candidate to run for a major party's nomination for President of the United States
Women had won the right to vote just four years before Shirley Chisholm’s birth. Racial segregation was still the norm and women were expected to be maids, mothers, and homemakers. Colleges could require different standards from women applicants than men. There was no question of gender and racial inequality, it was a fact of life. Shirley Chisholm broke the mold society had created for women--she cracked it wide open. Shirley Chisholm was radical; her support for social justice, feminism, black nationalists, and her opposition to US foreign policy was far outside the norm. Yet she stayed in politics, trying to bring progressive change to the Democratic Party as another facet of a movement striving for equality. At the same time Chisholm was fighting her hardest to get Lewis Flagg (a black judge) elected to an all-white municipal court, Rosa Parks was refusing to give up her seat on the bus to a white man and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was calling African Americans to action against inequalities. While Chisholm was running her campaign for state congressional office, the Greensboro sit-ins were capturing national attention. The year Chisholm was elected to the House of Representatives, Robert Kennedy was assassinated. Chisholm ran for the presidency in the period of mourning following assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The nation was in turmoil and Shirley Chisholm was the revolutionary inspiration it needed to move forward.
The firstborn of four daughters to first generation Barbadian immigrants in Brooklyn, Shirley spent her formative years (3-10 years old) in Barbados being educated in the traditional British fashion before returning to the States where she attended Brooklyn College. As a woman, her grade point average had to be five percent higher than a man’s to be admitted (Winslow 2014). She planned to eventually pursue education, one of the few fields viewed as open to women. While in college she joined and formed various political clubs such as the Harriet Tubman Society, Pan-American League, the Urban League, and IPOTHIA (In Pursuit Of The Highest In All). She didn’t view politics as a viable career choice however, because societal norms indicated that women, especially black women, did not belong in politics. She also had a basic awareness that racism and sexism often interacted in complex ways to restrain black women’s agency in social and political reform (Brown 2008). Instead of pursuing a Political Science degree, Chisholm earned a Masters in Education. Then, in 1936 she moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant and was the first person of color to join the 17th District Assembly (Ratmaa 2011), a political group representing the dominantly black district of Bedford-Stuyvesant. There she reinforced the value of female club member's contributions. She demanded to be a part of the assembly, despite the assumption that as a black woman she would remain seen but not heard. She teamed up with activist Mac Holder to create the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League to help elect the first African American judge to the municipal court--a successful venture. (Pollack 1994) She then went on to form the Unity Democratic Club, which showed members how to push petitions and go door to door.
In 1964, Chisholm decided to run for Assemblywoman in the New York House of Representatives, shocking black and white men alike. Many black men lashed at her for trying to carve out her own place in politics instead of just supporting the black men who were struggling to gain equality themselves. Scholar Valerie Smith has noted, “For some black men, Chisholm’s confidence and assertiveness brought to mind the negative stereotypes of overbearing black women.” (Brown 2008)
She won the general election for Assemblywoman of the 17th Congressional District of New York and in her first ever vote as an elected official she broke party precedent, earning her a reputation for being someone with strong independent beliefs and convictions but also as a trouble maker. She introduced 50 bills, eight of which were passed. Shirley’s first bill protected domestic workers from unemployment and paved the way for the Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights. Her second, SEEK, helped underprivileged minorities go to college. She passed a bill giving unemployment insurance and Social Security to agricultural and domestic workers, a goal of the civil and labor rights movement for over 30 years. She also fought for the legalization of abortion, which was partially achieved, at a time when just 4 of 207 legislators were women (Winslow 2014). She was reelected twice, with healthy margins both times. Then Chisholm had a bigger goal--the House of Representatives. She ran her campaign funded only by small donations from supporters, leading to her campaign slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed”. During the campaign Chisholm discovered she had a pelvic tumor and she was forced to stay in the hospital to recover from her surgery. Mere days after being released, Chisholm was once again campaigning. Her opponent, African American republican James Farmer, mocked Chisholm and claimed her gender made her unfit. His portrayal of her gender as a detriment enraged the women of the district who came out in droves to support their sister and lead her to a victory.
Once in office, Chisholm assigned women to every position in her office, in an attempt to fight sexism and increase the number of women in politics (Ratmaa 2011). She was assigned to the House Agriculture Committee, but did not feel she could bring value to that position. Despite being told to accept it and be happy Chisholm went to a caucus for approving committee assignments to reject her assignment. She was told such a move might end her career but to be quiet was not in her nature. She was reassigned to the Veteran’s Affairs Committee, where she promptly began investigating accusations of racial discrimination in benefit distribution. Shortly after President Nixon announced he was cutting the Head Start program (a preschool funding program for needy school children) to fund the Vietnam War and a missiles program, she gave her very first speech to the House of Representatives announcing her intention to vote against all bills sending money to the military for a war she vehemently opposed.In 1972 with the nation mourning its assassinated civil rights leaders and lacking faith in Nixon, Chisholm announced her candidacy for President of the United States. Despite many hurdles, she was the first black candidate for a major party to advance to the presidential primaries. Although unable to secure the nomination to be the Democratic candidate, her victory sent a message of hope to many who had lost it. She continued to be politically active after her departure from the House of Representatives in 1983, working on Jesse Jackson’s first and second presidential campaign and serving as president of what is today the National Congress of Black women before moving to Florida for retirement. She died January 1, 2005 and is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, New York.
Barcella, Laura. Fight Like a Girl (California: Zest Books, 2016).
Brown, Tammy. “A New Era in American Politics,” Callaloo 31 (2008): 1013-1025.
Pollack, Jill. Shirley Chisholm (New York: Franklin Watts, 1994).
Raatma, Lucia. Shirley Chisholm: Leading Women (New York: Marshall Cavendish, 2011).
Winslow, Barbara. Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change (Colorado: Westview Press, 2014).
Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970).