On Firsts

Shirley Chisholm.PNG
Shirley Chisholm:  Buffalonian, U.S. Representative, NY State Assemblywoman and First Black woman to run for President

I didn’t vote for Hillary because she’s a woman.  I voted for her because after following her for about 20 years, reading all the good and the bad, I actually think she’s the best candidate.  I’ve had hundreds of people tell me, at great length, how awful she is. I’ve listened and I’ve asked questions.  Then I would follow up and do some homework and see if my opinion of her was misguided.  Though she has some flaws I definitely don’t like, overall, I still am a big fan.

You see, I have an intimate understanding of being a first.  I also know many people who have also been “firsts” and I’ve read a lot about characters in history who were “firsts.” The thing I’ve noticed about being first is that it is dangerous.  Queen Elizabeth was the first female ruler of England, and she was in constant fear of being assasinated.  The Phung ti women of Vietnam fought to protect their kingdom and are still revered today by the Vietnamese people.  Harriet Tubman was one of the first Underground Railroad conductors, and every trip she made she put her life in great peril.  Sally Ride was the first woman to go to space, and died on the way.

I became a messenger and had no idea women weren’t supposed to do the job.  Company after company told me they wouldn’t hire me because I was female, but I’d remind them that they had to at least give me an application.  I was sassy, often inappropriate and ambitious.  One time the guy doing the hiring told me they’d never hired a female messenger, I told him to make up his damn mind because if he didn’t want me, I’d go to the next company.

Competing in the Cycle Messenger World Championships, I was the first girl to beat all the guys in the track stand competition.  Too bad no one noticed.  They all clustered around the guy they assumed would win, and I watched him go down while I was still standing. A few years later, my friend Bega stood watch to make sure the competition was fair, and I officially beat all 100 guys.  This time, it was noticed.

At the North American Cycle Messenger Championships, I beat everyone and I demanded the male world title.  I know, it’s totally offensive, but my point was that when you win a female title everyone assumes you’re still not as good as the guys.  I’d been told as much every time I won bike races, “So what, it’s just the girls’ category, not like it’s competitive.”

In the Marines I was the first 34 year old PFC anyone had ever seen or heard about.  They called me the “Grand Old Lady” of the Marine Corps.  I kept up with the guys in runs, I did pull-ups like the guys.   There were some Marines that liked that about me, but there were an awful lot of them that didn’t, and let me know as much as they could.  Whereas messengers took pride in the fact that I was one of them and it was a bonus that I was a woman, Marines often felt the urge to tell me all the ways that I was wrong.  “It’s not attractive when women are strong!” “Why do you have to act like something you’re not?” “I hate women in the Marine Corps.”  “Women can’t pull their weight, they don’t belong in the Marine Corps.”

More often than not, it’s been my mouth that got me into trouble, and I attribute that to my inability to tolerate bullying.  Very often I’m the first one to point out when something is not right about the way someone is being treated.  Standing up to injustice is a lonely place when you dare to do it.  You are usually the first.  So why keep doing it?  I’ve gotten myself into all kinds of trouble by sticking up for people who were not popular.  Pointing out racist behavior, defending people against bullies, stalkers and predators.  I do it because I’ve been the recipient of so many blessings.

Jay Thomas was not my friend.  He was this black kid I sat next to in grammar school.  He thought I was weird (completely accurate).  One day a bunch of white boys were beating me up for being excessively weird.  Jay stood up to all of them, picked me up and dusted me off.  That left a mark on my soul.

I recognize the rhetoric of this campaign.  The bullying and intolerance reminds me of all the times I was first and was told I was wrong for picking the job I wanted to do, for being as good as the guys, for sticking up for people that the rest of society denigrated.  That’s why I have admired Hillary Clinton for the past 20 years.

The plus side of being first, for sticking your neck out for other people, no matter how unpopular it makes you in the near term, the satisfaction of knowing you did the right thing is gratifying.  And then sometimes people tell you they appreciate it.  One day in the park this guy was harassing this office worker.  She was trying to be polite, but the man would just not let up.  I went over and asked, “Is this man bothering you?”  She quietly nodded.  I exchanged some loud words with the guy, he threatened to beat me up, I invited him to make good on his threat, and then he started calling me names as he stalked away.

“Thank you so much!” the girl told me with tears and gratitude in her eyes.

For this election season, I’d like to tell Hillary, “Thank you so much!”  She’s stiff, I’m not a fan of the pant suits, I wish she hadn’t had that whole mess with the emails.  But I’m still grateful because she was strong enough to be a first, and I know, that is one of the hardest things in the world to be.



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