“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 Chisholm! These 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
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/