Underground Groundbreakers of Today #1: Virginia (Vigie) Ramos Rios

NOTE: After taking a hiatus for a while to decide the best direction for Underground Groundbreakers, I have decided to shift the focus from historical figures to people doing great work today. I explain further in my post below, but I’m very excited about this new direction and the opportunity to speak with people doing work that’s making a difference. Please enjoy!

By now, you likely have heard of rising star and youngest woman ever elected to Congress, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She has taken the political world by storm first for defeating the powerful long-term incumbent Joseph Crowley, the “party boss” of Queens, and now for giving an inside look at Congress to people who were never interested in politics before through social media.

She didn’t win her campaign alone, of course. She had an entire campaign behind her, as is seen in the recent Netflix documentary Knock Down the House, a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at four progressive women candidates during the 2018 midterm elections. Campaigns like these would not be possible without a strong support system.

I was inspired to take this direction with my blog by watching the inspiring women in Knock Down the House. To have the woman behind the scenes of one of the most important campaigns of recent times be my first profile has been a great honor. She is a great inspiration to anyone who supports progressive policies and candidates, and isn’t afraid of the inevitable challenges of getting them across the finish line. Even though only one of the candidates profiled in the film ended up winning (Ocasio-Cortez), the film offers a vision of what it would be like to have a coalition of progressives from all parts of the country represented in Congress, from the poorest parts of New York City (Ocasio-Cortez) and St. Louis (Cori Bush), to the mining towns of West Virginia (Paula Jean Swearengin), to the area around Las Vegas (Amy Vilela).

I recently had the great privilege of speaking to Virginia (Vigie) Ramos Rios, who managed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s wildly successful campaign for Congress in 2018. You may not have heard her name before, but she was instrumental in Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in the primary over incumbent Joseph Crowley in June and in the general election in November. To say that hearing Vigie’s story first-hand, starting with her journey working on Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, to managing a campaign for the New York City Council, to eventually managing Rep. Ocasio-Cortez to victory was an inspiration, would be a massive understatement. I am thrilled to be sharing her story and hope that others, whether hopeful candidates or budding managers, can be motivated by her example. [She also happens to be a fellow alum of my alma mater, Smith College!]

Vigie’s path from barely knowing anything about this senator from Vermont to managing arguably the most revolutionary campaign of the 2018 election is fascinating to say the least. While Vigie told me more when we spoke on the phone than I could ever cover here, I will do my best to convey her journey and her amazing accomplishments the way I heard them.

“I didn’t know there were so many of us”: Working on the Bernie Sanders Campaign

You could say, on paper at least, Vigie’s journey to managing AOC’s successful campaign began when she started volunteering for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2015. But that leaves out an important part of the story, one that gives a deeper view of why she believes so strongly in and works so hard for the progressive cause. In 2013, Vigie was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), an illness more common today than in years past but still not widely known. I first learned about the CFS as a fan of Golden Girls, in an episode where Bea Arthur’s character, Dorothy, struggles with the illness. As its name suggests, the illness leaves people constantly exhausted for seemingly no reason. Besides greatly affecting her physically, having this illness left Vigie in dire straits financially, eventually leading her to declare bankruptcy. It was this experience, unfortunately shared by many across this country, that drove Vigie to work for real progressive change, particularly in our deeply flawed healthcare system.

Vigie actually heard about Bernie Sanders from, as she put it, her “Baby Boomer mom.” After reading about his platform, which of course included revamping the country’s healthcare system to a Medicare for All model, Vigie felt inspired and looked into volunteering. She eventually came on as a volunteer to collect signatures so that Sanders would appear on the ballot in the Democratic primary. This effort was made difficult by the fact that they could only begin collecting signatures in December 2015, AKA the heart of winter, and there weren’t as many people to ask in Queens as there were in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Add this to the fact that Vigie was still dealing with her chronic fatigue, and this effort alone is admirable.

Working on the Sanders campaign gave Vigie a great deal of experience that would prove invaluable for her later work. She worked with a fundraiser, and, perhaps most importantly, learned from a lawyer how to clean up signatures on petitions–the key to any campaign, particularly a fledgling one. During this time, she also ran the Flushing, Queens office of the campaign.

It was when she was sent to California to work on the campaign that Vigie grasped how meaningful the Bernie Sanders campaign had become throughout the country. She worked tirelessly in two California congressional districts, which are huge geographical areas. They also included some of the reddest parts of one of the bluest states in America, ranged from urban to rural, and included some of the worst air quailty in the state. While all of this may seem like it would have been a challenge, Vigie found fellow progressives among them. At a rally in Bakersfield, north of Los Angeles, surrounded by so many like-minded people, she heard people all saying the same thing: “I didn’t know there were so many of us.”

“This was just the beginning”: Becoming a Campaign Manager

Bernie Sanders did not end up winning the Democratic primary, but Vigie felt no less inspired in her work for progressive change. She knew the excitement she had seen both in New York and California was just the beginning of a movement. After the campaign, she worked for an organization for activists, and ended up becoming campaign manager for Jabari Brisport, a Brooklyn activist running for the New York City Council in 2017. She had met Brisport while running the Flushing office during the Sanders campaign. While the campaign did not result in a win, it was successful in that Brisport became the first Green Party/Socialist candidate since the 1930s to win a significant percentage of the vote, 30%. This was Vigie’s first experience as a campaign manager, and the work greatly excited and inspired her. It turned out that it would be just the beginning of her journey managing campaigns.

It is almost hard to remember a time when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was not very well known, both in mainstream media and particular in the social media universe. But in 2017 she was almost completely unheard of, except by those who worked with organizations such as the Justice Democrats and Brand New Congress, and local Democratic Socialist groups (Vigie would organize the Queens branch of the DSA in 2018). Vigie saw Ocasio-Cortez speak at a Medicare for All rally in 2017, and thought she had real appeal and potential. She gave AOC her information, but actually did not get asked to become her campaign manager until February 2018, when the campaign was really in motion.

When Vigie came on board, however, she found she had her work cut out for her. They had no lawyer to check and clean up petition signatures and no print shop for flyers–all with two weeks before the campaign would kick into high gear. Fortunately Vigie’s experience with the Sanders campaign proved extremely valuable: she found a friend of the lawyer she had met during her time with Bernie to help clean up their signatures, and found a union/small business print shop in Queens to use instead of the DNC’s in Boston.

