As the current presidential campaign appears destined to present the United States with its first woman president, few people mention the heroic actions of a strong woman with uncompromising morals who made history many years ago while paving the way for women to seek “the highest office in the land.”
This woman is Shirley Chisholm. She became the first African-American woman in Congress in 1968 representing Brooklyn, N.Y. and fought for social justice and educational opportunity throughout her career.
Born of West Indian heritage, she graduated from Brooklyn College and earned a Master’s Degree in Elementary Education at Columbia University. At Brooklyn College, Chisholm joined the Harriet Tubman Society as well as the Debating Society and the Brooklyn chapters of the NAACP and Urban League. This, no doubt, helped her to become proficient at political analysis as well as sharpening her skills as a public speaker.
She then had a successful career in early childhood education and child care achieving widespread recognition as an authority on the subject. She served as director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center, was an educational consultant for N.Y. City’s Bureau of Child Welfare and was a respected member of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League and the League of Women Voters.
Deciding this was only the beginning of what she could achieve, she spent four years in the New York State Assembly. While there, she worked tirelessly to get unemployment benefits for domestic workers as well as sponsor the introduction of and fight for the funding of a SEEK program (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) in NY State. To this day, this program gives disadvantaged students the opportunity to enter college by providing extensive remedial education and financial aid to cover tuition and books.
In 1968, Ms. Chisholm won the historic election which allowed her to become the first African-American woman to ever serve in the U.S. Congress. She fought with strength and determination as she gained the Democratic nomination, then won the election, doing it with an outspoken ferocity that stirred her constituents. Speaking fluent Spanish, she was also able to resonate with the area’s Puerto Rican population during the campaign. She cruised around Brooklyn in a sound truck blaring announcements that started with “Ladies and gentleman, this is fighting Shirley Chisholm coming through…”
When asked about her campaign style she once said, “I have a way of talking that does something to people, I have a theory about campaigning. You have to let them feel you.”
A hint of her courage and strength of purpose are evident in the friendly warning she gave after the results of her victory were announced:
“Just wait, there may be some fireworks.”
These were words of encouragement for her constituents and a dire warning for any potential adversaries in Congress.
She served seven terms in Congress, from 1969 to 1983. Never one to back down from a confrontation, she was true to her words and shocked the white men in the circles of power in Washington by refusing her first assignment – to the Forestry Committee. She then requested to be appointed to the Veterans Affairs Committee where she voiced her strong stance against the military draft. She never wavered in her moral convictions while fighting for the voiceless who she felt had been left behind for far too long. She later served on the Education and Labor Committee, something closer to her heart and more aligned with her experience prior to joining Congress.
A founding member of both the National Women’s Political Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, she often said that during her twenty years in local politics “I had met far more discrimination because I am a woman than because I am black.”
The first black woman, and the second female ever to serve on the influential rules committee in Congress, she shattered many glass ceilings. Barbara Lee, Congresswoman of California who volunteered for Ms. Chisholm had this to say this about her:
“Some of the men in Congress did not respect her, she just stood out and they didn’t get her. But she wouldn’t back down. She didn’t go along to get along, she went to change things.”
Among her many exploits while in Congress are working to expand the food stamp program and being integral in the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. These programs have helped millions of people in poverty throughout the country and continue to help those in need acquire proper nutrition.
Always one for breaking down barriers, she decided to seek the office of president of the United States in January of 1972. She was the first woman and the first African-American to run for the nomination of the Democratic party. She ran, she said, “to give a voice to the people the major candidates were ignoring.” She said she never expected to win but hoped her candidacy would “change the face and future of American politics.”
The campaign wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. She survived several assassination attempts and needed to file a lawsuit to ensure that she would be included in the televised debates. She made it to the Democratic National Convention in Miami, but lost the nomination to George McGovern. However, her campaign was full of fight and enthusiasm and left a lasting impression – particularly for women and non-white people throughout the country. The following video clip is from a press conference in which Shirley was asked if she expected to receive “the blessing” of anyone in the political establishment:
“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,” she told supporters as she started her presidential campaign.
It took far too long for that sentiment to come to fruition, but the statement seems prophetic all these years later with Barack Obama having spent 8 years in the White House and with the country about to elect Hillary Clinton as the first woman president in U.S. history.
After leaving Congress she taught at Mount Holyoke College and was often asked to lecture. She was the author of two books, “Unbossed And Unbought” in 1970 and “The Good Fight” in 1973. One of her speeches is also included in the book, “We Rise”, a collection of speeches by noteworthy African-American women throughout U.S. history.
In 2015 Shirley Chisholm was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama who eloquently stated:
“Shirley Chisholm’s 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.”
Yes, Shirley Chisholm had guts. And if more people in the U.S. had guts we wouldn’t be living in a society so riddled with fear, apathy and complacency that a psychopathic sexual predator with a low IQ would be running for the office of president. This woman was a leader and we all know how badly we could use someone with her moral courage and integrity today.
A mural of Shirley Chisholm in Brooklyn
Selected quotes from Shirley Chisholm:
“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
“Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt.”
“The emotional, sexual and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, ‘It’s a girl.'”
“In the end, anti-black, anti-female and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing – anti-humanism.”