The day after the election it rained. The downpour was ceaseless, but a small group gathered to discuss the achievements and losses of women in politics at the Tenement Museum. Author of The Women Who Made New York—and mom in our fair Momtropolis—Julie Scelfo moderated an insightful discussion with Dr. Zinga Fraser, Donna Zaccaro, and Liz Abzug. Zinga Fraser, PhD and Director of the Shirley Chisholm Project, illuminated the experiences of the first African-American woman elected to Congress. Donna Zaccaro, daughter of Geraldine Ferraro, and Liz Abzug, daughter of Bella Abzug, offered an insider’s perspective into the challenges faced by the first woman to run for vice president and the second Jewish woman elected to Congress. Scelfo and the panel put the work of these political pioneers in a historical context and a New York cultural context that unearthed some insight into the way forward after Hillary Clinton’s devastating loss.
When Scelfo first conceived the evening, she had hoped to be basking in the after-glow of electing the first female president but wasn’t entirely optimistic. The results confirmed her apprehension. Women’s political advancement continues to be a struggle and what better place to discuss that struggle than the Lower East Side. After all this is where many 20th century ideas about human rights and American ideals first took root in the poverty of the tenements. Suffrage, birth control, and worker’s rights found cause here thanks to Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Sanger and Eleanor Roosevelt. The NAACP, women’s rights, and gay rights found voice in other parts of New York through Ella Baker, Gloria Steinem, and Audre Lorde. So logically, New York is where Shirley Chisholm, Geraldine Ferraro, and Bella Abzug ran for office. This is not to dismiss crucial contributions to human rights made elsewhere, but Scelfo feels, “Whether we are talking about gay rights, Black Lives Matter, or feminism, a lot of the awareness comes from New York City.” And specifically, The Women Who Made New York.
Shirley Chisholm and Intersectional Politics
“Shirley Chisholm is my hero!” proclaimed Scelfo as she turned the conversation to Dr. Zinga Fraser. Few know the first African American to seek the nomination of a major party in a presidential race was Chisholm. She started her political career when she realized that women performed most of the work on political campaigns but held few leadership positions. She saw an opportunity to run for Congress when Bedford Styvesant was redistricted, but soon learned that redistricting was intended as a place holder for a male candidate. According to Fraser, Chisholm’s opponent James Farmer failed to notice that African-American women at the time, out voted men 2 to 1. In fact, black women exceed all demographics in voter turnout today. Consequently, Shirley became the first African-American Congresswoman.
In Washington, Shirley met the duel barriers of sexism and racism. Chisholm wrote that being a woman was often more of a problem than being black, a statement Fraser attributed to Chisholm’s contentious relationship with the Congressional Black Caucus. People also bypassed working with her because of her race, but Fraser believes, “more importantly because of her belief that she was un-bought and un-bossed.” Compounding matters, Chisholm’s agenda was ahead of her time in addressing the rights of gays, women and Native Americans. In fact, Fraser believes Chisholm, “embodied what is meant by intersectional politics but is missing today.”
This election has certainly dealt intersectional politics a devastating blow. Clinton’s loss shows how fragile advancements in the realm really are given the popularity of Trumpism as a rejection of Obama, women and inclusiveness. While Fraser stressed money was the biggest limiting factor for women in politics, she also cautioned there are still some who are not connected to the idea of a woman candidate.
Geraldine Ferraro and the Myth of Sisterhood
The news that more than half of white women swung for Trump loomed large over this discussion. Donna Zaccaro, daughter of Geraldine Ferraro, shed some light on this and gave the audience a behind the scenes view of being a political first. Zaccaro spoke of Ferraro as someone who really cared. As Queens assistant district attorney, she started the Special Victims Unit which investigated victims of abuse and rape. Ferraro was frustrated that existing legislation for victims was insufficient and lead to her run for Congress. Zaccaro stated, “She saw each child that was abused as her own child.”
