By Maura Masters
Most days I stand on the sidewalks in the concrete jungle along with the other Rodents of Unusual Size scurrying to our respective office burrows. Everyone dressed in black, myself included. Then I look up and see a large, gorgeous, colorful mural of public art, and I sigh in relief.
There was a major sigh of relief after the recent mid-term elections when 42 women were elected to political office. More women and more importantly, women of color were elected to the 116th Congress in the House of Representatives than ever before: 36 new Reps added to the now total 102. There are 25 female senators in the 116th, and that means that for the first time in history, 25 percent of the members of the U.S. Senate are female.
According to Kelly Dittmar a professor and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, the election of women of color “is a trend that has been building over the past few congressional election cycles … in 2016, women of color were a majority of new women elected to Congress. It was two years ago that Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) became the first Latina and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) became the second black woman elected to the Senate.” Sen. Harris is now gearing up to run in the 2020 presidential race along with as few as 3 and as many as 10 other women.
The new group of diverse leadership was sworn into office on the 50th anniversary of Shirley Chisholm (D-NY) taking her place as the first black female representative. Starting in 1969, she served in Congress for seven terms until 1982, and during that time she helped her constituents in Brooklyn by sitting on the Veterans’ Affairs and Education and Labor committees (not in the Agricultural Department where she was originally assigned). She was a catalyst for change.
She didn’t want to learn about the wheat flour used in baking; she wanted to provide bread to her poor neighbors and friends. Her accomplishments included working to pass a bill for minimum wages for domestic workers, and speaking out against the military draft and the Vietnam War. She was a strong advocate who, as she said, possessed a “double handicap” as both black and a woman.
In 1972, without hope of a victory, but with the intention of stirring awareness in the status quo, she ran in the primary elections for the U.S. presidency. She ran against George McGovern (SD), Hubert Humphrey (MN), George Wallace (AL), and Edmund Muskie (ME). A very white group of male opponents.
I was in middle school when this happened, and when asked to create a campaign for one of the candidates as a school assignment, I chose Mrs. Chisholm. My slogan was “Chisholm Is’m!” (there’s not much that rhymes with Chisholm, and I was 10). Like her, my campaign lost its 5th grade class nomination, but unlike her, she secured 152 delegates and won the primaries in three states. That was remarkable then and is finally showing its effects now, a half-century later. Her campaign slogan was “Unbought and Unbossed” — still a good one today.
By the 1972 primaries, eventually won by George McGovern (and including an assignation attempt against George Wallace), the women’s movement lead by notable women, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Bella Abzug, was calculating its next step. Steinem, Chisholm and Abzug had founded the National Women’s Political Caucus in July 1971. Steinem and Friedan openly supported Chisholm’s primary races. At the Democratic Convention in July 1972, the Chisholm gatherings were full of feminists.
After her loss, Shirley Chisholm said, “When I die, I want to be remembered as a woman who lived in the twentieth century and who dared to be a catalyst of change. I don’t want to be remembered as the first black woman who went to Congress. And I don’t even want to be remembered as the first woman who happened to be black to make a bid for the Presidency. I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the twentieth century. That’s what I want.”
Vanessa Williams, reporter at the The Washington Post, said “Although white men are about a third of the U.S. population, they hold almost two-thirds of elected offices on local, state and federal levels, according to a 2017 report by the Reflective Democracy Campaign.” I like men. I like white men. But I don’t like them telling me what to do with my body, my family, my home, my job, or my life.
With a psychotic madman running the nation today, we all could use a little quiet from his racket, but that doesn’t mean we can sit back and wait. That didn’t work in the last presidential election. The battle continues if we are going to see an increase in female representation in the next political cycle. The excitement and energy in this movement is palpable, so let’s engage.
My friend Susie used to wear two different colored Croc sandals when she lived in NYC, and when people raised their eyes off the concrete sidewalk to look at her face, she smiled at them. Let’s bring in 2019 holding our heads high and smiling at what we will accomplish in the next year. Let’s pick a candidate, and agitate the gurgling in our girl swamps to campaign with guts and gusto. That’s what I want.
Maura lives a somewhat quiet life, working and sleeping, but some things are too big to ignore. She will sign on to a campaign as soon as her candidate announces her intentions for 2020. Meanwhile, she will do what she can to undo the wrongs that she witnesses and sometimes experiences.