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Historic Firsts: How Symbolic Empowerment Changes U.S. Politics, Evelyn M. Simien

Reviewed by Laurel Elder



Evelyn M. Simien provides a lucid and timely analysis of the way that four historic firsts—the Democratic presidential nomination quests of Shirley Chisholm in 1972, Jesse Jackson in 1984, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008—left a lasting impact on presidential electoral politics. Through these case studies, the book advances a theory of symbolic empowerment, the idea that marginalized groups are inspired and changed by seeing someone who looks like them pursuing the highest level of political office.

The chapter focused on the historic candidacy of Shirley Chisholm makes powerful use of archival data and an explicitly intersectional framework to illustrate how Chisholm's run for president inspired a new group of Americans to get involved in electoral politics and to view the presidency differently. Although the large-scale, individual-level data needed to test whether Chisholm's supporters were systematically mobilized by her candidacy do not exist, this chapter provides a compelling narrative of symbolic empowerment. I recommend it as required reading in courses not just on gender, race, and politics but also, even more importantly, in courses on presidential elections and the presidency.

Simien finds that both Jesse Jackson in 1984 and Barack Obama in 2008 acted as mobilizing agents for African American citizens. The

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