Zaccaro also spoke of her parents’ unconventional partnership. From maintaining her maiden name, to going back to work when her children entered school, to running as the first woman vice president, Ferraro challenged traditional Italian-American gender roles. And this unfortunately terrified women in 1984 just as much as men. Zaccaro cited pols demonstrating that middle-aged women didn’t feel Ferraro should run for office because,
“They were afraid they too would be expected to do a ‘man’s job’ and couldn’t. So they didn’t want Ferraro to succeed because it would make them feel bad about themselves.”
This inferiority complex doesn’t define women voters today though. Fraser maintained the widely held view that xenophobia is at the heart of the white women’s voting split. Xenophobia is certainly an influential factor amongst many in our entrenched cultural party divide. A divide that gender solidarity is not potent enough to bridge. White women historical vote Republican, 56% voting for Romney in 2012. Zaccaro insisted,
“Women don’t vote for women. They vote their pocket books like everyone else.” This is the reason, “Hillary didn’t run as a woman running for president. She ran as the best qualified person.”
Younger women may not even think it’s a big deal that the US has never had a female president, but Zaccaro thinks they should because, “It will change what people think is possible for women.” Additionally, She feels it is problematic that women tend to wait for the establishment to ask them to run instead of taking a risk. As a result, there simply aren’t enough women entering the political pipeline in lower races.
“Battling Bella” and Authenticity
While women may not define their role as rigidly as they did in Ferraro’s day, Liz Abzug, daughter of Bella Abzug, argued that self-esteem still looms large for women in politics. She founded The Bella Abzug Leadership Institute specifically to break barriers for young women. One of the ideas she instills in her mentees is,
“We have to own our own personalities! Women still question their own authority and ability to lead.” Liz, a professor at Barnard, attests, “I have never seen a boy raise his hand and start a sentence with an apology and yet today after this election a female student did just that!”
Scelfo noted, “Hillary started her concession speech with an apology.”
Liz emphasized authenticity because it was a quality her mother Bella had in spades and it served her political career immensely. Nicknamed “Battling Bella” for her outspoken reputation, she was a neighborhood girl done good who locals felt comfortable yelling out to on the street. Referencing the perception that Clinton was too scripted,
Scelfo asked, “What do you say to women about being authentic if you are going to come under constant fire?”
In contrast to Bella, Liz criticized, “You don’t have to be scripted. Clinton chose to be.” Continuing, “You really have to know who you are to face the kinds of attacks [Hillary, Bella, Geraldine and Shirley] faced. If you don’t you cannot convince people that you are of the mind, soul, and heart to be elected.”
Tough love from Battling Liz Abzug.
Listening to Scelfo and the panel discuss the obstacles for women in politics was salve for the feminist soul and enticed me to read more about The Women Who Made New York. Scelfo reassuringly viewed the election as one event in the,
“long slow progress toward the idea of empathy and that empathy might benefit everybody. This idea that human rights—compassion and empathy—should be an intrinsic part of the American dream is not always automatic or widely understood. The dialogue we have about it is often wrapped up in tiny attractive soundbites but the real work doesn’t always take place.”
As for Trump, Scelfo offered,
“Trump actually did quite a bit of good for feminism because he put misogyny right out there for all to see.”
I came away determined that the way forward now is to take Zaccaro’s advice and put more girls on a political path. I resolved to gift The Women Who Made New York to my daughters and other girls on my Christmas list in the hopes of adding future women to the political pipeline. I am of an apolitical generation X. The one before was so vocal we could never measure up to the passion, but watching the protests across the nation, including high school students walking out of class, I am hopeful that the next generation might feel the passion deeply. I am confident the protests aren’t giving up any time soon. In fact, I’m betting I will see some of you at the Women’s March on Washington. But mostly, I am confident that women will continue to wake up and make New York everyday, even after this election. Leaving the Tenement Museum, I took that confidence back out into the pouring rain.