Chisholm & Jordan: Clearing a Path for Women in Politics

By Nilagia McCoy

March 20, 2012


Shirley Chisholm, who ran on the Democratic slate for the 12th Congressional District in Brooklyn, greets potential voters. She opposed James Farmer for the seat in Congress. She is shown campaigning at Ebbets Field Housing project in New York on Oct. 26, 1968. (AP Photo/Leonard Bazerman)

A discussion at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum with Barbara Lee, Ann Richards, and Cokie Roberts, moderated by Callie Crossley, reflected on the legacies of two political trail blazers: Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan.
In 1968, Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to Congress. In 1972, she made history again by becoming the first African American to run for President with a major party, and the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Barbara Lee, congresswoman (CA-D), first met Chisholm in college,when she visited Mills College’s Black Student Union.  Motivated by her message of change, Lee was soon working on Chisholm’s Presidential primary campaign. Lee says that for Chisholm, as the first African American woman in her position, she had to invent her own way of doing business.

It wasn’t about playing by the rules, because those rules weren’t made for them nor by them.  It was about changing the rules, it was about shaking up the system. I can remember Shirley, after Ed[ucation] and Labor, she went on to the Rules committee. She was able to shepherd a legislative agenda from the rules committee that addressed the constituencies that she cared about: women, the poor, the disadvantaged, people of color.
A contemporary of Chisholm’s, Barbara Jordan was the first African American woman elected to the Texas Senate in 1966, and in 1972, she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first woman to represent Texas in the House.
According to Ann Richards, former Governor of Texas, and both a personal and political friend of Jordan’s for many years, Jordan took a different approach to her political career.
She said, 'I am not a female politician. I am not a black politician, I am a politician, and I am good at it. Barbara had no patience with symbolism. She had no interest in being a symbol. She had interest only in proving herself by her effectiveness, and leaving a legacy of what she had done, not just what she had said. Barbara was a good old boy…she had an uncanny way of working herself into the power structure.
Watch the full discussion below to learn more about these two pioneering politicians, and see more women’s history stories on WGBH’s Forum Network.

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Jordan's 1976 keynote address to the Democratic National Committee is ranked 5th in the Top 100 American Speeches of the 20th century list.

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