Error of omission: the Honorable Shirley Chisholm

Can we all just blame overwork for the glaring omission I recognized after the blog posted on Saturday? I opened the blog with the great Bella Abzug’s penchant for wearing hats—her way of distinguishing herself as a professional. And I segued from there into a discussion of one of the sessions at the Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference, where a white woman talked about being asked, on more than one occasion, “How can you be an engineer?”

So far, so good.

In the second part of the post, I talked about unconscious bias and the thought-provoking presentation Aziza Jones made about how women of color—and allies like me—can support more diverse leadership.

Shirley Chisholm's official Congressional portrait.
By Kadir Nelson – photo, Public Domain

It’s a fine post. But it could have been better. No matter what the second half of the post had been about, I should have balanced it with an Abzug-like example. In this case, since it was about women of color in leadership, there’s a perfect counterpart to Abzug: the woman she joined in the New York Congressional delegation, the Honorable Shirley Chisholm.

I thought about editing Saturday’s post, but I didn’t want to sneak Representative Chisholm in the back door. We’ll give her the stage all to herself.

Shirley Chisholm, truth-teller

In 1968, Chisholm became the first black woman ever elected to Congress. She recognized exactly what that milestone meant, and she wasn’t afraid to tell the truth, however uncomfortable it might be:

“That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black and a woman proves, I would think, that our society is not either just or free.”

I wrote about Abzug because she adopted a costume to overcome the unconscious bias directed at her. But of course, people of color can’t just slap on a hat and establish themselves as professionals. Unconscious —and sometimes conscious—bias causes some white people to “read” them as waiters when they’re dining in restaurants, as salespeople when they’re shopping, as invisible (except when they’re perceived as menacing).

And let’s not forget the many ways people today disrespect the women of color in power. Case in point: serial sexual harrasser Bill O’Reilly dismissed substantive comments on the House floor by Rep. Maxine Waters, saying he was distracted by her “James Brown wig.” So Waters wears straight hair; I recently heard a black professional say she was told not to straighten her hair because it made her seem like she was trying to “look white.” Straight, natural, braided—it’s not about the hair, clearly. It’s about the power these women wield.

The white men in power tried to sideline Shirley Chisholm, too. But they didn’t know what they were getting into. Chisholm represented an urban district, in Brooklyn, so of course the House leadership put her on the Agricultural Committee. At first she was angry about this, but she later saw that she could use her position to expand the food stamp program. So she did. She was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the WIC program—supplemental nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children.

“Shirley Chisholm had guts”

In 1972, Chisholm racked up another first—becoming the first Democratic woman to run for President. Yes—of the United States. She was also the first black person from either major party to run. But she always said she felt more discriminated against for her gender than for her race. From her The New York Times obituary in 2005:

“I’ve always met more discrimination being a woman than being black,” she told The Associated Press in December 1982, shortly before she left Washington to teach at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. “When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men.”

I’m not here to parse degrees of discrimination. All people deserve equal respect and opportunity; that we still haven’t figured out how to do that after living together for thousands of years is unconscionable.

But let’s remember Shirley Chisholm as she herself wanted to be remembered— not as “the first black woman congressman,” but as a courageous leader:

“I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts.”


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“YOU’RE a professional?” Unconscious bias, it’s still here

Bella Abzug, a true professional
Bella Abzug, Library of Congress

The inimitable Bella Abzug always wore a hat. Not because her head was cold, or because she wanted to be ready if the Royal Family asked her to tea. No, Abzug—a lawyer, activist, and politician who represented Manhattan’s Upper West Side in the U.S. Congress for six years in the 1970s—wore a hat because it marked her as a professional. Back when most of the women in the workforce were secretaries, that was an important distinction.

The 1970s—nearly half a century ago. Women comprise a significantly larger percentage of the professional workforce. Yet people still make assumptions about what we can and cannot do, based on how we look.

Tessa Ann Taylor, Senior Software Engineer at The New York Times, says she still encounters people who seem mystified by the fact that she can be female and an engineer.

Speaking at last week’s Smith College Women’s Leadership Conference, Taylor said that people—okay, male people—have literally asked her “How are you a software engineer?”

Bella Abzug understood this mentality. She once said that while men have been told to “speak softly and carry a big stick,” for women it was “talk softly and carry a lipstick.” That may have been a guaranteed laugh line, but Abzug’s journal entries are less jocular:

“I spend all day figuring out how to beat the machine and knock the crap out of the political power structure.”

Taylor may not be trying to “knock the crap” out of the corporate power structure, but she does do a lot of training to help people recognize the Unconscious Biases That Will Not Die. Or at least That Haven’t Died Yet.

Women of color in professional leadership

On the final day of the conference, I attended a workshop called “Leadership as Disruption: Women of Color and their Allies Moving Beyond the Boundaries,” led by Aziza Jones, MSW. Jones challenged us to identify strategies to support and increase opportunities for women of color to lead. And also to identify ways in which we can support them as allies.

The bottom line for all of this work: Be willing to have difficult conversations. The more we can share our reality—and understand our privilege, for those of us who have it in this crazy world—the more we’ll be able to connect with others. Whether those others are women of a different race, or the clueless men who ask questions like “How are you an engineer?”

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” —Alice Walker

Talk. Connect. Use your power—for yourself and for each other. It’s time for us to change the world, don’t you think?


Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing