2024 is a significant year for elections, and a record number of voters are heading to the polls, with just under 50% of the global population participating in elections in at least 64 countries. If we focus on the leadership struggle in the United States, the two most likely candidates, Joe Biden and Donald Trump, were both born in the 1940s, both white men. Both demonstrate how difficult it is for candidates from diverse backgrounds to smash political leadership positions’ concrete ceiling. Fifty-one years ago, in 1972, Shirley Chisholm, an educator who was also a black woman, stood as a candidate for the Democratic nomination during the US Presidential elections. Shirley Chisholm made history as the first African American woman to be elected to the United States Congress, serving in the House of Representatives for fourteen years, from 1969 to 1983.

Alex Chisholm, Director of Bradford Opera Festival is bringing her story to the stage with a musical ‘Chisholm for President!’ performed at the Southbank Centre later this month. When Alex first came across Shirley’s story twenty years ago, the coincidence of shared last names generated curiosity and exploration; “About the late 2000s, I happened across on the internet a picture of a petite but powerful looking Black woman with the slogan “Chisholm ’72 Unbought & Unbossed”. It stopped me in my tracks – we shared a surname! Who was she? And why hadn’t I heard of her before? I went away and found out everything I could about her. I read her autobiographies, where her fresh, funny, passionate voice came off the page – a call for justice, peace, human rights, and a different kind of politics based on serving the most vulnerable in society, not the most powerful.” Alex explains the catalyst that made the idea a reality; “Then 2016 happened; a self-confessed sexual abuser beat a competent, if complex, woman. I woke up after Trump’s victory in the US wanting to do something about what it means to be a woman in politics; how can we use the inspiration of this political woman to fight for change, justice, and human rights? I wanted to tell Shirley Chisholm’s story because 50 years after her campaign, we’d forgotten her example and her message. She was a hero of her time; she’s a hero for our time. I want to celebrate Shirley Chisholm and all those women, especially Black women, who make change today. So I called Zodwa Nyoni (writer) and Testament (music and lyrics) because there are not two better artists to create this show. Or two better collaborators to work with on any project.” The result? A musical performance bringing out a powerful story of politics and change charged with music – more akin to Hamilton than Evita. Of course her most prominent phrase which has become part of the lexicon for women’s leadership, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair” has it’s own song.

Politics today is more divided than ever, and identity politics is particularly acute; we still get caught on the one-and-then-done mantra, Obama becoming the first black president and Harris the first multi-racial Vice President. The gender, racial, socio-economic profiles and personalities are perhaps even more important than the politics themselves. Yes, when Shirley Chisholm put herself forward as a candidate, her position was bigger than the one-and-done movement as she wrote, “I want history to remember me… not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.” Her involvement in politics provided a voice for the most vulnerable in society, particularly children. Alex emphasizes her position; “She advocated for her constituents – the Black, Latino, poor inhabitants of Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York. She cared about the welfare of the most vulnerable, wherever they may be. Shirley Chisholm used her first speech to stand against Nixon cutting the welfare and education budgets to fund the war in Vietnam. If she were alive today, she would be saying the same thing to the Biden administration, cutting welfare to fund the war in Gaza.”.

Today, we recognize the importance of intersectionality when discussing race and gender, but in the 1970s, these areas were often pitted against each other, vying for attention and resources. Alex explains why Shirley Chisholm’s leadership style is even more critical today in the wider debates on what it means for women in leadership; “Shirley Chisholm speaks directly to now because she believed in being her authentic self ‘who dared to be herself’ but who was not restricted or confined by her identity but liberated by it. It gave her the strength, insight, and determination to catalyze change in America. Shirley Chisholm was a mix between idealist and pragmatist. She had high ideals and believed she could see them through – against all the odds. In her presidential campaign, she spent less money on the whole campaign than her rivals did in the State of Florida. But she inspired thousands nationwide to volunteer for her, putting their own time, money, and effort in because they believed in what she stood for and the America she represented. She was a strong believer in cross-party collaboration and was incredibly frustrated with the glacial pace of change and the seniority system in Washington that gave positions and privileges to those who stuck around for the longest.”

Presenting the complexity of Shirley Chisholm’s approach in the musical required understanding the nuances of her behaviors, demonstrating her desire for change but also her humanity as Alex describes one of the songs; “‘The Right Thing to Do’ is about her decision to go see her rival for the Democratic nomination, George Wallace, a Southern Democrat, and segregationist after he was shot in an assassination attempt. That decision, which cost her support, eventually led to a change of heart for Wallace, who repudiated his former racist views and collaborated with her on Education reforms.”

Her Presidential campaign was known for its slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed”, as she didn’t seek permission, nor did she have funding for her campaign. She used her platform to provide a voice to all under-represented groups beyond black women; the Latino and Asian communities as well members from the LGBTQ+ community, in fact, drag queens were big supporters of hers in Brooklyn). But she also recognized the barriers she was facing as she stated, “As a black person, I am not a stranger to race prejudice. But the truth is that in the political world, I have been far oftener discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am black.”

While Shirley Chisholm has paved the way for many women leaders in politics, Vice-President Kamala Harris heard her talk at college; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, also a Congresswoman from New York, is speaking up for the poor, oppressed, and vulnerable, and Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Combining performance and politics, Alex Chisholm sees radical shifts in her environment. In my field (arts and culture), we now have some phenomenal Black, Asian, and Disabled female leaders demonstrating that mix of idealism and pragmatism to bring about change. I’m thinking of Indu Rubasingham, newly appointed Artistic Director of the National Theatre; Guilaine Kinouani, founder of Race Reflections and one of the most original and influential writers and thinkers on race, society, and psychology; Jenny Sealey Artistic Director of Graeae Theatre, leading Disabled Theatre company who has changed how Disability arts and disabled artist are visible and supported in this country, Imandeep Kaur, founder and director of Civic Square Birmingham, creating a new model of civic action and collaboration.”

Alex Chisholm is clear: people need to know more about the woman than her powerful quote; “We want to take her inspiration out to the world.” this performance creates the opportunity to bring a new audience to her story, and this time, chairs are provided.

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