The Primary and Beyond: “We won, now the real work begins”

Vigie and the rest of the campaign worked nonstop all the way up to June 26, 2018, the day of the primary. As the campaign and many of her supporters knew, they were facing an uphill battle: not only was her opponent, Joseph Crowley, the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, he was also the chair of the Queens Democratic Party. Even her most ardent supporters worried that Crowley was just too tough of an opponent, but that did not stop anyone’s enthusiasm or willingness to work hard. The issues Ocasio-Cortez was fighting for were too important to succumb to defeatism.

With Vigie running things, however, the campaign really came together. When June 26 came, they remained as optimistic as possible. Like a good and smart manager should, Vigie made sure that people were able to vote right up to when the polls closed at 9 that night. This was not only the right thing to do, but it was in an effort to make sure that as many people voted as possible, and if Ocasio-Cortez were to win, that the vote totals and margins would be as big as possible.

And, of course, to the surprise of many, particularly those in media who had barely heard of her, she won–and not by a little. She received 57% of the vote (almost 16,000 votes), while Crowley received 42% (almost 12,000 votes)–a margin of 15%. This was earth-shattering, to say the least. Crowley and his followers clearly assumed that a primary challenger, particularly someone as unknown as Ocasio-Cortez, would be easily beat simply by Crowley’s usual supporters in the district showing up. What they didn’t account for was the number of people both in the Bronx and Queens who met Ocasio-Cortez and were energized by her platform and what she stood for. The constant knocking on doors and boots on the ground made all of the difference in her victory.

Things didn’t slow down once Ocasio-Cortez won the primary–on the contrary, they got even busier. The campaign become inundated with press and media requests. The months between the primary in June and the general election in November were just as much work, if not more, than what had come before. The day of the general election, November 6, Ocasio-Cortez won 78% of the vote, with more than 110,000 votes. While it is true that the primary was more consequential in this case because of the level of the person she defeated, Vigie points out that getting over 100,000 in this district was quite an achievement in itself.  

What’s Next? Looking to the Future + the “Unsung Heroes”

Now that the successful Ocasio-Cortez campaign is over and she is making waves in office, what is Vigie up to now? Currently, she does speaking engagements for the Party of European Socialists. She also serves as an adviser to Tiffany Cabán, who is running to be the next Queens District Attorney.

After hearing Vigie’s remarkable and inspiring story, I was eager to hear who motivates her. I was expecting to her to list names of leaders of important movements that came before us, but her answer was actually even better than that. First, she named her parents: her mom taught her the importance of knowing what’s happening in your community, and her dad organized throughout the world. But then she said that she is more inspired by the countless names we never learn, the “unsung heroes.” For me, and for this ongoing project of shining the spotlight on people whose name most people might not know, Vigie’s answer was simply perfect. She encapsulates what I envision in an Underground Groundbreaker, and I don’t exaggerate when I say she is the ideal person to be my first profile of people doing great, important work today.

Always a Groundbreaker at Heart: Frank Robinson, 1935-2019

Lovers of baseball, particularly ones of a certain age, were saddened on Thursday to learn of the passing of Hall of Famer and manager Frank Robinson. Since I myself am *only* a mere 28 going on 29, my sole memories of Robinson are of him as the feisty and no-nonsense manager of the Montreal Expos/current Washington Nationals. But I remember hearing as a young baseball fan how he was the first (and as of now, still the only) player to win the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award in both the National and American Leagues. I later learned that he was the first black man to become a manager in the Major Leagues–so while he was not related to Jackie Robinson, the first black player in MLB, he was a groundbreaker in his own right.

This post is somewhat different from my usual posts, as Robinson did receive many of the accolades he so rightly deserved for his abilities during his lifetime, including the two MVP awards, becoming the first black manager, and being elected to the Hall of Fame the first year he was eligible (see stats here if you are interested in learning more). So in that sense, Robinson by definition does not fall into my criteria for an Underground Groundbreaker–fortunately for all of us who love the game, there are still many ex-players and fans out there who remember him well, as well as plenty of videos, photographs, etc. At the same time, however, and judging by the condolences that have been pouring in, in his own quiet way he too was a Groundbreaker.

In my posts on Negro Leaguer Josh Gibson and Negro Leaguer turned MLB coach Buck O’Neil, I provide some history on the Negro Leagues and how, even though there were plenty of players who did make it to the Major Leagues, they were something of a treasure trove of players who would never play on a Major League field. It’s a tragedy that we likely will never know about some of these players and how skilled they were. Jackie Robinson, of course, was the first player from the Negro Leagues to be brought up to the Major Leagues, and many stars such as Willie Mays and Hank Aaron followed in later years.

Born relatively late in 1935, Frank Robinson did not play in the Negro Leagues at all; as Michael Bauman explains, “Robinson was part of the first generation of African American players to be developed entirely within the Major League Baseball pipeline, rather than coming up through the Negro Leagues as his contemporaries […] did.” In this sense, while Robinson surely experienced discrimination just as any Negro League player would have, not having that experience that some of his fellow players did was certainly a difference. He was part of the first group of black players to be accepted, at least officially, by the Major Leagues. So from the outset, he was already something of a groundbreaker.

One story about Robinson really told me exactly what I needed to know about him and his quiet fierceness. An article by Mike Klingaman in The Baltimore Sun from 2016 told the little-known story about Robinson’s struggle to find a house when he was traded to the Baltimore Orioles from the Cincinnati Reds in 1966. He and his wife were repeatedly rejected from all-white neighborhoods in the city despite their residents being fans of their baseball team’s newest player. In a telling moment, according to the article, in one neighborhood “15 white kids recognized Frank and swarmed around” and Robinson “gave all of them autographs.” Kids often have more wisdom than adults give them credit for.

In that same article, Robinson, at age 80, was asked about his experience during that time. He said:

“I didn’t ever want to set African-Americans backwards and have people say, ‘See, I told you so.’ That was my thinking,'” he said. “I didn’t have a torch and I stayed out of politics. I wasn’t out there to change laws. I really admired the people fighting for changes, but my job was to play baseball.”

His story did have a happy ending, though. With some help from the team’s ownership, he and his family did eventually settle in a Baltimore neighborhood that was more integrated than other sections of the city at the time. His neighbors became good friends, and when the Orioles won the World Series that year, he made a special effort to celebrate with them. The neighbors also temporarily had his street named for him during the World Series, which everyone, black and white, was excited about.

So in this sense, while Frank Robinson was not the same type of iconic figure as Jackie Robinson, who faced horrific racism during his career, he was certainly not spared from it either. And, despite all of this distraction in his first year in Baltimore, he still managed to win the Triple Crown that year and help win the World Series for his team. How he handled all of that while dealing with the turmoil in his personal life is quite admirable.

