Chisholm '72

PBS Premiere: Feb. 7, 2005Check the broadcast schedule »

Excerpt: Chisholm's Memoir

On Women

On Women

Women's movement march from early 1970sIn the 91st Congress, I am a sponsor of the perennial Equal Rights Amendment, which has been before every Congress for the last forty years but has never passed the House. It would outlaw any discrimination on the basis of sex. Men and women would be completely equal before the law. But laws will not solve deep-seated problems overnight. Their use is to provide shelter for those who are most abused, and to begin an evolutionary process by compelling the insensitive majority to reexamine its unconscious attitudes.

Women's movement march in support of the Equal Rights AmendmentThe law cannot do the major part of the job of winning equality for women. Women must do it themselves. They must become revolutionaries. Against them is arrayed the weight of centuries of tradition, from St. Paul's "Let women learn in silence" to the American adage, "A woman's place is in the home." Women have been persuaded of their own inferiority; too many of them believe the male fiction that they are emotional, illogical, unstable, inept with mechanical things, and lack leadership ability.

The best defense against this slander is the same one blacks have found. While they were ashamed of their color, it was an albatross hanging around their necks. They freed themselves from that dead weight by picking up their blackness and holding it out proudly for all the world to see. They found their own beauty and turned their former shame into their badge of honor. Women should perceive that the negative attitudes they hold toward their own femaleness are the creation of an antifeminist society, just as the black shame at being black was the product of racism. Women should start to replace their negative ideas of the femininity with positive ones affirming their nature more and more strongly.

Women's movement march from early 1970sIt is not female egotism to say that the future of mankind may very well be ours to determine. It is a fact. The warmth, gentleness, and compassion that are part of the female stereotype are positive human values, values that are becoming more and more important as the values of our world begin to shatter and fall from our grasp. The strength of Christ, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King was a strength of gentleness, understanding, and compassion, with no element of violence in it. It was, in short, a female strength, and that is the kind that often marks the highest type of man.

If we reject our restricted roles, we do not have to reject these values of femaleness. They are enduring values, and we must develop the capacity to hold them and to dispense them to those around us. We must become revolutionaries in the style of Gandhi and King. Then, working toward our own freedom, we can help the others work free from the traps of their stereotypes. In the end, antiblack, antifemale, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing — antihumanism. The values of life must be maintained against the enemies in every guise. We can do it by confronting people with their own humanity and their own inhumanity whenever we meet them, in the streets, in school, in church, in bars, in the halls of legislatures. We must reject not only the stereotypes that others have of us but also those we have of ourselves and others.

Chisholm speaking at a Women's Political Caucus meetingIn particular, I am certain that more and more American women must become involved in politics. It could be the salvation of our nation. If there were more women in politics, it would be possible to start cleaning it up. Women I have known in government have seemed to me to be much more apt to act for the sake of a principle or moral purpose. They are not as likely as men to engage in deals, manipulations, and sharp tactics. A larger proportion of women in Congress and every other legislative body would serve as a reminder that the real purpose of politicians is to work for the people.

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The ERA was written by suffragist Alice
Paul in 1923 and had been submitted to congress for consideration every year
until it was finally passed in 1972. It failed to pass 2/3 of the states to become
an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. [Learn more about the struggle for women's
rights in this helpful
from NOW with Bill Moyers.]

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The woman who gets into politics will find that the men who are already there will treat her as the high school counselor treats girls. They see her as someone who is obviously just playing at politics part-time, because, after all, her real place is at home being a wife and mother. I suggested a bright young woman as a candidate in New York City a while ago; she had unlimited potential and with good management and some breaks could become an important person to the city. A political leader rejected her. "Why invest all the time and effort to build up the gal into a household name," he asked me, "when she's pretty sure to drop out of the game to have a couple of kids at just about the time we're ready to run her for mayor?"

Many women have given their lives to political organizations, laboring anonymously in the background while men of far less ability managed and mismanaged the public trust. These women hung back because they knew the men would not give them a chance. They knew their place and stayed in it. The amount of talent that has been lost to our country that way is appalling. I think one of my major uses is as an example to the women of our country, to show them that if a woman has ability, stamina, organizational skill, and a knowledge of the issues she can win public office. And if I can do it, how much more hope should that give to white women, who have only one handicap?

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Excerpted with permission from Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm, 1970.