For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Forty years after Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman to run as a major-party presidential candidate, her supporters gathered Tuesday at the Brooklyn College Library to celebrate her life. And back in 1969, Chisholm defended the need for abortion rights in front of the House of Representatives.
“Black female politician activists like Shirley Chisholm were among the first to defend black women’s access to birth control and legal abortion,” said Iris Lopez, 59, a professor of sociology and the co-director of the Program of Latin American and Latino Studies at City College. “She and other women fought for quality health care and better living conditions as a part of women of color reproductive rights campaign.”
Buttons and cups with the Shirley Chisholm Project’s logo lay on a table at the entrance to the library’s auditorium. At 6 p.m. last week Satruday, crowds who were milling outside, started pouring into the auditorium. And within minutes the 150-strong auditorium was packed to capacity.
The event was organized by the Shirley Chisholm Project, a group dedicated to preserving the history of women’s social activism in Brooklyn, to commemorate Shirley Chisholm Day.
“The project is dedicated to bringing Chisholm’s life and legacy to the general public through collecting archival materials and organizing public events,” said Barbara Winslow, 67, the director of the project. “And we are very proud that the Brooklyn College Archive hosts the largest collection of materials about Chisholm.”
After Chisholm died in 2005, Nick Perry, the state assemblyman from the 58th district, introduced a bill making Nov. 30 Shirley Chisholm Day in New York State.
The program kicked off with a video clip from the 2004 documentary, “Unbought and Unbossed,” chronicling Chisholm’s 1972 bid for presidency. In it, she declared her bid for the presidency from a podium at Concord Baptist Church, just four miles away from the Brooklyn College Library.
Despite Chisholm’s efforts, the unintended pregnancy rate amongst African-American women today is 67 percent compared to 40 percent for white women, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Though black women account for only 10 percent of American women of childbearing age, they receive 30 percent of all abortions in the country.
Anti-abortion activists however, use these figures to argue that black women are being manipulated into participating in racial genocide.
The New York Chapter of the Right to Life Committee has stated that a greater amount of abortion clinics are present in low-income neighborhoods, where African-Americans predominantly reside.
Their website states that, “since abortion was legalized in 1973, 14 million African-American babies have been killed, and that 1200 African-American babies die of abortion every day.”
Loretta Ross, 59, the keynote speaker at the event, and the founder and national coordinator of SisterSong, recounted that in 2010 anti-abortion groups began placing billboards in predominantly black neighborhoods across cities in the United States, starting with Atlanta, Georgia.
“We felt that this was a very racialized attack on human rights aimed at the African-American community,” said Ross. “Within six months they had appeared in 60 other cities including New York City.”
Ross, who worked with Chisholm in the 1980s, said that in 1969, at the age of 16, she was raped by a family member. Due to the abortion restrictions at the time, she was forced to bear her child. Still, she chose to keep him.
“When these politicians talk about rape being a blessing from God, I’m like, ‘Excuse me, I’m sure your children weren’t born through rape,’” she said. “And I can tell you what it looks like, to love your child, and hate their circumstances.”
With the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling only two months away, the debate remains heated. “I always think it’s presumptuous to say what the next generation will do,” Ross said. “But I also firmly believe that women have been fighting to control their fertility as long as men have been having sex with women to have children.”