Robinson was especially a groundbreaker in that he became the first black manager in the Major Leagues–and not just a manager, a player-manager. Jackie Robinson had advocated for MLB to hire black managers. Unfortunately, he didn’t live to see this happen. But when Frank was hired to manage the Cleveland Indians in 1975, he was honored that Jackie’s widow, Rachel, was in attendance for his first game and threw the first pitch (fun fact: Frank hit a home run that day that ended up winning the game for his new team).

Robinson recognized the gravity of becoming the first black man to manage a Major League baseball team. In an interview with the Baseball Hall of Fame, Robinson explained how while he was hesitant about accepting the job, he knew that if someone as qualified as he didn’t do it, the opportunity might not have presented itself again for quite a while. So while he wasn’t out in the streets fighting for racial equality, he was doing so in his own way in the sport he loved.

In 1981, Robinson was named the manager of the San Francisco Giants, making him the first black manager in the National League–yet another groundbreaking moment in a career full of them.

At the end of his Hall of Fame induction speech, Robinson made a statement that I believe finely encapsulates who he was a baseball player and a man. He thanked all of the black players who paved the way for players like him. He spoke directly to Rachel Robinson, who was in the audience, expressing his belief that if Jackie had not made the sacrifice of being the first, that the door may have been closed off to others for years–similar to his feelings about becoming the first black manager. This got me thinking–surely if it hadn’t happened in 1947 as it did with Jackie, it would have happened eventually, right? But knowing the history of this country, and what Frank had to deal with just to find a damn house, it did make me think twice.

Though I was not born early enough to have seen Frank Robinson play, I’ve greatly enjoyed learning more about the player and, more importantly, the man. While he was known to have some ‘tude particularly in his later years as a manager, his intensity was only due to his great respect for the game he was involved with his entire life. I am glad that he received the recognition he was due in his lifetime. And while he was not a trailblazer or civil rights activist in the same way as Jackie Robinson, I will also always think of him as a Groundbreaker at heart in his own quiet way.

Sources & Further Reading:

Michael Baumann, “Remembering Frank Robinson, a Trailblazing Baseball Titan.” The Ringer. https://www.theringer.com/mlb/2019/2/7/18216306/frank-robinson-obituary-hall-of-fame-orioles

Mike Klingaman, “Fifty years ago, Frank Robinson’s search for housing in Baltimore helped in ‘opening the door for others.'” The Baltimore Sun. https://www.baltimoresun.com/sports/orioles/bs-sp-frank-robinson-housing-0124-20160122-story.html

Mike Peticca, “Frank Robinson’s debut as Cleveland Indians player-manager was historic.” Cleveland Plain Dealer. https://www.cleveland.com/tribe/index.ssf/2017/05/frank_robinsons_debut_as_a_pla_1.html

Frank Robinson entry on Baseball Hall of Fame website: https://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/robinson-frank

Maxwell Kates, “Frank Robinson.” Society for American Baseball Research (SABR). https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/c3ac5482

[Image from Baseball Hall of Fame announcement of Frank Robinson’s death: https://baseballhall.org/discover/robinson-left-mark-on-and-off-the-field%5D

Groundbreaker #10: Shirley Chisholm

“I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the woman’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people and my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history.”

–Presidential announcement, 1972

If you’ve been following the news this election cycle, or read my recent post on some of the women who were recently elected to Congress, then you know that more women of color than ever are now headed to Capitol Hill this January.

But you may not have heard of (or only recently heard of) the first black woman elected to Congress: Shirley Chisholm. She was in Congress from 1969 to 1983, but her boldness is still having an impact today. Fortunately she is already somewhat known and is getting even more of the recognition she deserves lately (more on that later), but I still consider her an Underground Groundbreaker because she is not as much of a household name as she should be. And we could all stand to learn from her example even in 2018 and beyond.

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was born in Brooklyn in 1924. Her parents were born in the Caribbean, where Shirley would live for part of her childhood. She and her sisters lived on her grandmother’s farm in Barbados beginning when Shirley was five, getting their education at a one-room schoolhouse. She returned to New York when she was ten, in 1934. She would credit the education she received in Barbados for her ability to write and speak well, and considered herself a Barbadian American throughout her life.

After graduating from Girls’ High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Shirley received her bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College in 1946. She married Conrad O. Chisholm, an immigrant from Jamaica, in 1949. She would go on to earn a master’s degree in elementary education from Teachers College, Columbia University in 1952. After leaving school, she held various positions in early childhood education in Brooklyn and Manhattan, including running day care centers. In the late 1950s and 1960s, she got involved in local politics, including the League of Women Voters. Most of the organizations she volunteered with were mainly run by whites.

Chisholm’s first elected position was as a member of the New York State Assembly from 1965-68. She quickly established herself as a strong legislator, including fighting the English requirement for the state’s literacy test (yes, New York State and City both have quite a history of voter suppression tactics!). Her other accomplishments included expanding unemployment benefits to include domestic workers (of which her mother was one); fighting for black representation on Assembly committees; and the establishment of a program to help underprivileged students receive the remedial education they needed while also being able to attend college.

After her time in the Assembly, Chisholm decided to make a run for Congress in 1968. Using the slogan which would forever describe her (and is the title of her autobiography), “Unbought and Unbossed,” she became the first black woman elected to Congress, as well as the first black representative from Brooklyn. She would go on to be reelected six times and have a very productive career as a representative.

Once in Congress, Chisholm was both innovative and strategic. After being assigned to the House Agricultural Committee, which seemed rather useless to a representative from the nation’s biggest city, Chisholm eventually used the position to help expand the food stamp program, and help create the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, also known as WIC, which still exists today. In perhaps a controversial move, Chisholm voted for Hale Boggs, a Southern Democrat, over the legendary civil rights leader John Conyers, to be House Majority Leader. She did this in order to gain a seat on the Education and Labor Committee, where she had wanted to be all along. She did not waste this opportunity, eventually becoming the third highest-ranking member of the committee.

In another controversial but arguably shrewd move, in 1972 Chisholm visited George Wallace, the racist, segregationist governor of Alabama who was running for president at the time, in the hospital after an assassination attempt. She used the goodwill from this visit two years later to gain Southern support for her bill to give domestic workers the right to earn minimum wage; Wallace lobbied the required number of Southern congressmen to help the bill pass.

By the time she retired from Congress in 1982 to take care of her second husband who had been injured in a car accident (she and her first husband divorced in 1977, though she kept his name), Chisholm had amassed an impressive resume of accomplishments. In addition to those mentioned above, she served as Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus and was a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971. She was an ardent supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and women’s rights. She also was a supporter of increased spending on education and health care, particularly for the poor in cities like New York. She also fought to reduce spending on the military and opposed the draft, and was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War and the development of weapons.

