Shirley Anita Chisholm

(November 30, 1924 – January 1, 2005)

An American politician, educator, and author. In 1968, she became the first black woman elected to the United States Congress, and she represented New York's 12th congressional district for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. In 1972, she became the first black candidate for a major party's nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

In 2015, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Early life and education

Shirley Anita St. Hill was born on November 30, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York, to immigrant parents from the Caribbean region. Her father, Charles Christopher St. Hill and her mother, Ruby Seale. In November 1929 when St. Hill turned five, she and her two sisters were sent to Barbados on the S.S. Vulcana to live with their maternal grandmother, Emaline Seale.  There they lived on their grandmother's farm in the Vauxhall village in Christ Church, where she attended a one-room schoolhouse that took education seriously. She did not return to the United States until May 19, 1934, aboard the SS Nerissa in New York.  As a result, St. Hill spoke with a recognizable West Indian accent throughout her life. In her 1970 autobiography Unbought and Unbossed, she wrote: "Years later I would know what an important gift my parents had given me by seeing to it that I had my early education in the strict, traditional, British-style schools of Barbados. Regarding the role of her grandmother, she later said, "Granny gave me strength, dignity, and love. I learned from an early age that I was somebody. I didn't need the black revolution to tell me that."  Beginning in 1939, St. Hill attended Girls' High School in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, a highly regarded, integrated school that attracted girls from throughout Brooklyn. St. Hill earned her Bachelor of Arts from Brooklyn College in 1946, where she won prizes for her debating skills. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.

St. Hill met Conrad O. Chisholm in the late 1940s. He had migrated to the U.S. from Jamaica in 1946 and later became a private investigator who specialized in negligence-based lawsuits. They married in 1949 in a large West Indian-style wedding.  Chisholm taught in a nursery school while furthering her education, earning her MA in elementary education from Teachers College at Columbia University in 1952.

Educator

From 1953 to 1959, she was director of the Friends Day Nursery in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center in lower Manhattan. From 1959 to 1964, she was an educational consultant for the Division of Day Care. She became known as an authority on issues involving early education and child welfare. Running a day care center got her interested in politics and during this time she formed the basis of her political career. She worked as a volunteer for white-dominated political clubs in Brooklyn, and with the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League and the League of Women Voters. With the Political League, she was part of a committee that chose the recipient of its annual Brotherhood Award. She was also a representative of the Brooklyn branch of the National Association of College Women.

State legislator

Chisholm was a Democratic member of the New York State Assembly from 1965 to 1968, sitting in the 175th176th and 177th New York State Legislatures. By May 1965 she had already been honored in a "Salute to Women Doers" affair in New York. One of her early activities in the Assembly was to argue against the state's literacy test requiring English, holding that just because a person "functions better in his native language is no sign a person is illiterate". By early 1966 she was a leader in a push by the statewide Council of Elected Negro Democrats for black representation on key committees in the Assembly.  Her successes in the legislature included getting unemployment benefits extended to domestic workers. She also sponsored the introduction of a SEEK program (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) to the state, which provided disadvantaged students the chance to enter college while receiving intensive remedial education. In August 1968, she was elected as the Democratic National Committeewoman from New York State.

Congress

Initial election

In 1968, she ran for the U.S. House of Representatives from New York's 12th congressional district, which as part of a court-mandated reapportionment plan had been significantly redrawn to focus on Bedford-Stuyvesant and was thus expected to result in Brooklyn's first black member of Congress. (Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. had, in 1945, become the first black member of Congress from New York City as a whole.) As a result of the redrawing, the white incumbent in the former 12th, Representative Edna F. Kelly, sought re-election in a different district. Chisholm announced her candidacy around January 1968 and established some early organizational support. Her campaign slogan was "Unbought and unbossed". In the June 18, 1968, Democratic primary, Chisholm defeated two other black opponents, State Senator William S. Thompson and labor official Dollie Robertson.  In the general election, she staged an upset victory over James L. Farmer, Jr., the former director of the Congress of Racial Equality who was running as a Liberal Party candidate with Republican support, winning by an approximately two-to-one margin. Chisholm thereby became the first black woman elected to Congress.

