In the middle of the twentieth century, in the midst of the black freedom struggle in the United States and the escalating war in Vietnam, and on the leading edge of women's liberation, two nonwhite women got elected to national office. One of them, Patsy Takemoto Mink, was a third-generation Hawaiian of Japanese descent. The other, Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm, was a first-generation American with Afro-Caribbean parents. Neither of them were mere token firsts in office, and both articulated feminist visions that found their way into legislative agendas and conversations throughout their careers and beyond.
Kimberlee Bassford's film Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority is an aptly titled political biography of the larger-than-life congresswoman. The first nonwhite woman to be elected to the United States Congress, Mink was the engine behind the Women's Educational Equity Act of 1974 and Title IX of the 1972 Educational Amendments, and was an outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam. Ahead of the Majority shows how Mink was rejected for medical school on account of her sex, but successfully completed law school at the University of Chicago only to encounter sex discrimination in the law firms of her home state. When the Democratic Party became reinvigorated in Hawaii in the 1950s, Mink got involved--first as a campaign manager, and then as a candidate. She won her first term in the House in 1964, served until 1977, then ran again successfully in 1990 and passed away in office in 2002. She also ran a limited campaign--in the state of Oregon--for United States President in 1972 on an antiwar platform.
Ahead of the Majority uses a fairly straightforward documentary style. The film begins with Mink's childhood on Maui and ends with her death, tracing the evolution of her career chronologically. Her politics and legislative record are well documented by interviews with her colleagues and her daughter, period footage and photographs, and a voice-over narrative. The film (probably correctly) assumes that most of its audience will know very little about its subject and makes a clear case for Mink's importance in late twentieth-century social and political history.
A wide range of classrooms will find Ahead of the Majority useful. Because scholarship on Mink is so thin and no critical biography of her exists, viewing this documentary is a good way to incorporate her life and career into class material.1 Courses that could utilize Ahead of the Majority include modern United States history, Women's Studies and history, and Asian-American Studies and history.
Shola Lynch's Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed focuses on the groundbreaking presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm in 1972. Chisholm, the first black woman to be elected to Congress, represented her home district of Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City from 1969 to 1983, and in 1972 she announced her decision to run for the Democratic nomination. She was well aware that she was unlikely to win it, but her strategy was to collect as many delegates as possible so that she could influence the Democratic Party's platform that year. Running on her commitment to civil rights, women's rights, ending the war in Vietnam, and empowering poor people, Chisholm attracted a substantial multiracial and multigenerational coalition. She received support from both the National Organization for Woman and the Black Panther Party. However, at the 1972 Democratic National Committee convention in Miami, Florida, that year, the coalition did not hold together and her pool of delegates did not exercise the influence that she had hoped it would.
A snappy retro-soul soundtrack sets the tone for Chisholm '72, which uses the words of interviewees and original audio from the campaign as narration, instead of voice-over. For example, the film opens with Chisholm's announcement of her candidacy, mixed with music and interspersed with images of activists and scenes from the battlefield in Vietnam. This rhetorical move instantly transports the audience to the early 1970s and allows Chisholm herself to explain the intellectual and political motivations of her candidacy. In addition, the film is not strictly chronological. It spends a few minutes on Chisholm's early life in Barbados and briefly mentions Chisholm's first days in Congress, but it is far more concerned with documenting the presidential campaign and, in particular, the energy and controversy that it engendered.
Having taught with Chisholm '72, I have found success. I have used the film in courses on black women's history and black diaspora feminisms, and I would likely use it in a modern United States survey course as well. Students have told me that they enjoy how it keeps their interest and educates them about a figure that most of them have heard of but that few of them know anything about. As with Mink's story, there is at present no critical biography of Chisholm, although there are her own two memoirs and some recently published articles.2
A host of discussion topics emerge from both films' material. In addition to providing important information about each woman's life history, these films address the question of why Mink and Chisholm are so little known how historical context influenced their rise in politics and their lives and careers, and what political issues concerned them and why.
1 For details of Mink's life and career, see:
2 This author is at presently at work on a biography of Chisholm. See also Shirley Chisholm, Unbought and Unbossed (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970); Chisholm, The Good Fight (New York: Harper and Row, 1973); Paula D. McClain, Niambi M. Carter, and Michael C. Brady, "Gender and Black Presidential Politics: From Chisholm to Moseley Braun," Journal of Women, Politics, and Policy 27, no. 1-2 (2005), 51-68; Julie Gallagher, "African American Women and Power Politics in New York City, 1944-1972," Journal of Women, Politics, and Policy 29, no.1 (2007), 101-30; Gallagher, "Waging 'The Good Fight': The Political Career of Shirley Chisholm, 1953-1982," Journal of African American History 92, no.3 (2007), 392-416; Tammy L. Brown, "'A New Era in American Politics': Shirley Chisholm and the Discourse of Identity," Callaloo 31, no.4 (2008), 1013-25; Joshua Guild, "To Make That Someday Come: Shirley Chisholm's Radical Politics of Possibility," in Want to Start a Revolution?: Radical Women in the Black Freedom Struggle, ed. Dayo F. Gore, Jeanne Theoharis, and Komozi Woodard (New York: New York University Press, 2009), 248-70.
Anastasia Curwood is assistant professor of African American and Diaspora Studies at Vanderbilt University. She specializes in the history of African-American women, gender, and sexuality, the black family, and African-American intellectual, political, and cultural history in the twentieth century. Her first book, Stormy Weather: New Negro Marriages between the Two World Wars (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), centers on the cultural and social contests over African-Americans' marriages in the early twentieth century. She is currently at work on a second book entitled "Aim High: The Life of Shirley Chisholm." Professor Curwood is the recipient of several grants and honors, including a 2008-2009 Career Enhancement Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and a Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship.