For women and people of color, it’s all about changing conventional wisdom

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Dan Holly

It’s entirely possible that, a year from now, the first woman president will be in office. If and when that milestone is reached, I’m sure there will be a lot of fanfare, but so far there has been remarkably little discussion about it.



Part of that is that no one wants to count their chickens before they’re hatched. Of course, Republicans (and some Democrats who are feeling the Bern) would add that the lack of fuss is due to the candidate. Let’s agree Hillary is not perfect.

But another part of it – a big part, in my estimation – is that the thought of a woman president is not as far-fetched as it once was.  It’s all about conventional wisdom.

The conventional wisdom – not too long ago – was that only a white male could win the presidency. President Barack Obama shattered that wisdom, now others are fixing to stomp on the pieces. If we don’t get the first women president, we may get the first Jew (Bernie Sanders) or the first Hispanic (Ted Cruz). Even the candidate who is just another white guy – the course, combative, potty-mouthed, thrice-married Donald Trump – is unconventional.

Conventional wisdom in a nation of more than 300 million people does not change easily or quickly. President Obama did not shatter the long-held perception that anybody could grow up to be president – as long as you were a white, Christian male – with one swing of the hammer; others had been swinging away at it, creating cracks that weakened it.

Since it’s Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at someone who made a major crack – Shirley Chisholm.

When Chisholm ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972, she was the first African-American woman to do so. No one gave her a serious chance of winning, but you could not ignore her. She was a Member of Congress from New York City, making waves as the first African-American female congresswoman and a vocal opponent of the military draft. (Remember, the Vietnam War had not ended.)

It is not common for junior members of the House of Representatives – let alone black women – to run for president. But Chisholm made a career of defying expectations.

An immigrant from Barbados, Chisholm was a teacher in her early career. But she was never one to sit back when she saw injustice. She became a social activist at a time of racial and demographic change in Brooklyn – change that outpaced the political infrastructure. She became a state legislator and, when the courts ordered a new congressional district that favored the election of a black candidate, Chisholm was the loudest, most persistent voice for change.

According to her official biography in the House of Representatives archives, “Chisholm roamed the new district in a sound truck that pulled up outside housing projects while she announced: ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, this is fighting Shirley Chisholm coming through.’ ”

When she got to Congress, Chisholm was assigned to the House Forestry Committee – a curious choice for someone representing Brooklyn. (A tree may grow in Brooklyn, but apparently that wasn’t enough justification in Chisholm’s mind for the assignment.) Junior members of the House are supposed to sit quietly in the back and not make waves, but Chisholm defied conventional wisdom by demanding reassignment to a more appropriate committee. She was placed on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, eventually graduating to the Education and Labor Committees.

Alas, Chisholm did not even come close to winning the presidency, but this outspoken black woman who deferred to nobody (her campaign slogan was “unbought and unbossed”) shook expectations. Chisholm neither looked like (with her wire-rimmed glasses that made her look more like an accountant than a presidential candidate) nor sounded like what the nation had come to expect of those who sought the highest office in the land. But only by challenging conventional wisdom can you change it.

If Hillary does win, I hope she mentions Shirley Chisholm in her victory speech.

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Dan Holly
Dan Holly
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