Early terms

Chisholm was assigned to the House Agricultural Committee. Given her urban district, Chisholm subsequently met Robert Dole, and worked to expand the food stamp program. She later played a critical role in the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. Chisholm was then also placed on the Veterans' Affairs Committee.  Soon after, Hale Boggs assigned her to the much-prized Education and Labor Committee, which was her preferred committee.  She was the third highest-ranking member of this committee when she retired from Congress.  All those Chisholm hired for her office were women; half of these were black.  Chisholm said that she had faced much more discrimination during her New York legislative career because she was a woman than because of her race.  Chisholm joined the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971 as one of its founding members.  In the same year, she was also a founding member of the National Women's Political Caucus.

In May 1971 she, along with fellow New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug, introduced a bill to provide $10 billion in federal funds for child care services by 1975.  A less expensive version introduced by Senator Walter Mondale[30] eventually passed the House and Senate as the Comprehensive Child Development Bill, but was vetoed by President Richard Nixon in December 1971, who said it was too expensive and would undermine the institution of the family.

Later terms

Chisholm created controversy when she visited rival and ideological opposite George Wallace in the hospital soon after his shooting in May 1972, during the presidential primary campaign. Several years later, when Chisholm worked on a bill to give domestic workers the right to a minimum wage, Wallace helped gain votes of enough Southern congressmen to push the legislation through the House.

From 1977 to 1981, during the 95th Congress and 96th Congress, Chisholm was elected to a position in the House Democratic leadership, as Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus.  Throughout her tenure in Congress, Chisholm worked to improve opportunities for inner-city residents. She was a vocal opponent of the draft and supported spending increases for education, health care and other social services, and reductions in military spending.  In the area of national security and foreign policy, Chisholm worked for the revocation of Internal Security Act of 1950.  She opposed the American involvement in the Vietnam War and the expansion of weapon developments.  During the Jimmy Carter administration, she called for better treatment of Haitian refugees.  Chisholm's first marriage ended in divorce in February 1977.  Later that year she married Arthur Hardwick, Jr., a former New York State Assemblyman whom Chisholm had known when they both served in that body and who was now a Buffalo liquor store owner.  Chisholm had no children.  Hardwick was subsequently injured in an automobile accident; desiring to take care of him, and also dissatisfied with the course of liberal politics in the wake of the Reagan Revolution, she announced her retirement from Congress in 1982.  Hardwick died in 1986.

1972 presidential campaign

Chisholm began exploring her candidacy in July 1971, and formally announced her presidential bid on January 25, 1972, in a Baptist church in her district in Brooklyn.  There she called for a "bloodless revolution" at the forthcoming Democratic nomination convention.  Chisholm became the first black major-party candidate to run for President of the United States, in the 1972 U.S. presidential election, making her also the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination (U.S. Senator Margaret Chase Smith had previously run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964).  In her Presidential announcement, Chisholm describes herself as representative of the people and offered a new articulation of American identity: "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."

 

Her campaign was underfunded, only spending $300,000 in total.  She also struggled to be regarded as a serious candidate instead of as a symbolic political figure; she was ignored by much of the Democratic political establishment and received little support from her black male colleagues.  She later said, "When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men."  In particular, she expressed frustration about the "black matriarch thing", saying, "They think I am trying to take power from them. The black man must step forward, but that doesn't mean the black woman must step back."  Her husband, however, was fully supportive of her candidacy and said, "I have no hang-ups about a woman running for president."  Security was also a concern, as during the campaign three confirmed threats were made against her life; Conrad Chisholm served as her bodyguard until U.S. Secret Service protection was given to her in May 1972.

Chisholm skipped the initial March 7th New Hampshire contest, instead focusing on the March 14th Florida primary, which she thought would be receptive due to its "blacks, youth and a strong women's movement".  But due to organizational difficulties and Congressional responsibilities, she only made two campaign trips there and ended with 3.5 percent of the vote for a seventh-place finish.  Chisholm had difficulties gaining ballot access, but campaigned or received votes in primaries in fourteen states.  Her largest number of votes came in the June 6th California primary, where she received 157,435 votes for 4.4 percent and a fourth-place finish, while her best percentage in a competitive primary came in the May 6 North Carolina one, where she got 7.5 percent for a third-place finish.  Overall, she won 28 delegates during the primaries process itself.  Chisholm's base of support was ethnically diverse and included the National Organization for WomenBetty Friedan and Gloria Steinem attempted to run as Chisholm delegates in New York.  Altogether during the primary season, she received 430,703 votes, which was 2.7 percent of the total of nearly 16 million cast and represented seventh place among the Democratic contenders.

