When I was in middle school, my class put on a living wax museum presentation. There was a long list of people from whom we could choose to emulate. My fellow students picked famous athletes, beautiful celebrities, and important businessmen. I wasn’t motivated by fame and fortune. I wanted to find someone awesome. I scanned the list, complete with short summaries of the historical figures, and made my choice: Shirley Chisholm.
I didn’t know who she was before writing her name down next to mine. I remember reading that she was the first African American woman elected to Congress and the first woman to run for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. I remember learning that she fought for human rights, helped establish the food stamp program for women and children, and increased spending on education and health care. Once she’d worked to improve the lives of her constituents, she decided to run for the presidential nomination. There were threats made against her life. There were constant doubts. There was little support for her efforts. She said she ran, despite knowing she would not win the nomination, “to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.”
There was nothing that spoke to me more as a twelve year old than the desire to ruffle the status quo, to step outside what I was told was normal in order to create what was better. I found a plaid suit jacket and a beige turtleneck in my grandmother’s closet and proudly stood in the cafeteria as Chisholm.
I’d made a poster detailing the amazing accomplishments of this woman and was ready to explain every fact to wandering parents and teachers. People were only mildly interested. Well, to be honest, people were clearly disinterested. It could have been my natural awkwardness or my supernatural uncoolness, but I think it had a bit to do with the fact that I didn’t look glamorous or have a quickly recognizable name. I was not dissuaded. I felt strong standing up as a woman who defied expectations and odds.
When I watched Hillary Clinton become the Democratic nominee for president yesterday, I thought about Shirley Chisholm. I thought about her diligently and persistently cracking away at that glass ceiling. I thought about all the women who have been pushing up against it, decade after decade. I thought about how proud I felt wearing that plaid suit, like I was a part of this long struggle for equality and women’s rights. And I was. We all are. We’re standing on the shoulders of some really badass women. On the shoulders of Victoria Woodhull, who ran for president at a time when women were not even allowed to vote. On the shoulders of Nellie Bly, a political journalist who traveled the world to tell stories of the disenfranchised. On the shoulders of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was scorned for taking the place of a man at her university. Today, though, we have a woman running for president. Tomorrow, we’ll have a woman as our president.
But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. I just googled “amazing women” because I was feeling inspired and the first five results were for mail-order brides. So, we still have some work to do. I’m going to dig out my shoulder pads and turtleneck and get to it.