Additionally, Chisholm, being the first black woman elected to Congress, had the great opportunity to set an example for hiring staff. Women made up Chisholm’s entire staff, half of whom were black. This was an important move, as Chisholm personally felt more discriminated against as a woman than as a black person.

In a bold political move, Chisholm decided to run for president in 1972. Though she did not become the nominee, her candidacy was historic in that she was the first black candidate of a major party to run, and the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination. The odds were stacked against her; her campaign was underfunded and she wasn’t taken seriously by the Democratic party as well as black male politicians. As she stated earlier in her career, her being female was more of an obstacle than being black; sexism trumped racism. While she struggled to get access to the ballot in many states, she had a diverse group of supporters. She resented not being taken seriously and being treated only as a symbolic candidate.

Post-retirement, Chisholm continued to remain active throughout the rest of her life. She taught and spoke at colleges, encouraged minorities to be politically active, and was active in various presidential campaigns. She died in 2005 at age 80 in Florida after a series of strokes. Her grave includes her famous motto: “Unbought and Unbossed.”

Fortunately for all of us, particularly those who support the progressive movement, Chisholm’s legacy has hardly been forgotten since her death. In addition to books written and documentaries made about her, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States, by President Obama in 2015. Although it is a shame that she did not receive the medal during her lifetime, there is hardly anyone more deserving than she of such an award; it is particularly symbolic that it was awarded by the first black president.

Chisholm has also begun to receive more attention recently, particularly in her home city. Earlier this week, First Lady of New York City Chirlane McCray, also a black woman, announced that a statue of Chisholm will be placed at an entrance to Prospect Park in Brooklyn. There is a grave shortage of statues of women in the city (which McCray is trying to fix with her She Built NYC initiative), so this is welcome news. She will also have a park named after her along Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn, which will be the largest state park in the city. And perhaps most exciting, she will be played by star actress Viola Davis in a movie about her life, called The Fighting Shirley ChisholmThese are all really exciting developments that will surely keep Chisholm’s name in the public discourse for years to come.

Though times (and politics) have certainly changed since Chisholm was in Congress, and even since her death almost fourteen years ago, her life and career should be more well known than it is and especially be a model to learn from for young women and aspiring politicians, particularly progressive ones, but for anyone who believes in getting things done for their constituents, not representing moneyed interests. Rejecting corporate money is becoming more mainstream, but has been slow to gain traction since it is so entrenched in our political system. Chisholm, even when seemingly making friends with the enemy, only used those relationships to help the people who elected her. I hope that the women, particularly those of color, who are about to start their terms in just a few weeks, remember her example when navigating their way through the halls of Congress. It’s certainly still not easy being a woman or a person of color (or both) in our society or especially our political system, but the boldness and courage of Shirley Chisholm should remind us all, and those elected, to never forget who, and most importantly, what values, you represent.     

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Shirley Chisholm interesting and/or inspiring and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the articles, websites and videos I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.

Chisholm’s autobiograhy, Unbought and Unbossed: https://amzn.to/2KOS9m7

1974 documentary on Chisholm: https://amzn.to/2KNzoPO

Wiki bio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shirley_Chisholm

House bio: https://history.house.gov/People/Detail/10918

Profile from National Women’s History Museum: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/shirley-chisholm

Profile from Equality Archive: http://equalityarchive.com/history/the-first-black-woman-presidential-candidate/

Article from Smithsonian Magazine: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/unbought-and-unbossed-when-black-woman-ran-for-the-white-house-180958699/

Gothamist article on Chisholm statue: http://gothamist.com/2018/11/30/shirley_chisholm_statue_nyc.php?utm_source=WNYC+%2B+Gothamist&utm_campaign=9e74c67e4f-RSS_EMAIL_CAMPAIGN&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_65dbec786b-9e74c67e4f-85709165&mc_cid=9e74c67e4f&mc_eid=811492602c

JSTOR article on the importance of Chisholm’s presidential campaign: https://daily.jstor.org/the-significanc-of-shirley-chisholms-presidential-campaign/

NYTimes obituary: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/03/obituaries/shirley-chisholm-unbossedpioneer-in-congress-is-dead-at-80.html

[Image from: http://www.pbs.org/the-contenders/people/shirley-chisholm/%5D

 

 

Groundbreaker #9: Buck O’Neil

“People say baseball’s dead. Baseball doesn’t die. People die. Baseball lives on.”

Continuing my baseball theme of this blog started with Josh Gibson, today I’ll be exploring the life and career of Buck O’Neil, another Negro League-era player. Unlike Gibson, however, he had the distinction of becoming the first black coach in Major League Baseball.

Buck O’Neil, born John Jordan O’Neil in 1911 in the Florida Panhandle, grew up surrounded by racism and discrimination, which he would experience throughout his life. Because segregated Florida only had four high schools just for black students at the time, O’Neil wasn’t able to attend school. But he was soon able to attend a college in Jacksonville after working in a celery field with his father, where he lived with relatives and finished high school and two years of college credits.  

After his time in college, O’Neil started playing baseball semi-professionally in 1934 and barnstormed playing in interracial exhibition games.” He was soon discovered and in 1937 signed with the Memphis Red Sox, a newly established team in the newly established Negro American League. In 1938, his contract was sold to the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro National League.

O’Neil had a respectable career as a first baseman in the Negro Leagues when he had the opportunity to play, with a lifetime average of .283. He couldn’t play from 1943-45 because he was serving in the Navy in World War II. He was also part of the Monarchs World Series championship team in 1942. He played regularly until 1951, but also served as manager of the Monarchs from 1948 to 1955. Under his leadership, the team won two league titles, but unfortunately the League was on its last legs due to the exodus of black players into the Major Leagues. [For more background on the Negro Leagues, be sure to check out my earlier post on Josh Gibson.]

After the 1955 season, the owner of the Monarchs sold the team. O’Neil resigned as manager of the team and was hired as a scout for the Chicago Cubs in the major leagues, where he signed another black player and future Hall of Famer, outfielder Lou Brock. O’Neil was tasked with finding talent in black high schools and colleges throughout the country (see Kansas City Star article).