 

It is sometimes stated that Chisholm won a primary in 1972, or won three states overall, with New Jersey, Louisiana, and Mississippi being so identified. None of these fit the usual definition of winning a plurality of the contested popular vote or delegate allocations at the time of a state primary or caucus or state convention.  During the campaign, the German filmmaker Peter Lilienthal shot the documentary film Shirley Chisholm for President for German Television channel ZDF.

 

Subsequent years

After leaving Congress, Chisholm made her home in suburban Williamsville, New York. She resumed her career in education, being named to the Purington Chair at the all-women Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. As such she was not a member of any particular department, but would be able to teach classes in a variety of areas; those previously holding the position included W. H. AudenBertrand Russell, and Arna Bontemps. At Mount Holyoke, she taught politics and sociology from 1983 to 1987. She focused on undergraduate courses that covered politics as it involved women and race. Dean of Faculty Joseph Ellis later said that Chisholm "contributed to the vitality of the College and gave the College a presence." In 1985, she was a visiting scholar at Spelman College.

During those years, she continued to give speeches at colleges, by her own count visiting over 150 campuses since becoming nationally known.  She told students to avoid polarization and intolerance: "If you don't accept others who are different, it means nothing that you've learned calculus."  Continuing to be involved politically, she traveled to visit different minority groups and urging them to become a strong force at the local level.  In 1984 and 1988, she campaigned for Jesse Jackson for the presidential elections.  In 1990, Chisholm, along with 15 other black women and men, formed the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom.  Chisholm retired to Florida in 1991.  In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated her to be United States Ambassador to Jamaica, but she could not serve due to poor health and the nomination was withdrawn.

 

In the same year she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame, Chisholm died on January 1, 2005, in Ormond Beach near Daytona Beach, after suffering several strokes.  She is buried in the Oakwood Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, where the legend inscribed on her vault reads: "Unbought and Unbossed".

Legacy

In February 2005, Shirley Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed, a documentary film, aired on U.S public television. It chronicled Chisholm's 1972 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.  It was directed and produced by independent African-American filmmaker Shola Lynch.  The film was featured at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. On April 9, 2006, the film was announced as a winner of a Peabody Award.  Chisholm's legacy came into renewed prominence during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton staged their historic "firsts" battle – where the victor would either be the first major party African-American nominee, or the first woman nominee – with at least one observer crediting Chisholm's 1972 campaign as having paved the way for both of them.

 

In 1984, The National Black Women's Political Caucus was established during the presidential campaign of Geraldine Ferraro. African American women from various political organizations convened to set forth a political agenda emphasizing the needs of women of African descent. Chisholm was chosen as its first chair.  The Shirley Chisholm Project on Brooklyn Women's Activism (formerly known as the Shirley Chisholm Center for Research) exists at Brooklyn College to promote research projects and programs on women and to preserve the legacy of Chisholm.  The Chisholm Project also houses an archive as part of the Chisholm Papers in the college library Special Collections.

 

In 2014, the first adult biography of Chisholm was published, Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change, by Brooklyn College history professor Barbara Winslow, who was also the founder and first director of the Shirley Chisholm Project. Until then, only several juvenile biographies had appeared.  Chisholm's speech "For the Equal Rights Amendment", given in 1970, is listed as No. 91 in American Rhetoric's Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century (listed by rank).

 

Chisholm has been a major influence on other women of color in politics, among them California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who stated in a 2017 interview that Chisholm had a profound impact on her career. Kamala Harris recognized Chisholm's presidential campaign by using a similar color scheme and typography in her own 2020 presidential campaign's promotional materials and logo. That red-and-yellow design could be seen in a video announcing Harris's run for president. Harris launched her presidential campaign forty-seven years to the day after Chisholm's presidential campaign.

© 2015 by National Congress of Black Women proudly created in collaboration with SLS Group, LLC

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