IT'S THE long season of goodbyes for Shirley Chisholm, the barnstorming congresswoman whose career foreshadowed the march of a generation of blacks and women into mainstream politics. But it's not all bouquets. Along with the farewells are some uneasy questions as to whether she is deserting the underprivileged, the people who made her a symbol, the people now sorely in need of a champion--her people.
"People think they own you," she says, settling down in her office, her voice worn to a hoarse bellow from explaining why the first black woman elected to Congress is quitting after 14 years."In a sense people are almost . . . they don't want to do it, but they want to control my life . . . One 90-year-old man came in here, and said, 'Mrs. Chisholm, you have to recognize that the only thing that belongs to you is your body, you belong to America.' I jokingly said I am not too sure my body belongs to me at this point. . . . When people say 'you are deserting me,' that makes me tremble."
So, is she leaving battling or broken? Some would answer "both," a contradiction totally in keeping with the paradoxical second-guessing Chisholm has often provoked. But Chisholm, 57, has always known what her mirror will reflect.
"Broken, no, not at all. I am leaving saddened, somewhat saddened, because I didn't realize fully how people felt about me legislatively," she says, her long brown hands tapping a pen on the desk. Her fights for Haitian refugees, for Native American's land rights, for poor mothers and many others, she emphasizes, will be fought on new battlegrounds. Right now she feels the need for a private life. "People interpret because I am leaving at a time when, I guess, voices like mine are needed more than ever, that I have selected the wrong time to leave, never taking into account that I have always indicated that I do not want to spend my entire time in the political arena."
That her farewells sound clouded by wistfulness and uncertainity is a condition that Chisholm doesn't tolerate. "I am not mad, I am not sad. It's very difficult . . . This is not my funeral. It is a transitional phase," says Chisholm. Her already straight back snaps to a general's rigidity. She stops tapping on the desk.
For nearly 25 years Chisholm has been submerged in politics. She is the schoolteacher from Brooklyn who moved from neighborhood politics to the state assembly to Congress, where she represents parts of Brooklyn and the largest concentration of blacks and Hispanics in the country.
Her spirited try for the Democratic presidential nomination three elections ago, the first time a black from a major party entered the primaries, made her not only a national politician, but perhaps more important, reinforced her symbolism.
Yet for all the fanfare, Chisholm has been a lonely politican. Her unpredictability has led to an isolation that has been augmented by her pride and paranoia. "The greatest thing that has upset me is that my people have misunderstood me so badly," she acknowledges. Part of that pain comes from charges that her autobiographical and political slogan, "Unbought and Unbossed," has worn thin, and the lingering hurt caused by black male politicans' attacks during her 1972 presidential bid.
But she made Chisholm a name so well-known that a group of black servicemen in Minot, N.D., called her when they took over their base dining room in a protest, as did the inmates at the D.C. Jail; a voice and face so familiar that Redd Foxx incorporated jokes about her into his nightclub routine; a force so persistent that she worked her way into the Democratic leadership of the House. But that stature only partially alleviated her frustration, which often prompted searches for a way out of politics.
In the past two years, the political and personal frustrations of Chisholm coincided. Looking back, she felt guilty she had tended to Capitol Hill when Arthur Hardwick, her second husband, was almost killed in an automobile accident in April 1979. She was demoralized that public support for her legislative priorities, such as legal services and special education, had declined. She didn't like saying "I can't deliver" to her constituents and she didn't like hearing "I can't help" from liberal colleagues. And, as one friend said, her enthusiasm was drained by "the nonstop sniping" she encountered from some blacks over her political alliances and endorsements.
But the fear of political inadequacy was second to her private crisis.
