On Super Tuesday, about a third of Democratic voters will be casting votes for the candidate of their choice. The mainstream media and the candidates themselves have talked a lot about “electability,” assuming that voters should only, and would only, vote for a candidate they think can win. But primaries are about more than selecting a nominee for the general election. In fact, in 1972, Shirley Chisholm ran for president for different reasons: to show that she could, and to use her delegate power as a bargaining chip with the national Democratic Party.
Decades before Barack Obama built a multiracial coalition and Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win a major-party presidential nomination, Shirley Chisholm launched a historic campaign. Chisholm, the first black congresswoman, became both the first black person and the first woman to make a serious bid for the nomination. She had an unshakable amount of confidence in herself and her convictions and took on party bosses, the mainstream media and entrenched interests in the Democratic Party to give voice to young, poor, female, black and brown voters. She pushed to unify these forgotten voters into an effective coalition at the Democratic National Convention, but in the end concerns about electability undermined her attempt. Her campaign shows just how difficult it was, and still is, to build and sustain an electoral coalition.
Chisholm was a congresswoman from Brooklyn, where her district contained much of Bedford-Stuyvesant, a poor black neighborhood. In 1972, Americans nationwide discovered what Chisholm’s constituents and House colleagues already knew: She was a powerhouse speaker with an inspiring democratic vision. Her barely 5-foot frame contained a plain-speaking voice that had been bringing college students to their feet along her lecture circuit since her election in 1968.
Chisholm’s politics were, in the coinage of legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectional. As a black feminist, Chisholm was accustomed to questioning power in all its forms, simultaneously. Chisholm had grown up the daughter of parents who had immigrated from Barbados: a father who was a strong union man and a seamstress mother. She spent her youth eavesdropping on her father’s union meetings and discussing New Deal policies with him. Embracing both anti-racism and anti-sexism, once elected to office, she also sought to end the Vietnam War and fought to deploy the powers of the federal government to end poverty.
The decision to run for president, she insisted, was made for her by the women and college students who cheered at her speeches. They then raised money, filed to place her name on the ballot in their states and rented campaign offices. She went along not because she thought she might actually win the nomination or the presidency. Rather, she wanted to show the power of new voices in the Democratic Party: women, African Americans, the poor and youth, and to challenge the authority of conservative Southern white Democrats at the Democratic National Convention. Becoming “a force to be reckoned with at the convention,” she also hoped to force the nominee to name a black vice president; a woman as secretary of health, education and welfare; and a Native American as secretary of the interior.