November 30, 1924 – Shirley Chisholm
“The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: ‘It’s a girl’.”
During her race to become President of the United States, Chisholm was the first candidate for any office that I worked for on their campaign, putting in hours on the telephone and knocking on doors. I had just turned 18-years-old and I would be among the first in my age group to vote in a presidential election. I was excited about the responsibility. I took it seriously and really looked the choices over. And, I believed that change was possible. I was so idealistic.
During her decades-long political career, Chisholm established a lot of firsts. She began as a community activist and an educator-turned-Congressperson from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.
She became the first African-American woman to be elected to the House of Representatives and a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and later, the Congressional Women’s Caucus. Just a few years after arriving in Congress, Chisholm became the first African-American woman to run as a major party candidate for POTUS, breaking down barriers and paving a path for people like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
“I am a revolutionary at heart now and I’ve got to run, even though it might be the downfall of my career.”
Chisholm was first elected to Congress in 1968 and when she stepped onto the floor of the House of Representatives, her constituents knew it was not about her race or gender, but for her fearless fight for what she believed to be right.
“I have no intention of just sitting quietly and observing. I intend to speak out immediately in order to focus on the nation’s problems.”
In her first floor-speech in Spring of 1969, she spoke out against the Vietnam War, vowing to vote against all new military spending. “Fighting Shirley” introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation and championed Racial and Gender Equality, and the plight of the poor. She was a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, and in 1977 became the first black woman and only the second woman ever to serve on the powerful House Rules Committee. She fought for Immigrant Rights and for access to education for everyone. Chisholm even helped to create the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Can you even imagine being a woman, or even being black in Congress in that era? Much less a black female. The men in Congress did not respect her, she stood out and they didn’t get her. Yet, Chisholm never backed down. She didn’t go to Washington DC to get along with the gentlemen, she went to change things.
“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. But, being a woman is a bigger drawback for me than being black.”
In 1972, just a few years after being elected to Congress, Chisholm announced that she was seeking the Democratic nomination for President, running against George McGovern, Hubert Humphrey, and the always charming Governor of Alabama, George Wallace. Chisholm admitted that she never expected to actually win and that her campaign was largely symbolic. She ran to prove that Americans could vote for a black woman.
“I stand before you today, to repudiate the ridiculous notion that the American people will not vote for qualified candidates, simply because he is not white or because she is not a male. I do not believe that in 1972, the great majority of Americans will continue to harbor such narrow and petty prejudice.”
The campaign wasn’t easy. During the road to the primaries, she survived multiple assassination attempts and had to sue to make sure she would appear in televised debates. She fought her way onto the primary ballots in 12 states. Still, students, women, and minorities followed the “Chisholm Trail”. She entered 12 primaries and at the Democratic National Convention, she garnered 152, or 10%, of the delegates’ votes, despite an under-financed campaign and contentiousness from the predominantly male Congressional Black Caucus. With just that 10% of the total vote, Chisholm forged the way for future candidates that weren’t white or male.
Born in Brooklyn, Chisholm was the oldest of four daughters of immigrant parents. Her father was a factory worker from Guyana, and her mother, a seamstress from Barbados. She graduated from Brooklyn College cum laude in 1946, where she was the star of the debate team. Although her professors encouraged her to consider a political career, she felt that she faced a double handicap as both black and female.
Initially, Chisholm worked as a nursery school teacher. In 1949, she married Conrad Q. Chisholm, a private investigator. They divorced in 1977. She earned a master’s degree in Education from Columbia University in 1951. By 1960, she was a consultant to the New York City Division of Day Care. Keenly aware of discrimination, she joined local chapters of the League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Urban League, and Democratic Party Club in Bed-Stuy.
Chisholm retired from Congress in 1983. She taught at Mount Holyoke College and co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women. In 1991 she moved to Florida, and later she declined the nomination to become US Ambassador to Jamaica by William Jefferson Clinton. Of her legacy, Chisholm said:
“I want to be remembered as a woman who dared to be a catalyst of change.”
Chisholm left this world on January 1, 2005, after suffering several strokes.
This nation has yet to elect a woman as President of the United States, but one did win the popular vote, although the electoral votes went to the White Nationalist Party candidate. But, once, although it still seems like a dream, we did elect an African-American to be our leader.
In 2015, President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal Of Freedom to Chishom. Barack Obama:
“There are people in our country’s history who don’t look left or right, they just look straight ahead. Shirley Chisholm was one of those people. Her example transcends her life. And when asked how she’d like to be remembered, she had an answer: ‘I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts’. And I’m proud to say it: Shirley Chisholm had guts.”
”If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”