Officials Forum: The Unbought and Unbossed Shirley Chisholm

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U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee

U.S. Representative Barbara Lee has been a leader in the fight against the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. She co-authored legislation signed into law creating the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and legislation addressing the needs of orphans and vulnerable children affected by HIV/AIDS. She has also been a leader in the effort to establish a National AIDS Strategy, and is a member of the Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over all domestic HIV/AIDS funding. She is the only U.S. representative on United Nations Development Programme’s Global Commission on HIV and the Law and was the original sponsor of legislation that lead to the repeal of the Immigration and Travel ban that barred the entry of HIV positive individuals. The repeal allowed the International AIDS Conference – scheduled for July 2012 in Washington DC – the first to be held in the U.S. for 20 years.

The course of my life changed when I met Mrs. C. She has quite possibly been one of the most influential forces in my life. Mrs. C served as an example for me and for countless women and men across the country, simply because she spent the sum of her life working to be and do more than what was expected of her.


The work that Mrs. C did helped to bring about a more integrated society that recognizes the value of the contributions and potential contributions of all Americans, regardless of gender or race. I believe that because of Mrs. C, we are left with a stronger America that is made better through the sum of its parts.

I refer, of course, of my friend and mentor, the Honorable Shirley Chisholm. Shirley Chisholm, or Mrs. C as she was called by many who knew her, was indeed an African American woman who worked to bring the needs of these two marginalized groups of Americans to the fore, but she did so much more than that. Her example serves as a guide to me and to many of my colleagues in Congress – of how we should use our time to improve this union. She thought that leaders had a responsibility to not just play by the rules, but to work to change the rules that were wrong or discriminatory.

The private woman that was Shirley Chisholm was much the same as the politician whose trailblazing impact can be measured in history books. She had the uncanny ability to reach people on a truly personal level in the midst of doing such important work. I felt this same intensely personal impact when I met her in 1972 as a student at Mills College. This meeting and, later, the work that I did on her presidential campaign that same year led me down a path that has forever changed my life.

Her personal identity bore the marks of both racism and sexism and through this prism and she reminded us all that we as African American women should not and cannot take a back seat to anyone. We have the unique position, and thus the moral authority, to share with the world the immorality of both injustices. For each, we must not leave the burden of this fight to the next generations. As the first African American woman elected to Congress, and as a founding Member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and as the first woman to compete for a major party ticket for the presidency, she underscored her fight against these personal struggles that were and still are affecting many Americans on a public stage.

The struggle for women is certainly still here and I believe the road to success in this world is longer and far bumpier. Shirley Chisholm inspired me to dare to believe that the Oval Office was not the sole property and province of men. She said, “Women in this country must become revolutionaries. We must refuse to accept the old, traditional roles and stereotypes.”

Society does not make it easy for women to be leaders, but that makes it all the more important that we break through the glass ceilings that has been so carefully erected in not only the political field, but in pretty much every other arena in American life. It is especially important that we shatter theses barriers today so that, when our daughters and granddaughters make their way up through the ranks of their chosen fields, they will not encounter a single shard of today’s glass ceilings.

It is with this in mind that Women’s History Month was established. Because it is imperative to know where you are coming from to have a better grasp of where you want to go. Both Women’s History Month and Black History Month celebrate and bring to light the sheroes and heroes that have gone too long without notice.

The celebration of these two groups helps us all to better understand where we are collectively going.  No one understood this better than Shirley Chisholm. She reminded us all, especially the 28 African American women members of Congress that have followed her, that as a woman and an African American, we are required to take responsibility  to shake things up and to pave the way for others.

Shirley Chisholm fought the status quo with grace, class, and purpose. The principles that guided her were correct then and they remain true today.  Her example has given me and continues to give me the courage to vote my conscience. But the example that Mrs. C provided for me – to be “unbought and unbossed” – showed that remaining true to your personal identity and your public mission is attainable in politics. The truly Honorable Shirley Chisholm serves as an example to us all.

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