It’s black history month and this month we’re doing a series on amazing women from history that we need to know more about! Each week we’ll feature a different amazing lady and check out our social channels if you want to learn more!
This week we’re talking about the incomparable Shirley Anita Chisholm. This boss babe was the FIRST black congresswoman in 1968 and she became the first major party black candidate for the Presidency four years later. This congresswoman tried to win the Presidency with the women’s vote and the black vote, but ran into some problems.
In 1972 Shirley Chisholm announced her historic run for the White House, challenging other democrats Edmond Muskie, George McGovern, and George Wallace. In her speech she stated, ““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 I am equally proud of that.”
Her slogan for her campaign was “Unbought and Unbossed,” and she truly was fighting for new ideas with her hat in the ring. She even had buttons made that showed her face surrounded by a circle with the Venus astrological symbol next to it, she wanted to push forward that she was a woman and her feminist ideals! She wasn’t going to apologize for her womanhood. In an interview with The New York Times in 1969 she said “I am the people’s politician. If the day should ever come when the people can’t save me, I’ll know I’m finished. That’s when I’ll go back to being a professional educator.”
“I am the people’s politician. If the day should ever come when the people can’t save me, I’ll know I’m finished. That’s when I’ll go back to being a professional educator.”
Chisholm was born Shirley Anita St. Hill on November 30th, 1924 in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn, New York. She was one of four daughters born to Charles St. Hill who was a factory laborer from Guyana, and her mother, Ruby Seale St. Hill, a seamstress from Barbados. Chisholm actually lived with her maternal grandparents growing up in Barbados for a couple of years during childhood while her parents worked during the depression. She came back to NY for middle school and high school and then attended Brooklyn College where she graduated with a cum laude in 1946.
Early in her career, Chisholm worked as a nursery school teacher and director and continued to think about children when she earned an MA in Early Childhood Education from Columbia University. She then became an educational consultant for NYC’s day care division.
Chisholm was then elected the New York State Assembly for her hometown of Brooklyn and was the second black woman to serve in Albany. She refused to abide by the long-standing expectations in the House for freshman members to stay silent. But she stated that “I have no intention of just sitting quietly and observing.” In fact, in her first speech on the floor she condemned the Vietnam War. She fought for food stamps, school lunches, and she held hearings about the Vietnam War when only nineteen other representatives were willing to talk about it. She continued to fight for the young, she sponsored increases in federal funding for longer hours for daycare and helping low income families be able to afford childcare. In the House of Reps she was a founding member of both the Congressional Women’s Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus and yet she wasn’t able to consolidate these two huge constituencies the women’s vote and the black vote, when it came to her Presidential run.
Chisholm stated that none of the other candidates represented the black or minority vote and so declared her candidacy for President in 1972. At the Democratic National Convention she received 152 delegate votes, or about 10% of the total which was amazing with her modest funding. She was called one of the top 10 most admired women in America in a Gallup Poll from 1974, even before Jackie Kennedy and tying with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 6th place.
Chisholm was a huge feminist, but feminists were completely split over her candidacy for President, Gloria Steinem and other women in Congress including Bella Savitzky Abzug of New York, supported McGovern, who later became the Democratic Candidate. Another issue was that gender discrimination, Chisholm later noted, carried across party lines.
One of the most dramatic parts of the 1972 primary season was when George Wallace, another Democratic Party contender and the then governor of Alabama, was shot five times in an assassination attempt. Wallace ran racist advertisement campaigns and was left alive but paralyzed from the waist down after the attempt. But the biggest shock for the US was when Chisholm visited this racist rival in the Hospital as he was recuperating. She didn’t agree with his policies, but she was the bigger person and realized that she could still embrace everyone in the country.
In an interview she did for Visionary Project she said of her time in the hospital with Wallace that “I couldn’t stay long because he was very ill and the doctors told me, ‘Congresswoman you have to leave him.’ And he held on to my hand so tightly, he didn’t want me to go.” Wallace actually went on to campaign for Chisholm in Florida; he told Floridians that if they couldn’t vote for him, since he ended his run after the assassination attempt, that they should vote for Shirley Chisholm. His endorsement caused more problems than good though, because Floridians thought that Chisholm would now adopt Wallace’s ideas and policies, which wasn’t at all true.
“I couldn’t stay long because he was very ill and the doctors told me, ‘Congresswoman you have to leave him.’ And he held on to my hand so tightly, he didn’t want me to go.”
Chisholm didn’t win the Presidential Primary for the Democratic Party, but she continued to serve in Congress until 1982 when she declined to seek re-election. When she left office, she founded the National Political Congress of Black Women in 1983. She also taught at Mt. Holyoke College and was nominated to be the US Ambassador to Jamaica by President Clinton, but she declined due to her health. She then retired to Palm Coast in Florida, where she continued to educate young people and died on January 1, 2005.
In Chisholm’s autobiography, appropriately titled as her campaign slogan, Unbought and Unbossed, she remarked that “I want history to remember me… not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of The United States but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.”
“I want history to remember me… not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of The United States but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.”