"Funny, I didn't make the decision while he was injured," says Chisholm, recalling the months she thought about retirement. Her husband's bravery, recounted by her with a lilting resonance, was both a push and a pull on her decision. "First of all, I saw this 6-foot-4 man all bandaged, all that was out were his eyes, his mouth, his ears, all I could see was tubes all over him. When I got to the door, I thought I was going to faint, but before I could, he said, 'Honey, I ain't going no place.' I thought, my God, what is this man made of?" After the accident that occurred outside Buffalo, Hardwick, 65, then Chisholm's husband of six months, was hospitalized for five months and confined to a wheelchair for an additional six. "It wasn't during that time that I decided to leave, because he said, 'There is no sense you staying around here.' I was thinking of taking a leave of absence. He said--he has a sense of humor--'You couldn't turn me over. Here I am a big man, 218 pounds, you are a little bit of a woman, 108, 109 pounds.' He said, 'You go and drown yourself in your work. I will make it.' "
But the whirl of Congress wasn't enough of a distraction. "I worked, but my mind wasn't on my work. I couldn't wait each night until I got home . . . to cry. All day long I kept up a front," she says quietly. Sitting in her office, dressed in her trademark matching suit and shoes, she describes the times she fainted, the tears, the prayers. The fact that she felt she couldn't let her emotions show was part of the trap she had built through her image as a strong woman. What Chisholm finally decided is that the demands of being a politician dedicated to representing blacks and women left time to be a legend but didn't leave time for her to enjoy her personal life of a black woman.
Chisholm says she has not had second thoughts about leaving but that she has felt guilty. The nearly 1,000 letters that came into her office after she announced she would quit raised the issue of desertion, again. "There is nothing happy about it, I can tell you," she says flatly.
Tough Times and Techniques
When Nelson Rockefeller was designated as vice president in 1974, Chisholm led the fight for his confirmation in the House. Her liberal colleagues yelled "Foul!" They charged that Rockefeller mishandled the riots at Attica prison, promoted conservative views of drug and welfare legislation and had used his family fortune to support elite causes. Undaunted, Chisholm gave an emotional, ringing endorsement on the floor of the House that was capped by cheers from Republicans and a kiss from then-minority leader Rep. John Rhodes (R-Ariz.).
"I don't take one incident of a person's total life and hang the person with it forever," says Chisholm, explaining that Rockefeller's help and compassion when she was in the state legislature outweighed her own reservations of him. Of the criticism she received for associating with George Wallace, she says much the same thing. "Just like George Wallace standing in the door of the University of Alabama preventing black young people from attending . . .I went to the hospital when he was shot in 1972 and later he was the man who helped get the votes on minimum wage for black women . . . I believe there is good in everybody, maybe that's a weakness I have."
There is no easy formula to the Chisholm technique, no easy clues in the bespectacled oblong face or the brimstone voice. Without missing a beat, she goes from stubborn to flirtatious, from caring to caustic, from idealistic to pragmatic, from brassy to solicitous.
Though she has been an outspoken champion of women's and labor issues, she resents any hint that she was in the pocket of either group. Her most important legislative achievement, she says, was the inclusion of domestic workers under the minimum wage. But she was on the opposite side of many women activists when, at the time the Small Business Administration was reauthorized, she opposed expansion of the definition of minorities to include women. Then she seemingly reversed her stand and led the fight for federal support of women's athletic programs.
When she broke the domination of white males to become secretary of the House Democratic Caucus, she fought to be included in the breakfast meetings at the White House. Then she stopped going. She says now the meetings weren't accomplishing anything. But friends say she felt ignored and used, especially by Jimmy Carter, a politician she didn't like. Laura Murphy, a former staffer, who often picked up Chisholm at the White House, says, "She would come back furious. And she wasn't mad because they hadn't pulled out her chair, but because they had considered her invisible. She would say, 'I am going to pick my battles, I know how much I can take. I am not going to be used.' So her protests became not showing up."
She has been at odds with many of her black colleagues' personal goals and public stands. In the infant months of her first term, Chisholm opposed John Conyers for majority leader in favor of the late Hale Boggs. When Percy Sutton, then the highest-ranking elected black in New York politics, ran for New York mayor in 1977, she remained neutral. Her critics charge that she has stood outside elections where the minority and women candidates were trying to make the same historic steps she had made. They cite instances such as her not supporting former Rep. Bella Abzug (D-N.Y.) in one contest against Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.). Her local politics once caused New York's best-known black newspaper, The Amsterdam News, to editorialize on the "Chisholm problem."
Last year Chisholm endorsed Mayor Edward Koch, while most other black elected officials charged him with personal bigotry and betrayal of his campaign promises. For her, she says, it was a pragmatic political move; her tone shows weariness from having to explain this alliance. She says she feels someone has to broker and bring accountability to the mayors who will gain new powers through the New Federalism. "I wanted to have my foot inside the door."