In 1962, O’Neil made history by being named the first black coach in the major leagues by the Cubs. He had been an unofficial coach, but the Cubs officially named him a coach because many umpires didn’t approve of his being in the dugout.While this was a major accomplishment, it was dampened somewhat by the fact that he was not a base coach during games and not part of the Cubs’ “College of Coaches” system, which rotated a few men through the role of manager. [The first black manager, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, would not be hired until 1975.] At first O’Neil did not recognize the significance of his being the first black coach, but later understood when he saw his name in the papers throughout the country. Despite this, he acknowledged that “progress in organized baseball was painfully slow” and “still is” (see Kansas City Star article). O’Neil stayed with the Cubs until the 1980s, when he took a scouting job for the Kansas City Royals in 1988, and awarded the title of “Midwest Scout of the Year” in 1998.

It was perhaps his post-playing/coaching/scouting career where O’Neil made the biggest impact on baseball history. After sitting for interviews describing the Negro Leagues for Ken Burns’ 1994 PBS documentary Baseball, O’Neil was one of the leaders in opening the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) in Kansas City. He was the honorary board chairman of the museum until his death in 2006. O’Neil was also part of the 18-member Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans Committee from 1981 to 2000, helping six Negro League players to be elected to the Hall. Sadly O’Neil himself was never inducted, despite being nominated to a special ballot that honored Negro League players, managers, and executives in 2006, but he spoke at the induction ceremony for those Negro League players who were elected in July of that year.

O’Neil died at the age of 94 in August of 2006 of heart failure and bone marrow cancer. He has received many posthumous awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush in December 2006. The Baseball Hall of Fame awarded him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007, an award that would be named after him. The Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award will be given once every three years “to honor an individual who enhances baseball’s positive image on society, who broadens the game’s appeal, and whose integrity and dignity are comparable to the namesake of the award” (see Baseball Hall of Fame website). So far it has only been presented to three other people besides O’Neil himself: longtime baseball executive Roland Hemond, catcher and announcer Joe Garagiola, and Rachel Robinson, widow of Jackie Robinson.

At the end of his life, Buck O’Neil easily could have been bitter about the many missed opportunities in his life: the segregation of his childhood preventing him from going to a local high school; never getting to play in the Major Leagues; being named a Major League coach but not having that mean much; and not being inducted into the Hall of Fame even though he was on the committee that chose the inductees. But until the end of his long life, O’Neil was everything but bitter; he was charming and entertaining and always seemed happy, as he did at the 2006 Hall of Fame ceremony.

One touching story about O’Neil’s life was the friendship he developed late in life with Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro, who was a star in Japan and came to the Major Leagues in 2001, love learning about baseball history. He visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City when his team, the Seattle Mariners, were in town playing the Royals. After O’Neil died, Ichiro sent a donation to the museum in memory of him (see ESPN article). This friendship shows O’Neil’s undying openness and kindness towards younger players through all stages of his life.

As a baseball fan I had heard Buck O’Neil’s name in passing, but never knew much about him until I started researching for this post. While it is clear that O’Neil wasn’t outwardly resentful about the way his life went, it seems to me that baseball as a whole didn’t give him the treatment and recognition he deserved. He may not have deserved to be in the Hall of Fame purely on the strength of his numbers, but surely his many other contributions to the game would warrant him an honorary spot somewhere. As a walking encyclopedia of baseball and particularly the Negro Leagues, it is a real shame and a missed opportunity that his knowledge wasn’t appreciated and honored more. He did a good job on his own by helping open the museum and helping elect former Negro Leaguers into the Hall (even though he wasn’t chosen himself), and by appearing on Ken Burns’ documentary, but this seems like a bare minimum.

Although baseball is more diverse than it was during most of O’Neil’s lifetime, as time goes on both players and fans will know less and less about pioneers like O’Neil who helped make the game what it is today. I just hope there are others out there who thought to record some of his stories so they are not lost to time.

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Buck O’Neil and the history of African Americans in baseball interesting and/or infuriating and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the articles and websites and videos I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.

Wiki bio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buck_O’Neil

Stats on Baseball Reference: https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.fcgi?id=oneil-000buc

Robert Bluestein, “The 20 Most Obscure ‘Firsts’ in Baseball”: https://bleacherreport.com/articles/1411064-the-20-most-obscure-firsts-in-baseball#slide15

Rustin Dodd, “Buck O’Neil and the Cubs: Kansas City icon left a legacy in Chicago”: https://www.kansascity.com/sports/mlb/kansas-city-royals/article110949822.html

Buck O’Neil Award, Baseball Hall of Fame: https://baseballhall.org/discover-more/awards/890

http://www.sportingnews.com/us/mlb/news/why-buck-oneil-still-doesnt-have-a-baseball-hall-of-fame-plaque/qi0c30oiqfa71ooi69ooazme2

https://www.theroot.com/quote-of-the-day-buck-o-neil-on-love-1790874584

More on Ichiro: http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/22624561/ichiro-suzuki-return-seattle-mariners-resolve-internal-battle

Joe Posnanski, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America: https://amzn.to/2R85rw1

Buck O’Neil’s autobiography, I Was Right On Time: https://amzn.to/2r1VuVG

O’Neil’s speech at Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2006: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LtE2I6jsung

 

Groundbreaker #8: Florence Price

“Unfortunately the work of a woman composer is preconceived by many to be light, froth, lacking in depth, logic and virility. Add to that the incident of race — I have Colored blood in my veins — and you will understand some of the difficulties that confront one in such a position.” from a 1943 letter to Boston Symphony conductor Serge Koussevitzky from Florence Price, trying to convince him to program her music 

As I noted in my recent post about black cellist Donald White, where I discussed the lack of black and Latino musicians in orchestras, the lack of women in the classical music world is also a real issue. In today’s post I will be discussing a composer who fits into both categories: Florence Price, the first African American female composer to have a piece debuted by a major American symphony. As a musician, I had heard her name only in passing, but when the good news broke this week that her catalogue will now be published by major classical publisher G. Schirmer/Music Sales Classical, I thought it would be a great opportunity to finally learn more about her.

Florence Beatrice Price was born in 1887 in Little Rock, Arkansas, to a dentist and a music teacher. Her father was the first black dentist in town, and rumored to have been the governor’s dentist. Her mother was her first music teacher. The family was successful and respected in the community despite the racial tensions in the South, and also traveled to Europe (see Baranello article, The New York Times). Price gave her first piano performance when she was four years old, and published her first piece when she was eleven.

At fourteen, she had finished high school at the top of her class and went on to study at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, one of the only music schools that admitted African-Americans at the time, where she studied the piano and the organ (see New Yorker article). As racism was not limited to the South, Price passed as Mexican when she first started at the conservatory to avoid painful encounters. She began studying composition, having the great opportunity to study with the conservatory’s president, writing a string trio and a symphony (see Baranello article, The New York Times). It would be this teacher who would encourage her to incorporate elements of her black southern musical culture into her own music. She graduated with honors in 1906, with an artist diploma in organ and a teaching certificate.

