Isabel Jess is a new contributor to Breaking the Glass Ceiling. She is a current History student with a passion for (arguing about) international politics and migration issues.
“For most of history, anonymous was a woman” – Virginia Woolf
Recognising Overlooked or Forgotten Voices in History
The name Barbara Jordan is indeed a recognizable one in the recent history of American politics. As a powerful advocate for the integrity of the Constitution and for equal rights, she is known for her prominent role in U.S. politics as a Congresswoman for the state of Texas, yet, her identity as a queer woman remained completely obscured to the public for the entirety of her life. It is through the multifaceted lens of one’s sexuality in the public eye that Jordan’s life takes on a certain degree of anonymity in the wider scheme of history.
Barbara Jordan was a woman who triumphed against the backdrop of racial segregation. She attended a segregated high school in Houston, Texas and was part of the first class of Texas Southern University. Texas Southern University had been “hastily” established in order to maintain a segregated student body apart from the University of Texas. Jordan also went on to graduate from Boston Law School as one of two black women in the graduating class.
Jordan’s political career began with her role as a campaign volunteer for John F. Kennedy in 1960 and evolved as she ran unsuccessfully for the Texas House on two occasions. She finally won a position in the Texas State Senate in 1966 and in 1972 became the first African-American U.S. Congresswoman from a Southern State. While the progression of Jordan’s career is indeed remarkable, what she remains most noted for is her defense of principles.
During the Watergate proceedings, Jordan gave a powerful opening address to the judiciary Committee’s impeachment hearing for former President Richard Nixon, declaring, “I am not going to sit here and be an idle spectator to the diminution, the subversion, the destruction of the Constitution”. In an era when women, and women of colour in particular, had to far exceed the average standard in order to receive an ounce of respect, Jordan had proved her intellect, integrity, and prowess as a representative of the people. Two years later, Jordan was asked to present the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention of 1976.
Jordan continued to advocate for equal rights for women and people of colour and held fast to her integrity and convictions for the remainder of her time in Congress, until she retired in 1979. In her time as a Congresswoman, she sponsored more than 70 bills in service to the underprivileged and minorities. In 1994, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award given to a civilian in the United States.
So what can we learn from such a remarkable woman? Just as we can embrace the examples by which she led, just as we can appreciate the real struggles she had to overcome, and just as we can acknowledge her place in history among a long line of inspiring figures, we can also learn from that which was always hidden from the details of her life: her identity as a queer woman.
If Jordan had run for a political position as an openly queer woman in the United States in the 1970s, it would have most likely have undermined her ability to be elected. While the past is often romanticised, it is difficult to ignore the reality that minorities faced across all spectrums of life. Yet, if, due to some combination of factors, Jordan’s identity as a queer woman did not impede her ability to be elected, would it have distracted from her legacy? This involves some detailed consideration. After all, her legacy as an individual of principles and a staunch supporter of the underprivileged is commonly referenced as the core of her impact; however, by placing the label of “queer” alongside that legacy, are we undermining the accomplishments of the individual? Would one rather be known as a successful politician, or as a successful female politician? Would one rather be recognised as a remarkable leader, or as a remarkable and queer leader? Such questions might lead us to consider if these facets of our identities distract others from our strengths and attributes, regardless of whether or not those strengths and attributes are derivative of our identities. In effect, this is the burden and the fear that hangs upon the shoulders of many.
In the face of reality, it takes great strength to embrace our identities in pursuit of greater things. It is my belief that while this fear is indeed very real, we must transform it into a source of empowerment. For politicians like Jordan, if she had been open with her queerness, it may have cost her her career. Yet, the world is progressing, and it is through the brave actions of people like Jordan that it will continue to progress. While Jordan may not have had the freedom to express her courage through her queer identity, it is her spirit of fearless conviction and integrity that can inspire the future.
History.com, “Barbara C. Jordan.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 2009, http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/barbara-c-jordan.
Picture credit: https://www.biography.com/people/barbara-jordan-9357991