‘I Have Been Far Oftener Discriminated’


The oldest of four girls, Shirley Chisholm was born in November 1924, in Brooklyn, New York, into a poor family. Her parents were immigrants from the West Indies who worked as cleaners and factory workers. They sent their daughters to live with their maternal grandmother in Barbados, where they benefited from education in local British schools.
At the age of 10, Chisholm returned to Brooklyn and continued to study. She majored in sociology at Brooklyn College and joined the debating society, learning techniques of oratory that would serve her well in her future career. She also became active in the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), in which she debated vigorously for minority rights.
After college she took a master’s degree in child education and taught at a nursery school in Harlem, before becoming director of the largest nursery school network in New York. In 1953 she was instrumental in a successful campaign to elect an eminent black lawyer to the municipal court.
In 1964 Chisholm won a seat in the New York State Assembly. She was very active, bringing in laws that provided funding for the education of disadvantaged youths, and unemployment insurance for those providing day-care and domestic duties.
As the first black Congresswoman she served on several committees, notably labour and education, and campaigned for increases in federal funding for day-care and a higher minimum wage. Her famous address to the House of Representatives in May 1969 articulates her passionate belief in improving the lot of the socially disadvantaged and highlights the unfair treatment of women. She proposed the Equal Rights Amendment, which would guarantee equal rights for all, regardless of colour or gender.
In 1972 Chisholm became the first African-American woman to seek nomination for the Presidency. Although unsuccessful, she continued to be politically active, especially speaking out for women’s rights, and served on the Advisory Council of the National Organisation for Women and on the National Political Congress of Black Women. She died on New Year’s Day 2005.
Mr Speaker, when a young woman gradu
ates from college and starts looking for a job, she is likely to have a frustrating and even demeaning experience ahead her. If she walks into an office for an interview, the first question she will be asked is, ‘Do you type?’
There is a calculated system of prejudice that lies unspoken behind that question. Why is it acceptable for women to be secretaries, librarians, and teachers, but totally unacceptable for them to be managers, administrators, doctors, lawyers and Members of Congress?
The unspoken assumption is that women are different. They do not have executive ability, orderly minds, stability, leadership skills and they are too emotional.
It has been observed before, that society for a long time discriminated against another minority, the blacks, on the same basis – that they were different and inferior. The happy little homemaker and the contented ‘old darkey’ on the plantation were both produced by prejudice.
As a black person, I am no stranger to race prejudice. But the truth is that in the political world I have been far oftener discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am black.
Prejudice against blacks is becoming unacceptable although it will take years to eliminate it. But it is doomed because, slowly, white America is beginning to admit that it exists. Prejudice against women is still acceptable. There is very little understanding yet of the immorality involved in double pay scales and the classification of most of the better jobs as ‘for men only’.
‘ … I have been far oftener discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am black.
More than half of the population of the United States is female. But women occupy only two per cent of the managerial positions. They have not even reached the level of tokenism yet. No women sit on the AFL-CIO councilor Supreme Court.
There have been only two women who have held Cabinet rank, and at present there are none. Only two women now hold ambassadorial rank in the diplomatic corps. In Congress, we are down to one Senator and ten Representatives.
Considering that there are about 3 + million more women in the United States than men, this situation is outrageous.
“. It is for this reason that I wish to introduce today a proposal that has been before every Congress for the last 40 years and that sooner or later must become part of the basic law of the land – the equal rights amendment.
‘The unspoken assumption is that women are different.’
Let me note and try to refute two of the commonest arguments that are offered against this amendment. One is that women are already protected under the law and do not need legislation. Existing laws are not adequate to secure equal rights for women. Sufficient proof of this is the concentration of women in lower paying, menial, unrewarding jobs and their incredible scarcity in the upper level jobs. If women are already equal, why is it such an event whenever one happens to be elected to Congress?
It is obvious that discrimination exists. Women do not have the opportunities that men do. And women that do not conform to the system, who try to break with the accepted patterns, are stigmatised as ‘odd’ and ‘unfeminine.’ The fact is that a woman who aspires to be chairman of the board, or a Member of the House, does so for exactly the same reasons as any man. Basically, these are that she thinks she can do the job and she wants to try.
A second argument often heard against the equal rights amendment is that it would eliminate legislation that many States and the Federal Government have enacted giving special protection to women and that it would throw the marriage and divorce laws into chaos.
As for the marriage laws, they are due for a sweeping reform, and an excellent beginning would be to wipe the existing ones off the books. Regarding special protection for working women, I cannot understand why it should be needed.
Women need no protection that men do not need. What we need are laws to protect working people, to guarantee them fair pay, safe working conditions, protection against sickness and layoffs, and provision for dignified, comfortable retirement. Men and women need these things equally. That one sex needs protection more than the other is a male supremacist myth as ridiculous and unworthy of respect as the white supremacist myths that society is trying to cure itself of at this time.