After leaving Boston, Price returned to Arkansas to teach and then moved to Atlanta to assume a position as head of the music department at Clark Atlanta University, an historically black university. After marrying attorney Thomas Price in 1912, the couple moved back to Little Rock, but fled to Chicago after a lynching took place in 1927. It was this move to one of the centers of American music that would turn out to be the most important in her career.

Price studied at various schools throughout Chicago including the University of Chicago, where, in addition to music, she studied languages and the liberal arts. She improved her composition skills while studying with a number of influential teachers in the city at the time, and turned out four more piano pieces in 1928.

In 1931, Price became a single mother to her two daughters after she and Thomas divorced after he became abusive (see New Yorker article). She played the organ for silent film screenings and wrote songs for radio ads under a pseudonym. She moved in with a fellow black pianist and composer, Margaret Bonds, who introduced her to black luminaries of the time, writer Langston Hughes and singer Marian Anderson. Anderson sang a Price arrangement in her famous concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939 (see Baranello article, The New York Times).

In 1932, Price had her first lucky break when she won first prize ($500) for her Symphony in E Minor, her first symphony, in a competition (and third prize for her Piano Sonata). This led to the Chicago Symphony, conducted by Frederick Stock, one of Price’s few supporters during her lifetime, premiering her symphony in 1933, making Price the first African American female composer to have a piece played by a major orchestra.

The Symphony in E Minor is a good example of Price’s musical style. While she follows the overall European classical style, Price incorporates elements of black southern culture, particularly church hymns, using the rhythms of how they would have been sung, such as call and response. Her music is a lovely blend of traditional European classical and blues, giving it a truly American feel. She stated that her goal for another one of her symphonies was “a not too deliberate attempt to picture a cross-section of present-day Negro life and thought with its heritage of that which is past, paralleled or influenced by contacts of the present day” (see Baranello article, The New York Times).

Unfortunately, due to both her gender and race, Price didn’t haven’t as much success and fame as she should have after that premiere. She wrote many other works for orchestra (including concertos), chorus, voice and piano, solo piano and organ, and chamber ensembles. She also wrote arrangements of many Negro spirituals. She was also inducted into the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1940. But once she died of a stroke at the age of 66, her work was largely forgotten until relatively recently.

While it is unfortunate that Price did not receive the recognition she deserved during her lifetime, recent events have helped cement her legacy for future generations. In 2009, a large collection of her works and papers were found in an abandoned house, which turned out to be her summer house in a town outside of Chicago. These works and papers are now housed at the University of Arkansas library. This lucky find was the start of Price gaining back some well-deserved attention. Musicians have been performing and making recordings of her music, including her symphonies and violin concertos (see Baranello article, The New York Times).

And in an even more exciting development, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, as of this week she finally has a widely respected publisher! This week, publisher G. Schirmer announced that it has acquired worldwide rights to Price’s catalogue. This is a step in the right direction for classical music, which is infamous for its lack of inclusion of non-male, non-white musicians. We can hope that in addition to celebrating composers who were not properly acknowledged during their time, current musicians/composers outside the “circle” will also be welcomed in and properly recognized.

A discussion of a composer like Florence Price, just like the discussion of a musician like Donald White, brings up important issues of race, gender, and inclusion both in the world of classical music and American society in general. The first, which should be relatively obvious, is the double struggle Price dealt with not only as an American or even as a musician, but as a composer, a profession where it is particularly difficult to succeed and make a living: being both female and black. She said herself in one of her letters to Koussevitzky in 1943, “To begin with I have two handicaps–those of sex and race.” She also said, rather simply, “I would like to be judged on merit alone” (see Music Sales Classical announcement). Also, let’s recognize that she accomplished all that she did while raising two kids on her own!

Price’s story, which is sad enough, makes me wonder: how many other composers (and musicians, just like the story of Donald White) were there just like her, who we likely will never hear about? Even since the premiere of Price’s symphony 85 years ago, very few black female composers (or black male composers, for that matter) have had their music performed by major orchestras or elsewhere.

The lack of exposure given to female and non-white composers is one that continues to be debated in programming departments of major orchestras. As American society slowly begins to accept that our mainly white, male “heroes” were seriously flawed, and that minorities were essentially erased from history, we need to do the same in the arts (see more in New Yorker article). Major orchestras, who have the majority of the press, should seriously consider planning programs devoted solely to the work of minority composers, in their main concert program schedule. As Micaela Baranello explains in her profile of Price, the Boston Symphony programmed one of her string quartets in a community concert. While this is better than nothing, and a great opportunity both for raising Price’s profile and bringing her music to audiences who might not normally hear her, it’s still not good enough; orchestras like Boston need to consider performing her symphonies at Symphony Hall as part of their regular concert series.   

As students going through public school, we all could have benefited from learning about the lesser known characters in history, who were generally non-white and sometimes non-male. Similarly, as a musician and musicology student myself, I know that learning more about composers like Florence Price would have been not only inspiring, but would have given me a more diverse and accurate account of who actually participated in the musical sphere. The rediscovery and recent publishing of Price’s music is a great achievement that should be celebrated; but I only hope it is the first of many to come.

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Florence Price and the lack of recognition of minorities in music interesting and/or infuriating and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the articles and websites and videos I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources. I’ve also included a couple of links to her music.

Wiki bio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_Price

Announcement by G. Schirmer of acquiring Price’s catalogue: http://www.musicsalesclassical.com/news/3894

Profile on her and the recent performances of her music by Micaela Baranello in The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/09/arts/music/florence-price-arkansas-symphony-concerto.html

New York Times article on the G. Schirmer acquisition: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/15/arts/music/florence-price-music-publisher-schirmer.html

Profile in The New Yorker by Alex Ross: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/05/the-rediscovery-of-florence-price

Bio from Music Sales Classical website: http://www.musicsalesclassical.com/composer/short-bio/Florence-Price

WQXR radio program on Price: https://www.wqxr.org/story/271521-musical-biography-florence-beatrice-price/

Her music:

Symphony in E Minor & Concerto in One Movement: https://amzn.to/2Kh2KG8

Violin Concertos: https://amzn.to/2TkTEMy

[top image from Southern Arkansas University website]

 

A Special Groundbreakers Post: Celebrating the Women Elected to Congress

If you’re in the US (and even if you’re not), you may have heard that we had midterm elections this past Tuesday (and hopefully participated!). While the results were far from perfect for progressives, and some races still haven’t been called, there was still plenty worth celebrating. Over 100 women were elected to Congress, an historic high, many of whom broke the usual mold of white, straight, and Christian. I’m thrilled to have the rare opportunity to share the stories of Groundbreakers who are making history at this very moment!

