In the past few days, the media has jumped on race and gender as fervently as they played up the primacy of the polls the week before. With our democratic forerunners embodying so many political "firsts", they offer an opportunity to bring to light the important issues of race, gender and class that have been, for so long, pushed to the background. But too often, when these issues do come to the foreground, they are manipulated in such a way that inspires division rather than reconciliation. In this election year, I say we choose to utilize our candidates' diversity as an occasion for constructive conversation and activism to right our collective history of so many wrongs. And in constructing this dialogue, there is no one better to take our cues from than the real "first" - Shirley Chisholm.
Charismatic, courageous, clear, and inspiring, Chisholm was not only the first African-American woman to join Congress, but the first African-American woman to campaign for the presidency, in 1972. She didn't run as "a woman or as a black", she said, but because of what she wanted to see happen in the country. Though she is famously quoted as saying, "Of my two 'handicaps' being female put more obstacles in my path than being black," she utilized her leadership to bridge divides across both gender and race in the pursuit of justice - a formula which is still sorely needed today.
For the last three years, The White House Project has taken "Unbought and Unbossed" - a documentary about Chisholm - to women across the country. We show it at every political leadership training we hold for women running for office, not only because we have so much to learn from Chisholm's life and leadership, but also to show women a political voice that most of them didn't even know existed. It is a powerful image for so many of us who aren't rich, white, or male: a leader who looks like me. As Marion Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund taught me years ago, "you can't be what you can't see."
This is the strongest message underlying all of our talk about race and gender in this year's election. For the first time, we have a viable African-American and a viable woman running for president, and so for the first time, men and women of all backgrounds are seeing themselves in this race for the presidency. Speaking of her own candidacy more than 35 years ago, Chisholm once noted that her great hope was that this revolutionary act would make more people "feel themselves as capable of running for high political office as any wealthy, good-looking white male." We're still fighting that fight--but this year, we're closer than we've ever been before.
So let's identify the truth behind our anxieties and our hopes in this historic election year, and let's take up this as our cause: building a truly representational democracy--which requires more than just one female candidate and one African-American candidate for the presidency. We need numbers, critical mass, true representation. Only when our choices, and our leaders, are an accurate representation of the face of our nation will race and gender fade to the background of any election--presidential or otherwise.
So far, over 1,400 women who have attended our political leadership trainings have seen Shirley Chisholm on film, and it never ceases to inspire them. Over 40% of the women we have trained are women of color, and in witnessing Chisholm's ascent, they see the possibility of their own leadership. People across the nation are hungry for true representation, and we need to work together to expand the pool of possibility. The people of our country are looking for Shirley to lead the way. They are looking for a leader who is truly "Unbought and Unbossed".
Marie C. Wilson is president of The White House Project (www.thewhitehouseproject.org) and author of Closing the Leadership Gap: Why Women Can and Must Help Run the World (Viking/Penguin, 2004).