Her more familiar stance of bullying and sternness shields a sharp sense of humor. She fired off a classic response to an invitation to the male-only Gridiron dinner in 1972: "Guess who's not coming to dinner." And she once said that an opponent's name spelled backwards was "a bad law." Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) recalls, "I had just had a back operation, so for about three months I was lying on the floor. This day I was next to Missouri Democratic Rep. Richard Bolling's desk and all you could see were my feet. She walked in the door, laying down the law, 'The budget was unfair, we are not going to stand for this.' Everyone was quiet, listening, and then I crossed my feet, and she just jumped up and screamed. Then she laughed and really broke the tension in the room." And Chisholm is not afraid to turn the joke on herself. When she first arrived in Congress she expressed surprise at some of the cordiality, once asking, "Who is that little short white man who keeps talking to me?" The short white man turned out to be a very fair-skinned black legislator, Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Calif). Now it's a joke between them.
She also can be soft, and even coquettish, glowing over a compliment or flirtation. When she was planning her second marriage, one staff member recalls, she would often "drift off" and talk about her plans. Often her staff receives memos with makeup smudges on the edges, a testament to her attention to her appearance. When men express surprise at her femininity and petite size, Chisholm gets angry.
Though some may see her as stubborn and strident, others view her as a mediator. She was a go-between among the black colleges, junior colleges and community colleges over their share of the federal pie during the reorganization of the Higher Education Act in 1980; the black and Hispanic differences over Title I funding; and the splintering over gay rights and abortion among the women delegates at the 1976 Democratic convention. And she is willing to fight all alone. Colleen O'Connor, a former press secretary, explains: "We put together a day-care bill in 1975 and then we couldn't find a sponsor. She spearheaded it through Congress, got Walter Mondale to cosponsor on the Senate side, got a special hearing at the House Ways and Means Committee, then testified on the bill. And she followed through even though it was vetoed by Ford. The next year it passed."
Chisholm's congressional career has swung between activism and boredom. One observer says that Chisholm likes the striving but once the battle is won, she loses interest.
But she still has the spark Rep. Robert Garcia (D-N.Y.) encountered when they were colleagues in the New York Assembly. In the fall of 1980 she was so incensed by a debate on abortion that she uttered a line about "mandatory vasectomies." Garcia remembers the speech. "I was sitting in my office and I had decided not to get involved in this particular floor debate on abortion. I was watching the television when I heard her. And I just picked myself up, left the three or four people in my office, and said, 'I've got to go and help.' " That's the talent House Speaker Tip O'Neill chooses to remember as he calls her "one of the most eloquent woman orators we have had."
Growing Up Independent
In her background of Brooklyn and Barbados, few models for political protocol exist, but blueprints for scrappiness and survival flourish in her family.
Chisholm's mother, was a domestic worker and seamstress, who preached the benefits of self-reliance and education to her three girls, and her father was a laborer, a staunch union man, and a follower of the black independence principles of Marcus Garvey.
Young Chisholm's resilience began to emerge in Barbados, where she and her sisters lived with her grandmother for eight years. When she returned to Brooklyn in 1934, she was 12 and some of her ambitions and principles were shaped by the influence Mary McLeod Bethune, Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony. "I read about Harriet Tubman talking to a man once, the man indicated she was a woman, she should tone down, and she said, 'I have to do what God tells me to do.' I think some of my strength comes from my saying during the course of my 24 years out here in politics: If they did it to Sojourner Truth, my black sister, if they did it to Harriet Tubman, my black sister, if they did it to Mary McLeod Bethune, my black sister, why should I expect anything different from the men?"
Her family life was protected--she didn't date until she finished college--and she turned down scholarship offers from Vassar and Oberlin for Brooklyn College, where as a day student Chisholm studied sociology and Spanish. Later she went to Columbia University at night, earning a master's degree in education. In 1949 she married Conrad Chisholm, a private investigator, a union that lasted nearly 30 years before they divorced.