I won’t be profiling every women who was elected, but there are a few historic milestones of these women elected to Congress that are particularly exciting:

Youngest Woman: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY)

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[image from Ocasio2018.com]

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made history earlier this year by defeating 10-term Congressman Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District, which includes parts of both the Bronx and Queens boroughs of New York City. Crowley was part of the Democratic leadership in Congress and the 4th-ranked House Democrat, and was also known as “The King of Queens” for how powerful he was in his district. Although her victory was assured since she’s in a heavily Democratic district, Ocasio-Cortez officially made history by becoming the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, at age 29.

Ocasio-Cortez, like many of the other women I will discuss here, is quite progressive compared to most establishment Democrats–she is a democratic socialist, more similar to Bernie Sanders, who caucuses with the Democrats but is actually independent. She supports Medicare for All, tuition-free college, going green to help fight climate change, among other left-leaning positions.

What was particularly inspiring about her campaign is that she took no corporate money (an increasingly popular position even amongst some establishment Democrats), only taking small-dollar donations similar to Sanders’ average $27 donation. She also spoke with voters individually, going door to door in a real grassroots effort. This was part of what made people vote for her over Crowley, who assumed he had the district in the bag since he had for so long, and was essentially phoning it in. The district, which is heavily Latino, had had enough of someone who wasn’t really representing them, and Ocasio-Cortez, who was working as a bartender, was sick of seeing what was going on in politics, which made for the perfect storm. And, best of all, she isn’t afraid to speak her mind! She promises to be an excellent representative for her district, and I count myself among the people who look forward to seeing what she will accomplish in this important role.

First Muslim Women: Rashida Tlaib (MI), Ilhan Omar (MN) 

HC2KSgAT_400x400

[image from Tlaib’s Twitter account]

An incredible milestone has been reached by the first two Muslim women being elected to Congress this year. Keith Ellison of Minnesota became the first Muslim elected to Congress in 2006, but 12 years later we finally have the first Muslim women: Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

Rashida Tlaib is of Palestinian heritage and grew up in Detroit. After earning her law degree, she got involved in politics and won a seat in the Michigan House of Representatives. She ran in 2018 to represent the 13th District of Michigan and won the primary, running unopposed in the general election. She not only became one of two Muslim women elected to Congress, but also the first Palestinian-American woman in Congress.

Like Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib holds progressive positions. She is also a democratic socialist, and supports Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage. She also believes in abolishing ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), due to their participation in separating families at the US-Mexican border. And she is even more outspoken than Ocasio-Cortez, and not afraid to raise her voice. She will undoubtedly will be a voice for the interests of the people in her district, much of which is African-American and poor and needs the improvements that Tlaib is seeking.

img_2018-03_Du-Nord_First-Person_Ilhan-Omar_1_G.jpg

[image from Minnesota Monthly]

Ilhan Omar was born in Somalia. After fleeing with her family to Kenya during the Somali Civil War, she moved to Arlington, VA, then to Minneapolis. She learned English quickly, participated in local politics with her grandfather, and became a US citizen in 2000 at age 17.

After working as a community nutrition educator at the University of Minnesota, she became involved in politics, serving as campaign manager for candidates for the Minnesota State Senate and Minneapolis City Council. She was a Senior Policy Aide for for the City Council member. She later became Director of Policy & Initiatives of the Women Organizing Women Network, which helps women in East Africa get civic and political leadership positions.

In 2016, Omar became the first Somali American legislator in the country by winning her election for the Minnesota House of Representatives. She won the seat in Congress, replacing Keith Ellison who has since been elected Minnesota Attorney General, becoming the first Somali American elected to Congress. She supports many of the positions already described. As a member of a heavily Somali part of Minneapolis, she has a promising career ahead of her politics.

First Black Women from New England: Ayanna Pressley (MA), Jahana Hayes (CT) 

While there have been a number of black women elected to Congress, many states have not yet elected any. Enter Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts and Jahana Hayes from Connecticut.

ayanna-headshot

[image from Boston.gov]

Ayanna Pressley was born in Chicago and attended Boston University, but never received her degree. She worked as a district representative for Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II, eventually becoming his political director and senior aide. She also served as political director for Senator John Kerry.

In 2009, Pressley was elected to the Boston City Council, the first woman of color to do so. She was reelected four more times. She ran for the US House seat against Michael Capuano, who was also relatively progressive, but won the primary in September despite the polls favoring Capuano. She ran unopposed in the general election and became the first black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts, in a seat once occupied by President John F. Kennedy. She represents a district that is racially diverse, and supports universal health care, defunding ICE, and fighting sexual violence as a victim of it herself. She has already had a very impressive career in political service and is now on the national stage, where she is sure to shine.

images

[image from EMILY’s List]

Jahana Hayes’ story has a true “American dream” story if that still exists anymore. She was born to a drug addict and grew up in public housing in Connecticut, and got pregnant when she was 17. She went to school to become a teacher and became a government and history teacher in her hometown of Waterbury. She was named Connecticut Teacher of the Year in 2016, which earned her media attention to speak about education in America.

She won the Democratic primary in August and the general election, becoming the first black woman elected to Congress from her state. In addition to supporting universal health care, she also supports stricter gun control, as she experienced first hand the effects of guns in her poor neighborhood. Hayes’ background in education will make her an excellent representative for people she has already gotten to know well.

First Native American Women: Deb Haaland (NM), Sharice Davids (KS)

Last but certainly not least, it is a shame but perhaps not surprising knowing our history that it has taken until 2018 for Native American women to be elected to Congress, but now it has finally happened!

A3wr5AA1_400x400

[image from Haaland’s Twitter account]

Deb Haaland of New Mexico was born in Arizona and is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe. She received both her bachelor and law degrees (in Indian law) from the University of New Mexico. She’s done a ton of work with Native American people, including serving as a tribal administrator and the state vote director for them in Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. She became the chair of the New Mexico Democratic Party in 2015, during which time the Democrats got back control of the state House. After that, she decided to run for the seat in the 1st district and won the primary in June, winning the general election. She believes in clean energy, particularly as a Native American who went to the protest at Standing Rock. She also has similar progressive positions to the other women described here.

