Friday, October 28, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Shirley Chisholm's 1972 contested debate time

These days, women candidates for President are often standalones in a sea of male candidates, and this election year, they've sometimes fallen afoul of television networks' insistence on poll data to determine who gets to debate. But all that seems fair compared to what happened to Shirley Chisholm, who paved the way for women presidential candidates in the television age--and who was completely shut out of the 1972 televised debates for her party.

Yes, you have that right. The television networks simply didn't invite her to participate when her male opponents for the Democratic nomination were doing prime-time debates on television.

Chisholm was a triple-first: the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Congress, the first woman to run for the Democratic party nomination for president, and the first major-party African-American to run for president. Running on the motto, "Unbought and Unbossed," she was not about to be shut out of a major opportunity like a televised debate. In The Good Fight, her memoir of the 1972 presidential campaign, Chisholm wrote about it this way:
An important legal precedent was set during my campaign through the work of a young public service lawyer, Tom Asher of the Media Service Project in Washington, D.C. During the weeks just before the California primary, Hubert H. Humphrey had challenged George McGovern to a series of television debates. Somehow (and I am not sure the full story of how it happened ever became public) the three networks--CBS, ABC and NBC--wound up donating their weekly half-hour public affairs interview programs to the two candidates. "Meet the Press," "Face the Nation" and "Issues and Answers" were all stretched to an hour and rescheduled to provide, in effect, three one-hour debates between Humphrey and McGovern during the last full week before the California primary. Tom Asher filed a protest on my behalf with the Federal Communications Commission, citing section 315 of the Federal Communications Act, which says that if any broadcasting station permits itself to be used by any legally qualified candidate for an office, it must permit equal opportunities to all other candidates.
After an appeal against the first FCC ruling, which favored the networks, a court overturned the ruling. NBC had already conceded, giving her a half-hour on the "Today" morning program. CBS and ABC were ordered to provide her with one half-hour of prime time.

In Gloria Steinem's memoir, My Life on the Road, she recalls being pressed into service as a last-minute speechwriter to help Chisholm take advantage of the opportunity:
Because she was "whited out"--as Flo Kennedy put it--of a televised debate before the New York primary, Chisholm and her campaign manager, Ludwig Gelobter, brought a legal action for equal time. She was given a half-hour at the last minute. Ludwig asked me to write overnight a speech that knit together Shirley's farsighted positions. Staying up to do it, then watching her deliver it on television, was a high I won't forget.
That's some speechwriter and some speaker. My regret is that there's no publicly available video of any of these debate opportunities, and no transcript I can find (although I welcome hearing from readers with access to either transcripts or video we can share).

Chisholm famously said, "When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men." Failing to offer her debate time on national television was just the most prominent demonstration of that discrimination, and failure to make the events available is another. Every time a woman candidate gets air time today, I hope you'll think of her.

Here's video of Chisholm declaring her candidacy:

 
(Creative Commons licensed photo via Seattle City Council)

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