PALM COAST, Fla. (WOMENSENEWS)–I have been searching for Shirley Chisholm’s whereabouts on and off for about two years. I finally found her two weeks ago at her funeral in Palm Coast, Fla.
I started looking for Chisholm after I became involved in the “renewed” campaign to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. The ERA, first introduced into Congress in 1923 by Suffragist Alice Paul, states that “equality under the law will not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state because of sex.” In other words it grants legal equality to American women. It took 50 years, but Congress finally passed it in 1972. Unfortunately, opponents in Congress succeeded in setting a seven-year time limit for ratification. After quickly gaining ratification in 31 states, by the mid-1970s, progress began to slow.
At the time, I was a college student and one of those millions of grassroots supporters who proudly displayed their “ERA YES” buttons. I would never miss an opportunity to attend local rallies and marches. I would listen intently to the televised speeches of leaders like Chisholm, who championing the cause, said she had been discriminated against more often because she was a woman, than because she was black.
As the deadline for ERA ratification neared, millions of supporters joined in marches around the country and Congress was forced to grant a three year extension. But no more states ratified and sadly, when the deadline came on June 30, 1982, the amendment fell three states short of the 35 needed for full ratification. I, like millions of women across the country, spent that day feeling worn out and defeated.
A few months later, in protest of not being given equality, I left the United States and spent the next decade and a half in England. While I was away, ERA supporters continued to reintroduce the amendment into every subsequent Congress, but it always failed to make it out of committee.
Then in 1992, another amendment was added to the Constitution that set a precedent, which legal scholars later noted had implications for the Equal Rights Amendment. In a 1997 opinion, they stated that based upon this new precedent, the ERA can be achieved when three more states ratify it. A few years after this article appeared veteran ERA supporters renewed the campaign to ratify the ERA.
Coincidentally the renewed campaign coincided with my return to the United States, but it wasn’t until two years ago that I discovered that the ERA was alive. That’s when I went on a quest to find Shirley Chisholm. I wanted to see if Chisholm would help us to reignite the flame for women’s equality which she so incomparably fanned during the 1970s. But because I had been out of the country for so many years, I had no idea what had happened to her. Search as I might, I could not find out how to contact her.
I wanted to find Shirley Chisholm specifically because she had struck me as one of the boldest and bravest and the most genuine feminist leaders of our time. She was an orator, remembered for the eloquence and the cadence of her words. She boldly stated that “racism and anti-feminism are two of the prime traditions of this country” and yet she reminded us that we should be proud of being women, because “the softness and the warmth and the gentleness that are often used to stereotype us are POSITIVE human qualities.”
Just a Few Hours Drive
On Jan. 3, I finally found Shirley Chisholm. I found her in the numerous obituaries which began to pour onto the Internet two days after she died on New Years Day at the age of 80. And sadly for me, they revealed that she had lived in Palm Coast, Fla., just a few hours drive from my home in Atlanta.
I also learned other things about her. Chisholm was born in 1924 to immigrants and was first elected to the New York state legislature in 1964. She was the first African American woman elected to Congress after winning a seat representing the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, one of the poorest areas in New York City, in 1968. She was a founding member of both the National Organization for Women and the Congressional Black Caucus. She considered her historic run for President in 1972 more symbolic than practical, although she gained 152 delegates before withdrawing from the race.
But mostly, I learned that, just as I had remembered her, others praised her for her feisty, unwavering support of women and minorities, her integrity, her unwillingness to compromise her fundamental beliefs and her trailblazing, selfless spirit.
I spent the next few days mourning, not only the loss of Chisholm, but mourning for all that she reminded me of that women have lost since 1982. I mourned for the loss of the spirit and energy of the ERA movement. I mourned that there are now so many women’s organizations focusing their time, energy and money into fighting the symptoms of sex discrimination–domestic abuse, unequal pay, threats to Title IX–and not enough organizations fighting the disease of sex discrimination–the disease that Chisholm defined as “the most subtle, most pervasive, and most institutionalized form of prejudice that exists.”
On Jan. 8, I drove to Chisholm’s funeral in Palm Coast. As I sat in the First AME Church with several hundred of her most ardent admirers and listened to the joyous singing and the sermon which her life inspired, I was lifted out of my mourning. I believe the words the minister spoke was Shirley Chisholm’s final message to us.
He told us that Chisholm effected changes in our society because “she showed up, she stood up and she spoke up.”
I drove home knowing that I need to continue to look for Shirley Chisholm. I need to look for her indomitable spirit in the words and deeds of other fearless, activist women. But I also need to recognize the Shirley Chisholm-like qualities inside myself and be brave enough to use them on behalf of our continuing struggle to defeat sex discrimination.
I drove away bolder, braver and more determined than ever to “show up, stand up and speak up” for women’s rights.
Idella Moore is the founder and Executive Officer of 4ERA, a nonpartisan, single-issue grassroots organization working towards full ratification and promulgation of the Equal Rights Amendment.
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On February 7, PBS will premiere “Unbought and Unbossed” a new documentary on the life of Shirley Chisholm. Information about the film and its production can be found at: