Shirley Chisholm, Equal Rights for Women, 1969

Shirley Chisholm

Member of the United States Congress (1969–83)

When Shirley Chisholm made a passionate argument for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in 1969, she did so as the first black woman to be elected to the United States Congress. First proposed in 1921, and still languishing today, proponents of the ERA sought an amendment that would guarantee equal rights under the law for all American citizens, regardless of sex. This included marriage and divorce laws, as well as workplace protections. In the late 1960s, with the endorsement of the newly formed National Organization for Women (NOW), momentum for passage of the ERA picked up again, and Chisholm helped lead the charge.

In crystal-clear language, Chisholm outlined for the US House of Representatives the prejudices that hold women back in the workplace. The child of Caribbean immigrants, she drew a connection between sexism and stereotypes and discrimination based on race. Her sense of injustice, as she recounts the statistics, is palpable: ‘Women occupy only two percent of the managerial positions. They have not even reached the level of tokenism yet.’ No women then sat on the Supreme Court, she reminded her audience, and women numbered just one senator and ten representatives in Congress. ‘Considering that there are about 3.5 million more women in the United States than men, this situation is outrageous,’ she said.

Chisholm’s long career saw her serve in the House, as a representative from New York, until 1983. In 1972, she became the first black person, and the first woman, to seek the Democratic presidential nomination. Her Congressional campaign slogan was apt: ‘Unbought and Unbossed’.

Equal Rights for Women 1969

Mr. Speaker, when a young woman graduates from college and starts looking for a job, she is likely to have a frustrating and even demeaning experience ahead of 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….

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.

… laws will not change such deep-seated problems overnight. But they can be used to provide protection for those who are most abused, and to begin the process of evolutionary change by compelling the insensitive majority to reexamine its unconscious attitudes.

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.

… 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 stigmatized 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.

… 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.

… women that do not conform to the system, who try to break with the accepted patterns, are stigmatized as ‘odd’ and ‘unfeminine’.

Shirley Chisholm