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Sharice Davids of Kansas, besides being Native American, has the additional distinction of being the first openly gay representative from Kansas. A member of the Ho-Chunk nation, Davids received her law degree from Cornell. After a brief stint as a mixed martial arts fighter, Davids held a number of different positions, including directing community and economic development at a reservation, owning a coffee shop, and working as a White House Fellow in the Department of Transportation between the Obama and Trump administrations. She defeated a Sanders-endorsed candidate in the Democratic primary, and the incumbent Republican in the general election. Her eclectic background will make her someone to watch as she heads to Washington.

Roundup: Looking Ahead to a Brighter Future

The great thing about all these women is that, while they have different specific issues that they care about, they are all progressive and see this country as more diverse and inclusive than some on the other side would have us believe. But what’s also great is that these women are from all backgrounds and walks of life, which is exactly what our Congress needs more of. Unlike the typical representatives and senators of the past who all went to the same few prep schools, Ivy League schools, etc., these women could not have more different upbringings and educations. They are reflective of what America truly is, not what only the privileged can afford.

We still have a long way to go in the fight for more equitable representation, but I hope these results would make Pauli Murray proud.

[top image from The New York Times]

Groundbreaker #7: Madeleine Kunin, first Jewish and female governor of Vermont

“As a feminist, an immigrant, and a Jew, I was perhaps too different from the average Vermont voter, yet it was this identity that inspired me to enter public life and shaped my values.”

In light of both last week’s horrific attack on Jews who were simply praying at their synagogue in Pittsburgh, as well as the highly anticipated midterm elections on Tuesday (VOTE NOV 6!), I decided I wanted to write about a Jewish Groundbreaker in politics, since I haven’t written about anyone Jewish yet. After doing some searching, I came across Madeleine Kunin, who I’m honestly surprised I’ve never heard of before. She is not only the first Jewish and female governor of Vermont, but the first Jewish woman governor of any state and the first woman of any state to be elected 3 times (among many other things!). And she is my first Groundbreaker who is currently living, at age 85.

Madeleine May Kunin was born in 1933 in Zurich, Switzerland. After the death of her father, which she later learned was a suicide, her mother moved the family around Switzerland, trying to escape the threat of the Nazis. Her mother eventually applied for a visa to enter the United States, and the family arrived in New York in June 1940, while many of her relatives died in concentration camps during the Holocaust. It was this early experience that would later shape her career path (see Jewish Women’s Archive and Kunin’s autobiography).

Kunin received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a master’s from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and another master’s in English from the University of Vermont. She later had a series of jobs and became involved in local community groups in Vermont, particularly dealing with women’s and children’s rights, and literature. While looking for work in journalism, she often experienced sexism or limited opportunities. After marrying her first husband and raising four children while living in Burlington, Vermont, and after several local community organizing victories, she finally decided to enter local politics in the early 1970s.

Kunin’s first political position was as a state representative in 1972, serving on the Government Operations Committee. She was elected Minority Whip in 1974 and during her third term was appointed Chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee in 1976, the first woman to hold this position. She also spoke in favor of ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment and increasing funding for childcare and education. She experienced this struggle firsthand as a mother of four who was also working (see Boston Globe article).

In 1978, Kunin was elected Lieutenant Governor of Vermont, serving with a Republican governor even though she is a Democrat. During her time in this role, she helped produce studies on energy and day care which she presented to the Governor and Legislature. She ran against the incumbent governor in 1982 and lost, but in 1984 ran again and was elected governor, and would serve three terms, becoming the first woman in US history elected governor of a state three times.

While in office, Kunin had many important accomplishments, including working on environmental, educational, and children’s issues, particularly universal access to kindergarten (see Boston Globe article). She also appointed the first woman to the Vermont Supreme Court and created Vermont’s family court system, promoted women’s reproductive rights, and helped stabilize the state’s economy (see Jewish Women’s Archive).

Most importantly, however, Kunin used her opportunity as Vermont’s first female governor to advocate for women’s inclusion in government. She hired women for various positions in the executive and judicial branches, promoted feminist ideas, hung women’s portraits in the governor’s office, and speaking to children about being governor. She was also an inspiration to countless other women around the state (see Jewish Women’s Archive).

Kunin decided not to run for a fourth term in 1990. In 1993, she was appointed deputy secretary of education under President Bill Clinton, and in 1996 she became US Ambassador to Switzerland, where she was born, and later to Liechtenstein. In this role, she helped establish a compensation fund for Holocaust survivors in the Swiss banks. She returned to Vermont in 1999 (see Jewish Women’s Archive).

More recently, Kunin teaches at the University of Vermont, continues to write, and makes various TV and radio appearances. During the Democratic primary in 2016 she supported Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders, which on one hand, with her ultra-liberal track record, is perhaps somewhat surprising, but on the other hand makes sense, since I’m sure she as much as anyone would have wanted to see the first female president elected in her lifetime. Perhaps she will still get that chance.  

And forever devoted to issues important to average people, Kunin recently wrote a book called Coming of Age: My Journey to the Eighties, which is both a memoir and a discussion of the physical and emotional effects of aging.

While Madeleine Kunin is not exactly obscure, why isn’t she more of a household name? Just like the first black president, we should know more about the first women and Jewish Americans in high political offices, like Jeannette Rankin of my last post. Especially since she’s devoted her career to helping the most vulnerable in our society, she should be a role model not only for young women, but for anyone looking for people who have tried to make society better through government. She also has the (relatively) unique experience of being a woman in charge of an entire state government, and the societal and psychological consequences of that (see more in her Boston Globe piece).

And while her being female seems to have made more of an impression on her life than being Jewish, her experience fleeing from the Nazis in Europe at a young age and having family members murdered in the Holocaust surely influenced her worldview and how she prioritized her policymaking. 

As we look to the elections this coming Tuesday, I hope you can be inspired by the story and legacy of Madeleine Kunin, who always did her best to serve the people who elected her. With all the corruption and messiness that is politics today, I am hopeful that the people who are elected on Tuesday and beyond are more like her.

Learn more about this Groundbreaker!

If you have found what I’ve written about Madeleine Kunin interesting and/or inspiring and are curious about learning more, I would encourage you to look into some of the books, articles, websites and podcasts I’ve included below and in the course of my post. This is hardly an exhaustive list, but will definitely lead you to other sources.

Wikipedia bio: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madeleine_Kunin

Entry in Jewish Women’s Archive encyclopedia: https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/Kunin-Madeleine

Piece in Boston Globe about 2016 Democratic primary: https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2016/02/04/when-bernie-sanders-ran-against-vermont/kNP6xUupbQ3Qbg9UUelvVM/story.html

Personal website: http://www.madeleinekunin.org/

Living a Political Life, her autobiography

Coming of Age, recent memoir on aging

The New Feminist Agenda