Much has been said about the new look of Congress as the halls of our nation’s highest legislative chambers began to swarm with new members who were sworn in and trying to find their offices during the first week of January, 2019. Like wow look how many women are moving in this year (117 women elected or appointed — 102 in the House and 10 in the Senate), like wow is this some kind of record number for women (it is – the highest number of women before was 89 in 2016), like wow this makes me so frigging happy (this last one was said by me).
Rep. Ayanna Pressley was the first black woman elected from the State of Massachusetts and had hoped to be assigned to Shirley Chisholm’s (first black woman elected to Congress in 1968) old office. The office assignments were done by a lotto system with Pressley drawing #38 which meant she had little opportunity to choose the office she wanted. However, luck wasn’t totally against her because another incoming freshman Rep Katie Hill (D – Cal) drew lucky #7 and switched with Pressley. Rep. Pressley moved in to Longworth 1130, Chisholm’s old office, while Rep. Hill was just down the hall in 1108.
During her 2018 campaign, then candidate Pressley often wore a $6 lapel button with the letters BYOC stamped on it. BYOC – bring your own chair – a reminder of the faith and commitment of Shirley Chisholm, the daughter of immigrants, in the American political system and the democratic process.
Both Reps. Pressley and Chisholm shared similar fights in their efforts to become elected to the House of Representatives. Chisholm who served in the House from 1969 – 1983 ran on the slogan “Unbought and Unbossed” as she defeated two other black candidates in the primary for the redrawn 12th District of New York in 1968. Against all odds Ms. Chisholm then defeated James L. Farmer, Jr. in the general election. Farmer, the former director of the Congress for Racial Equality, ran as a Libertarian.
Fifty years later in 2018 Candidate Pressley defeated ten-term incumbent Michael Capuano in the Democratic primary of the Massachusetts 7th. Congressional District, a district where the majority was not white. The 7th. District had been represented in the past by such Democratic legends as former President John F. Kennedy and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. Interestingly, contemporary icons of the black caucus in the House, Rep. John Lewis (D – Ga) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D – Cal), did not support Ayanna Pressley in her challenge to Congressman Capuano. No Republican ran against Ms. Pressley in the general election so her win in the primary assured her victory which sent her to the House to become a member of the history-making group of women elected to Congress in 2018.
“I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the woman’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people and my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history.”
This was a quote taken from Shirley Chisholm’s announcement to enter the 1972 Democratic Presidential Primary as the first black woman to run for president in a major political party. Although she was unsuccessful in her bid, her courage planted a seed of belief that women deserved a place at the proverbial table. That belief continued to grow as more and more women of all shapes, colors, religious faiths, cultures, sexual orientation, ethnicity, political affiliations – women in all areas of the country ran for local, state and national elections during the next fifty years.
This past weekend I heard Rep. Pressley in an interview with Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC. I had heard her being interviewed before, but this one felt different for me. She had been invited to talk about her proposed amendment on a House bill to lower the voting age to 16. I confess I hadn’t really given a thought to lowering the voting age, but I have to say Congresswoman Pressley’s passion and rationale for Age 16 voting were impressive. The amendment had failed but she had convinced 122 other members to sign on – and had also received the support of Speaker Pelosi, which I assume for a freshman must be like having a coach pick you to play for your team during March Madness.
My ability to predict the future, let alone anyone’s political future, is notably suspect. However, I told Pretty the next morning I had just heard the first woman of color to be elected President of the United States talking with Lawrence O’Donnell. Forgive me, Senator Harris. I’m hoping I’m wrong.
I celebrate Representative Ayanna Pressley in Women’s History Month and have added her to my list of sheroes – a list that already included Shirley Chisholm. The time for change is upon us. We must have old memories and young hopes. And oh yes, by the way, I am now convinced 16 years is the perfect age for voting in these times when young people lead the way with their hopes for a better tomorrow.
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