When She Ran, Vol. 1 by Joshua Watkins

Symbolic By Default: Shirley Chisholm and the Victimization of Candidates in the New Primary

Welcome to When She Ran, a GirlSense and NonSense series to celebrate female leadership in the political realm during Women’s History Month. For candidates and voters alike, women’s issues have been at the forefront of the 2016 presidential election, ranging from reproductive rights to equal pay to confronting what it means to be a feminist. But as campaign history shows, 2016 is far from alone.

Much attention, at least on the Democratic side of this primary season, has been paid to the coalitions of voters each candidate can rely upon as states hold their presidential preference contests. The endless speculation of Bernie Sanders’ strategy to “capture” black voters throughout the South. The endless reporting on how Hillary Clinton has lost the women vote. The endless hand-wringing on whether Marco Rubio can convince a Hispanic bloc to support the Republican Party. The endless declarations on whether Donald Trump has made it impossible for a Hispanic bloc to support the Republican Party. 

Coalitions are an important part of a campaign’s electoral strategy; dating back to Truman, putting together diverse groups piecemeal to win a majority has been a staple of major party operations. But the use of these coalitions, in reporting and vote-grabbing alike, is problematic, for it assumes people have a singular defining characteristic, and reduces them to it. It assumes that these groups are only capable of caring or acting on a singular issue. Worst of all, it assumes that a person of color or a woman is only important if they belong to a homogenous group that proves advantageous to the candidate seeking to represent them. Perhaps Bad Feminist author Roxane Gay summed it up in a tweet earlier this month:

Were she still alive today, the tweet could have easily come from Shirley Chisholm.

Elected in 1968 in what was considered an upset victory over a former member of the Congress for Racial Equality, Chisholm became the first black woman to serve in Congress, taking advantage of a court mandate that forced New York to reapportion its districts. Four years later, she became the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, and the first African-American woman to run for a major party’s nomination (Senator Margaret Chase had briefly run for the Republican nomination in 1964).

In July 1971, the same year she co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, Chisholm began exploring the possibility of seeking the Democratic nomination for the 1972 presidential election. At the announcement of her candidacy on January 25, 1972, she tried to position herself as the choice of the American electorate, not party officials, promising a “bloodless revolution”: 

"I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people, and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history."

For Chisholm, being an elected official was not about championing a particular coalition, it was about challenging institutions that developed the dominant thought that coalitions were easily categorized and deployed. This kind of self-branding as anti-establishment by a presidential candidate is still pervasive (just this cycle alone, the strategy has been deployed by Sanders, Fiorina, Cruz, Carson, and Trump, among others), but it wasn’t new when Chisholm used it either; the Republican Party had seen anti-establishment candidates such as Eisenhower and Goldwater become commonstance, and the Democratic Party had seen a similar sentiment when anti-Vietnam War activists lined up behind George McGovern in 1968, protesting at the national convention when the party nominated Hubert Humphrey instead.

The difference between parties was that Democrats responded. When Humphrey handily lost that November to Richard Nixon, the Democratic Party changed its primary process—beginning in 1972, the party’s constituency would determine the presidential nominee, rather than its elites. But by doing so, the self-proclaimed “candidate of the people” was doomed nearly from the start: instead of campaigning for state chairs and members of the Democratic National Committee, candidates had to campaign for voters, and that meant more organization and more money than before. And for the first time, thanks to an upset in the first primary contest that year, the Iowa caucus, journalists now reported primaries as they never had under the old nominating system, meaning candidates needed something else, too: momentum. For Chisholm, who didn’t compete until the Florida primary that year, and was only able to make the ballot in 14 states, the new system had removed any conceivable path to the nomination.

It’s hard to imagine that even under the old nomination process, Chisholm would have fared much better in the 1972 race—even as the more progressive of the two major political parties, the Democratic Party was slow to recognize the necessity of affirmative action in its selection of delegates, much less its candidates. But by trying to use the new, electorate-favored primary process, Chisholm fell victim to a principle many candidates wouldn’t realize until the 1980s: changing the rules mean the game changes, too. Consequently, the Shirley Chisholm candidacy is largely remembered as symbolic act for women—a notion Chisholm may well have detested. Once, in response to a question from a young voter after her election to Congress, Chisholm said: “I have mixed feelings. First of all, I’m very glad to have been able to make history in this country by being the first black woman. But boys and girls, as far as I’m concerned, actually, it’s overdue, so I don’t get terribly excited about it.” 

Reconciling that—the idea that changes in the rules were made to make symbolic candidates viable, only to have imposed limitations that prohibit such insurgencies—is not something to be overlooked. There’s a lot to be said for institutional protections—after all, the purpose of a primary is to nominate the candidate that best represents the party, not the party’s constituency (an important distinction we’ll explore later this month with a closer look at the outrage over superdelegates). At the same time, however, what is sacrificed is the opportunity for a “bloodless revolution” to take place. 

And what does that leave for the “symbol” herself? Shirley Chisholm is remembered for being the first African-American woman to run for president. But to remember her only for that is a disservice to her, her cause, and her representation. 

Connect with Joshua Watkins:
Twitter: @thirdplacesmile
Medium: Josh Watkins


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