By: Natalia Acosta, Mary O’Reilly & Areej Taha
Shirley Chisholm was born Shirley Anita St. Hill on November 30, 1924, in a mainly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Chisholm spent part of her childhood in Barbados with her grandmother, where her mother is originally from (Grady, 2005). After graduating from Brooklyn College in 1946, she started her career as a teacher and she later on went back to school, where she earned a master’s degree in elementary education from Columbia University. She served as director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center from 1953 to 1959, and then as an educational adviser for New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare from 1959 to 1964 (Grady, 2005). In 1968, Chisholm became the first African-American to be elected into Congress. In 1969, she became the first black congresswoman and began the first of seven terms (Thurber, 2005).. She was originally assigned to the House Forestry Committee, but she shocked many by demanding reassignment. She was placed on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, where she eventually graduated to the Education and Labor Committee.
Shirley Chisholm was a community activist and not only did a lot for African Americans, but also for women of color. She was an advocate for the needs of women, minorities, and children. She became one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969 (Grady 2005). The purpose of this caucus was to represent the African American members of congress, and it is still does today. Shirley wanted to improve the lives of people in the inner city and urged the government to spend more on social services like healthcare and education. She knew the importance of having child care options for working women and in 1953 became the director of the Hamilton Madison Child Center for 4 years, and then began as an educational consultant for the Division of Daycare (Grady, 2005). When she was elected to congress in 1968, she expressed that “I have no intention of just sitting quietly and observing,…I intend to focus attention on the nation’s problems”(Chisholm Shirley Anita, 2015) She supported working families by sponsoring the increase of funding for daycares so their hours could be longer, and wanted a minimum annual income for families. She was a politician for the people and truly cared about America’s citizens.
Shirley Chisholm’s experience as a community activist and congresswoman pushed her to run for president during the 1970s. Chisholm’s historic presidential campaign was announced during the year 1972 to an ecstatic crowd at the Concord Church in Brooklyn. Chisholm decided to pursuit a candidacy to the Presidency after no African American or woman decided to enter the race (Gallagher, 2007). Chisholm’s presidential campaign aimed to address all of the issues and concerns of underrepresented groups such as African Americans, women, Native Americans, the poor and young people. Chisholm’s experience as a political activist pushed her to fight for better representation of minority groups.
Chisholm’s Presidential campaign earned support and praise from women across the nation. Despite a lack of funds and resources, women from Brooklyn to New Mexico organized activities and fundraising events for Chisholm (Gallagher, 2007). Chisholm’s Presidential campaign not only garnered support from women, it also received an endorsement from the Black Panther Party. The Black Panther Party, “Called on every black, poor and progressive person in the country to help elect her” (Gallagher, 2007). The support of the Black Panther Party, the concentration of resources in more supportive states and the rallying of blacks, women and college students allowed Chisholm to demonstrate strong showings in many state primaries (McClain, 2005).
Despite Chisholm’s endorsements and strong performance in state primaries, she failed to acquire support from very influential groups. She struggled to receive support from many individuals in the African American community. The sexism within the African American community contributed to the downfall of Chisholm’s campaign, one black politician stated that, “In this first serious effort of blacks for high political office, it would be better if it were a man”. Chisholm was well aware of the sexism she faced in politics and stated in a 1982 interview that, “I’ve always met more discrimination being a woman than being black” (McClain, 2005). It was not only black men that failed to voice any support to Chisholm’s campaign. In spite of the support that Chisholm received from women around the country she failed to obtain the support of national feminist organizations. Many feminist groups encouraged Chisholm to run for the Presidency, but did not endorse her because they believed that her campaign would ultimately fail (McClain, 2005).
The lack of endorsement and funding contributed to the failure of Chisholm’s presidential campaign. However, this did not come as a surprise to Chisholm herself, her goal was to never win but demonstrate that a black woman could make a good presidential standing. During Chisholm’s reflection of her presidential campaign in a 1973 interview she stated that, “I ran because someone had to do it first. In this country every- body is supposed to be able to run for President, but that’s never been really true. I ran because most people think the country is not ready for a black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate. Someday . . .It was time in 1972 to make that someday come and, partly through a series of accidents that might never recur, it seemed to me that I was the best fitted to try . . .”(McClain, 2005).
Following her historic presidential campaign Chisholm returned to Congress during the year 1972. Chisholm’s failed presidential campaign did not hinder her reelection into Congress, she won her seat in the House of Representatives with nearly 90 percent of the vote (Gallagher, 2007). The Journal of African American History stated that during her time in Congress, “She continued to fight for welfare reform, an extension of minimum-wage coverage, job development and public service employment, and adequate childcare programs” (Gallagher, 2007).
After serving seven terms in the House, she retired from office to become a teacher and public speaker. After leaving Congress in 1983, Chisholm taught at Mount Holyoke College and was a popular lecturer. She passed away during the year 2005, however her legacy as an inspirational, influential and hard working woman will continue to live on. The life Chisholm led should be taught to this generation and generations beyond, to spark positive political and social change.
Gallagher, J. (2007). Waging “the good fight”: The political career of Shirley Chisholm.
Grady, M., & LaCost, B. (2005). Shirley Chisholm Had Guts. Journal of Women in Educational Leadership, 3(1), 1-2
History, art & archives, U.S. House of Representatives, “Chisholm, Shirley Anita,” http://history.house.gov/People/Detail/10918
McClain, P. , Carter, N. , & Brady, M. (2005). Gender and black presidential politics: From Chisholm to Moseley Braun. Journal of Women, Politics & Policy, 27(1/2), 51-68.
Thurber, J. (2005, January 4). Shirley Chisholm, 80; ran for president, served 13 years in congress. The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com