black New York assemblywoman from Brooklyn, the first black congresswoman and the first black and first female presidential candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. As such, she is invoked as a black and feminist pioneer by scholars, hip hop artists, politicians, activists, and teachers. However, the firsts framework depoliticizes and dehistoricizes Chisholm, despite the best intentions of those who invoke her. Chisholm’s biographical story uncovers a political career that was simultaneously radical and conventional. Chisholm was, it turns out, a "radical pragmatist," a bridge between activists and the state. She simultaneously allied with left leaning radicalism and established political processes. And, just as she confounded boundaries between activism and the state, she also drew connections between feminism and other movements. Her concerns, which emerged in large part from her standpoint as a black woman from a working-class immigrant family, encompassed all those who had limited access to political power.  Therefore she held what we now refer to as an intersectional perspective, and refused to isolate gender, race, or class from each other and from other categories. Her work necessitated coalitions within and across social movements and political structures. Her lack of respect for boundaries means that she is still strongly associated with both feminism and the black freedom struggle, as well as the New Left, but further study shows that she never really belonged to any of those movements. Rather, she had complicated, conflicting relationships with them, despite retrospective claims on her as a symbol and an icon.
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