Just over 40 years ago, two incredibly brave people made history when they became the first women of color to declare themselves major party candidates for president. Patsy Mink, a Japanese-American congresswoman from Hawaii, entered the Oregon primary as an anti-war candidate to draw attention to issues she felt were not being addressed by the mainstream candidates. Shirley Chisholm, the African-American congresswoman from New York, remained on the campaign trail all the way to the Democratic National Convention.
Ultimately, George McGovern won the Democratic primary and went on to lose to Richard Nixon, but the eyes of millions of Americans were opened during the 1972 presidential campaign. The world begins to look different when you see someone like yourself doing something extraordinary. The imaginations and aspirations of millions of women, Asians, African-Americans, and young people were captured.
As noble as that sounds, the reality of the campaign trail was far less grand, particularly for Chisholm, who campaigned across the country. There were the death threats and grinding pace that come with the territory of every presidential candidacy. For generations, money has been the fuel that propels candidates through to November and Chisholm was running on fumes in early 1972. And then there were the “you can’ts.” As in: “You can’t run.” “You can’t leave your husband at home.” “You can’t make it to the convention.” “You can’t win.”
The “you can’ts” came from surprising corners – from colleagues and friends and political allies. But what seemed to really gratify Chisholm were the people who said “you can.” That support came from surprising places, as well. White college students. Hippies. Scenesters. The Black Panther Party. Single mothers on welfare. These were the people who stepped up and volunteered to run Chisholm’s campaign offices. Some of them used their own money to fund campaigns in their towns and get her on the primary ballots. And when an eager person would approach Chisholm to offer their services, she’d tell them that the first thing they needed to do was register to vote.
In spite of their supporters’ hard work and their qualifications and passion, Mink and Chisholm didn’t stand much of a chance against the candidates who looked pretty similar to all of the presidents that came before them. But you can still follow the thread of influence that Shirley Chisholm, Patsy Mink and all of their supporters had during the 1972 presidential campaign. Voter turnout last year indicated a power shift among the electorate. The increasing influence of women and people of color is undeniable. And then there’s the fact that two independent political action committees have been established this year for Hillary Clinton, even though Clinton herself says she won’t be running for president in 2016.
In just four decades, we’ve gone from a small group of voters being inspired by unexpected choices to a whole lot of people ready to put their money, time and resources into women candidates. We’ve gone from telling women “you can’t run” to asking them to go for it. Each time a woman runs for higher office – whether she wins or not – we get a little bit closer to having a woman president and more women in leadership positions. Because in every candidacy, there’s hope, inspiration, and another step toward equality.