Until she moved into elected politics in the early 1960s, Chisholm taught school and directed private and municipal daycare centers. She got her start in the local Brooklyn Democratic club, slowly and modestly, decorating cigar boxes as a fund-raising gimmick. Steadily moving up in the ranks of the political club, Chisholm took $4,000 of her savings in 1964 and ran successfully for the New York State Assembly. She was the first black woman to run for elective office in Brooklyn. In the Assembly she aligned herself with the causes of domestic workers and disadvantaged students. It was there that she also established a pattern as a loner who worked outside of established political leadership circles. In her congressional campaign in 1968, despite missing part of the campaign because of illness, she beat by a 2-to-1 margin a nationally known civil rights leader, James Farmer, the founder of the Congress of Racial Equality and later assistant secretary of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
When Chisholm arrived in Washington, she arrived fighting. She rebuffed her assignment to the House Agriculture Committee. That was something freshman didn't do. The impact she made was called "political suicide" by a colleague. "That phrase," Chisholm recalls, "that phrase sort of made me feel at home."
What some saw as courage, others saw as arrogance and grandstanding. "She has learned a lot. She started out with a chip on her shoulder. Protesting her agriculture appointment was foolish," says Rep. Barber Conable (R-N.Y.), who now judges Chisholm as "sure, compassionate and decent."
When black political leaders were caucusing over whether running a black candidate would give them more influence on 1972 Democratic national politics, Chisholm jumped into the race. In the final hours of that year's convention and her long-shot candidacy, she faced a roomful of black delegates, dismissing all the questions of her loyalty and her right to run. Looking over some of the best-known black politicians in the country, Chisholm declared: "I am the only one in here who has the balls to work for black people."
When the campaign was over, the scars remained. But so did her national reputation, which had once made her one of the country's most admired women. But when she goes home, she doesn't always feel so loved.
One of the most ethnically diverse districts, her Brooklyn neighborhoods, despite recent gentrification, are viewed as synonyms for urban decay, with unemployment among the minority youth close to 50 percent and among the adult males close to 40 percent. "When I go home on weekends, eight out of 10 people say, 'I am not interested in what legislation you put in this week, I am not interested Shirley, I want a job. I want something to do.' Then, depending on their level of frustration, some of them will curse me--'You haven't done me any good, I put you in office.' Week after week, I hear this. Boy, it began to get to me. I got to the point where I didn't want to go to my office. It got to the point where I had to steel myself for abuse," says Chisholm.
In Washington, her game-playing encompasses a lot of strategies.
On the Natural Gas Regulation bill in 1978, she was the lone Democratic holdout in the Rules Committee because she felt the higher rates would affect the poor most adversely. President Carter called and Speaker O'Neill did some arm-twisting, but she refused to budge. When the pressure increased, she says she cried behind closed doors, but she didn't change her mind. Rep. Richard Bolling says her balancing act has been admirable. "She has a lot of courage and commitment. But she has the ability to play the team and be independent at the same time."
In its 1978 study of voting patterns, the Ralph Nader group Congress Watch criticized her for voting against their position on several bills, such as her vote against increased funding for the antitrust division of the Justice Department. And others have criticized her for not taking the leadership on urban issues,such as lead poisioning and red-lining. But colleagues such as Rep. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who serves on the Rules Committee with Chisholm, says, "She will tell them all to take a flying leap." He adds: "I tell this to people--'I vote with Chisholm more than any other Democrat'--and it always makes people blink."
She thinks her frankness and unpredictability is more to the conservatives' liking. "Liberals like to have a certain amount of control over blacks they deal with no matter how liberal their views are," says Chisholm.
Her practice of coalition-building has had positive effects on the Congressional Black Caucus. When the caucus needed strategy for a busing amendment, its alternative budgets and school lunch program, remembers Barbara Williams-Skinner, the former staff director of the caucus, Chisholm had her allies ready. "She had developed relations with some of the more conservative members from the farm states who she could go to, whom she wasn't meeting over an issue for the first time, whom the caucus leader on the issue could call upon," says Williams-Skinner.
Now, as she is leaving, Chisholm's future is uncertain. She talks with one person about a business venture and with another about a political institute. She drops broad hints about running for public office again. "If things weren't so bad," she says, shaking her bolt of black and silver hair. The depression her people are facing is one of morale and finances. "I will fight for them, I will continue to speak out. Like some of the little folks say, 'Shirley, ain't scared of nobody.' "