Friday, October 21, 2016

Hitting the Chisholm Trail Redux

Talk about your timely film.

The Virginia Historical Society was showing "Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed," sucking me in on not only that era, but the women's rights movement, the Civil Rights connection and the parallels that a woman is running for President today.

Somehow I wound up sitting in the honorary Gerald Baliles seat, notable, sure, for my current top choice of his son for mayor, but also because of the woman who introduced the film and led the discussion afterward: Mary Sue Terry, who'd been running herself in '72 and had later been attorney general under Baliles.

See how I made a whole circle of life connection right there?

The crowd skewed heavily female, meaning lots of short gray hair and chatter ("I just came from yoga, so I'm a sweaty Betty" and "I went to see that movie "The Dressmaker" for the couture and it was the worst movie I ever saw!") before Terry directed the "Baptists in the back" to move closer to the auditorium's front for better interaction.

Oh, how they grumbled about that.

Regardless of where you sat, the 2004 documentary was a compelling look at a period in time and the sheer audacity of a black woman to decide to run for the highest office in the land.

She read her speech announcing her candidacy while holding the manila file folder that contained the speech, emphasizing that she wasn't the black candidate, she wasn't the woman candidate, that she was simply the candidate of the people.

And she did it with a West Indian lilt to her voice and a slight lisp that would likely not go over well in these highly critical social media times.

What was impressive was that from the moment she won a seat in the House in 1968, she was making it clear she was going to play by her own rules. About to be assigned to the agricultural committee, she balked, saying such a posting wasn't relevant to her Brooklyn constituency that included Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Thinks about it: that's a lot of nerve for for the first black woman elected to Congress.

My fondness for archival footage was rewarded with old news clips (Walter Cronkite referring to Chisholm and Muskie simply as "other candidates" not worthy of naming; saying that Chisholm was "throwing her bonnet in the ring" when she announced or referring to "old Hubert Humphrey" as "the warhorse") and commercials such as the one singing a "Nixon Now" jingle that was probably just as grating then as today.

Her commercial also involved singing - "If you're looking for freedom, take the Chisholm trail, We will set our women free" - but looked more like an outtake from a multi-cultural Partridge Family shoot than you might expect.

That she frequently wore a full-length fur coat (and corsage!) on the campaign trail seemed both odd and appropriately feminine for the times.

As much of a determined fighter as she was, Chisholm knew better than to think she'd win the Presidency, admitting that her role was to pave the way for other women.

You could just feel the female pride rising in the room as we watched and when a montage of women's rights marches was shown over Helen Reddy's '70s anthem "I am Woman, Hear Me Roar," I heard voices throughout the auditorium singing along.

If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman

Probably most striking about the footage of Chisholm on the campaign trail was just how forthright and outspoken she was, absolutely certain of her beliefs and goals.

"I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the 20th century," she says stirringly near the end of the documentary and you get the sense that she really meant it.

Terry returned to the front of the room to lead a discussion once the film ended and some people (and most males) left. Her first question was about who had been born after '72 and what had shocked them most about what they'd just seen.

"That she ran against George Wallace!" one said and while I'd known that, I'd never seen the riff on "American Gothic" using her and Wallace. Bad taste has always been the currency of the body politic, it seems.

"That she stayed in the race," said another who hadn't realized she'd made it all the way to the Democratic convention. Terry had also been at that convention, sharing that it was nothing like today's highly-scheduled events.

"We worked for 37 hours that convention and 17 of them were after midnight," she recalled of the late night wheeling and dealing of delegates to produce one nominee. "People characterized our convention as all about sex, pot and queers."

As good a place to start as any..

She reminded us that in addition to Chisholm being black and female, she was also extremely short and, "We like our elected officials tall!"

"We prefer good hair, too, don't we?" a woman in the crowd called out, getting momentarily topical about bad comb-overs.

Terry stressed how much higher the health standard is for women running for elected office than it is for men, recalling George Allen attending an event with his arm in a sling because he'd signed so many autographs he had tendinitis.

She said she could never have gotten away with doing the same.

In fact, when she'd broken her back in a few places playing racket ball, she had less than a week before she needed to attend the opening of the General Assembly. "I've got to get out of this hospital," she insisted about the looming event. "And get a permanent!"

Every woman has her priorities. A woman once told me she couldn't stay out and drink wine too late because she had an appointment the next afternoon to get her fake lashes reapplied. We don't judge.

Terry's plan was to use a cane to make walking into the General Assembly and down its steps slightly less painful but she was instructed that if she planned to arrive with a cane, she shouldn't plan to come at all. She went cane-less and without taking a pain pill for fear it would make her appear out of it.

Always held to a higher standard.

Discussion was lively, both about Chisholm and her legacy and about Terry's personal soapbox.

"I hope I'm not being recorded tonight," she joked. "I'm not anti-man, really I'm not." But she did question how a Martian would perceive a place where the larger population (my people) had a governing body primarily comprised of the smaller population.

"My plea is for more women to be elected to office. Men just decide to run but women usually have to be pushed and convinced. Let's elect more women!" She was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the cause.

Walking outside next to a young black woman, I asked what she'd thought of the film. Admitting that she'd never even heard of Chisholm before today when she saw it was being shown, she'd been impressed with the candidate and confused as to why she'd never been taught about such a historic run for the Presidency.

I asked her when she'd been born: 1991. Chisholm left Congress before then - 1982 - but was alive until 2005, yet this woman had woken up today with no idea of her historic run for the White House.

We may have numbers too big to ignore, but how're we ever going to set our women free if we don't teach them about the efforts of their foremothers, even when it includes sex, pot and queers?

My plea aligns with Terry's. Let's show the Martians who's in charge, shall we?

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