Why couldn't American women unite to deliver a "woman's vote" last year for Geraldine Ferraro?
Because there is no such thing--at least not yet, said politician-turned-educator Shirley Chisholm on Saturday during her keynote speech before the University of California Women's Leadership Conference at UC Irvine.
Though sexism affects all women, their priorities are determined more often by their pocketbooks, their racial and ethnic backgrounds or where they live, said Chisholm, 60, the nation's first black congresswoman and now a professor at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts. For instance, last year when Chisholm was campaigning for the Mondale-Ferraro ticket in the South, she said women in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky told her they could not support any woman who didn't carry her husband's name.
Wearing a fire-engine red suit, Chisholm spoke with the sternness and drama of a Baptist preacher on "Unity Through Diversity: A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Feminism" to an audience of about 200, including a dozen men. She described her talk as a "gentle critique" of feminism.
Calling for mutual respect among all classes and colors of women, Chisholm chided unnamed feminist leaders for being doctrinaire, inflexible and not "lifting others as they climb." White feminists, she suggested, have difficulty understanding why minority women do not share their enthusiasm for issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment or reproductive freedom, said Chisholm. For many women, she explained, racism is the primary concern. Others are preoccupied with daily economic survival.
In order for women to become a "collective sisterhood," a "viable force in this country" and a voting bloc, Chisholm said feminists must seek out and include the concerns of all women--from the Southern women to new Asian immigrants and migrant farm women--in shaping the feminist agenda. Migrant women, who work in some of the worst conditions for the least pay, she observed, have yet to be included in any feminist agenda "in the same way the energies were applied to whether or not we should be called Ms., Miss or Mrs."
"It's not enough to read your feminist books or verbalize the correct rhetoric," Chisholm told the audience. True feminism, Chisholm said, "demands equality but it also requires a commitment to improve the human condition of all the sisters."
Chisholm's talk highlighted a three-day conference that ended Sunday. The conference was held for women students and faculty from all universities in the state system and was sponsored by the UC Student Lobby, Lobby Annex and UCI's Women's Resource Center in cooperation with the UCI Affirmative Action Office, Minority Programs Board and Office of Arts and Lectures. Other events included a presentation of women's research papers, workshops of women in business and management, panels on the feminist at work and white women against racism, and a "Generations of Women" photo exhibit.
Chisholm was the organizers' first choice for keynote speaker because of her history of pulling together diverse constituencies and her role in American politics, said Leslie Millerd, director of the Women's Resource Center.
Elected 17 years ago to the U.S. House of Representatives from the 12th New York Congressional District in Brooklyn, Chisholm earned a reputation as a feisty champion of disadvantaged blacks and Puerto Ricans, American Indians, Haitian refugees, migrant farm workers, domestics, the poor and women.
She became the senior woman Democrat in the House of Representatives and the only black to sit on the House Rules Committee. In 1972, she campaigned for the Democratic nomination for president. In addition, she is the author of several books, including an autobiography, "Unbought and Unbossed," and "The Good Fight," about her presidential campaign. In 1982, she decided not to seek re-election.
As to rumors that she had been considered for Ferraro's spot on last year's ticket, Chisholm said, "That's a lie." She said she had not expected to be considered. But she added she was annoyed that no black woman was interviewed for the position. The next woman vice presidential candidate, she predicted, will be a Republican: Elizabeth Dole.
In recent years, Chisholm said she has had her differences with feminists. For example, she supported former First Lady Rosalind Carter when, during a diplomatic visit to a Middle Eastern country, she agreed to dine with the wives in a room segregated from their husbands.
Conference coordinator Torun Willits asked Chisholm if acceptance of sexism in that instance meant we should accept racism in South Africa. "The women who attacked her didn't realize it (the segregation) was part of their religion," Chisholm responded. "And don't forget her position. You could upset diplomatic relationships. She was astute and wise enough to respect their culture and values." Later Willits said she did not believe Chisholm had answered her question.