With last night’s primaries, there are now 199 women who’ve won their primaries for a House seat in 2018. If the midterms are a referendum on the administration occupying the White House, the voters are showing they want to send more women to elected office – and especially to Washington – in the Trump era. One of those women in Jahana Hayes, above, in our neighboring Connecticut; she won the Dem primary last night, and her district is solid blue. Like AOC, absent catastrophe, she’s a lock; Connecticut will send its first black woman to Congress ever, 50 years after Shirley.
New York sent Shirley Chisholm to Congress in 1968. She was the first black woman in Congress and she served 7 terms and ran for president just 4 years later. When she got to Washington, she wrote a book about how she got there. It was called Unbought and Unbossed, and it was a roadmap of how you can succeed even if the establishment doesn’t want you. Chisholm was elected by a coalition she built herself; black people, feminists, and young voters. The voting age had just been lowered from 21 to 18, as young people old enough to be drafted to the Vietnam War but not old enough to vote, agitated for change. Chisholm was a leading voice against the War. Then, she ran for president in 1972; the first woman and the first African-American to seek nomination for president from a major party. Her campaign theme? Unbought and Unbossed. Proving the fragility of some of the people threatened at the idea of a black woman running this country, there were three attempts on her life during that campaign. But even so, when racist George Wallace, also a ’72 candidate, was shot 5 times in an assassination attempt, she visited him in the hospital – despite their obvious differences. She had guts.
Hillary, Bella, and Shirley. In the 2016 campaign, whenever Hillary Clinton would talk about breaking the glass ceiling, I’d flash back to two of my heroes Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm; two very different women who held office in my youth in NYC. Hillary, herself white obviously, got the Democratic nomination that Chisholm sought 44 years before, then lost the top job. But she was already powerful, already rich, already deferred to, by the time she ran, and had already been all those things for decades. I was always much more interested in the kind of groundbreakers Abzug and Chisholm were. Ordinary people, out of ordinary neighborhoods, victorious because they were simply extraordinary, savvy as hell, articulate, tough, smart – and without a celebrated marriage to kick off their political careers. Bella Abzug would become my boss; my first staff job was her last campaign. I worked in her finance team, but when her assistant was unavailable, I was her body woman. And her brashness was a real threat to a lot of men. I saw men follow her on the street, knock off her (famous) hats, pinch her rear end (or mine), try to shout down her speeches. Shirley Chisholm is hometown to me; she started as a teacher at a nursery school (pre-school) in Brownsville, Brooklyn where I grew up, and where my mother also co-founded a nursery school. Lots of friends in common. When it comes to really breaking barriers, what I think of is this: Shirley Chisholm, unbought and unbossed, went to Congress and ran for president while people were still lynching black people for just trying to vote.
New York neighbors. New York sent Chisholm to Washington 50 years ago this year. It took New Jersey, just next door, another 46 years to send our first black woman to Congress. That was Bonnie Watson Coleman, my champion who represents me better than my own congressman Leonard Lance. BWC is co-founder of Congressional Caucus on Black Women & Girls, as Chisholm was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Now, incredibly, the other state next door to New York, Connecticut, is poised to send their first black woman Democrat** to Congress, 50 years after Chisholm. That is Jahana Hayes. She too, comes out of education. She received 2016’s Teacher of the Year award from President Barack Obama. That seems especially important in an era of public education, and teachers themselves, under fire. Hayes, 46, has never run for office before. She was raised by her grandmother in a housing project in Waterbury. She was pregnant at 17, but made her way through community and state colleges, graduating in 2005. She taught high school history in her hometown, and now is professional development supervisor in that same district. She’s married to a police officer; 4 kids. She, like Chisholm, says she’s running to represent people who are marginalized and not listened to. Notably, Hayes was not endorsed by Connecticut’s Democratic Party.
I can’t wait till November. 83 days.
** Remarkably, the Republican Party beat the Democrats in electing a black person to Congress. Gary Franks was elected in 1990 and served 6 years. He made news too; the only African-American Connecticut ever sent to Congress, and the first black conservative in Congress in modern times.
Featured photo above: Jahana Hayes reacts after winning the Democratic primary for Connecticut’s 5th Congressional District, defeating Mary Glassman, in Waterbury, Conn. on Aug. 14, 2018. Photo: John Woike—Hartford Courant/AP