–by Joanna Hallac
Before we close out African American History Month, we decided it would be nice to end our celebration by doing a profile of a more recent (and female) member of the House of Representatives, Shirley Chisholm, who was known for many things, especially for being the first African American woman elected to the House in 1968 from New York. In addition to her historic election to Congress, it was also fifty years ago that Shirley Chisholm ran for President of the United States, becoming the first woman and first African American to ever be considered a serious candidate for the office when she ran in 1972. Join us as we take a closer look at the life of the one and only Shirley Chisholm.
Shirley Anita St. Hill (Chisholm was her married name) was born on November 20, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York. Her parents were immigrants—her father a factory laborer from Guyana, her mother a seamstress from Barbados—and Shirley would actually spend part of her childhood in Barbados with her grandmother while her parents worked during the Great Depression to make enough money to finally settle the whole family (Shirley had three younger sisters, as well) in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. Shirley was a very bright student and attended Brooklyn College on a scholarship (she was admitted to Oberlin and Vassar, too), graduating cum laude in 1946 with a degree in Sociology. Following her graduation, Shirley worked as a nursery school teacher from 1946-1953 while she also went to Columbia University, earning her M.A. in early childhood education in 1952 (she would marry her first husband, Conrad Chisholm in 1949). In 1953, she became the director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center in New York, a job she held until 1959 when she began to work as an educational consultant for New York City’s Division of Daycare until 1964, which is when her political career took off.
Although she had been extremely active in Democratic politics in Brooklyn for years, Shirley Chisholm made her first official foray into political office when she was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1964, becoming the first African American woman from Brooklyn and only the second overall to win that distinction. Given her previous career, it is no surprise that Chisholm fought relentlessly for the education of the underprivileged, a cause that would prove to be a lifelong pursuit. When she heard in 1967 that a new Supreme Court-ordered congressional district would be created out of her Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant for the 1968 election, Shirley Chisholm made the decision to throw her hat in the ring.
Running on the slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed,” “Fighting” Shirley Chisholm found herself in a tough three-way primary contest, made even tougher by the fact that she was not in the favor of the local Democratic political machine due to her independent nature (hence her campaign slogan); however, while she prevailed in the battle for the primary, her battle to win the seat was not yet over. Normally in such a heavily Democratic district, winning the primary would equal a victory in the general election, but such was not the case here. Chisholm found herself running against James Farmer, a national civil rights leader, who was the candidate of both the Republican and Liberal parties, which made him a formidable foe. Though the person who counts Shirley Chisholm out is a fool indeed, as she proved to be a master campaigner; using her fluent Spanish to appeal to the high population of Puerto Ricans in the district, painting Farmer as out of touch with the people since he didn’t live in the district, and using his condescending reference to her as “the little schoolteacher,” Chisholm ended up beating Farmer by a two-and-a-half to one margin in the election, becoming the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress on November 5, 1968.
Perhaps, if we were talking about somebody else, the bulk of the story would end here, since most freshman House members quietly take their seats and keep their heads down for a term or two until their clout within the chamber grew—not so with Shirley Chisholm. Promising her constituents that she would not be quiet in Congress, she stayed true to her word practically from the moment she was sworn in and took her seat in the 91st Congress on January 3, 1969, again making history. When members begin a session they are assigned to a committee or committees, which is figured out among the party leadership using a variety of means, one of which has to do with seniority. New members generally do not get put on the best committees and often do not get placed on their first, second, or even third choice for assignments, the expectation of which is for them to earn their way onto the better committees. Well, when Chisholm was assigned to the Agriculture Committee and the subcommittee on rural development and forestry, she complained loudly to the Democratic Caucus about the irrelevance of such an assignment to her district and after being told to be a “good soldier,” she took her argument directly to the House floor, after which she was transferred to the Committee on Veterans Affairs. Chisholm said after the switch, “There are a lot more veterans in my district than trees,” and despite the success of her bold move, her outspokenness would give her a reputation among those in Congress as a bit of a troublemaker, which I’m sure suited Shirley just fine. As far as the remainder of her committee work while in Congress, in the 92nd through 94th Congresses (1971 to 1977), Chisholm served on the Committee on Education and Labor, utilizing her extensive experience and knowledge of early education issues to help champion the social causes she believed in so strongly. For the subsequent three Congresses she would serve as a member of the very influential Rules Committee, becoming the first African American woman (and only the second woman ever at that point) to sit on that committee.
Having already made history several times over, Shirley Chisholm was not done yet. In 1972, Chisholm launched a bid for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, becoming the first woman and first African American to be a serious candidate for the presidency. Her candidacy, however, proved to cause controversy among her colleagues in the House, most notably causing a split in the Congressional Black Caucus, of which she was a founding member. It was among the male members of the CBC where Chisholm seemed to have caused the biggest uproar, with one of them referring to her as “that disruptive woman.” Disruptive or not, Shirley Chisholm’s candidacy was the real deal, as she got herself on the ballot in 12 primaries and garnered 152 delegates—10% of the total—at the Democratic National Convention that summer. Chisholm gained national notoriety as she crisscrossed the country campaigning on behalf of the interests of African Americans and the inner city poor. No matter the final outcome of that presidential bid, Shirley Chisholm became a nationally recognized figure and a trailblazer not only for African Americans, but for all women throughout the country with the dream of one day running for President of the United States.
Chisholm decided not to seek reelection to the House in 1982 and ended her service as a member of the House of Representatives in January 1983, having broken so many of history’s barriers. She was a strong voice for women, African Americans, inner city poor, children, and the cause of education. Her decision to leave Congress was rooted in a number of factors, including wanting to spend time with her second husband (she divorced first husband Conrad Chisholm in 1977 and married Arthur Hardwick six months later; a year after that Hardwick would become seriously injured in a car accident and die in 1986), not to mention her dislike of the severe conservative tilt the Congress and the country had taken since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, which Chisholm felt had eroded the important art of compromise within the halls of the Capitol; a sentiment that many still feel applies to today’s political system.
Shirley Chisholm would continue to fight the good fight on behalf of those that society had forgotten or marginalized for the remainder of her life. She was appointed a professor at Mt. Holyoke College, a women’s school in Massachusetts, where she taught women’s studies and political science. Chisholm also co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women, which sent a delegation of over 100 women to the Democratic National Convention in 1988, as well as writing, lecturing, and campaigning on behalf of all the causes she so cherished until her death on January 1, 2005 at the age of 80. Shirley Chisholm was a trailblazer, a history-maker, and a true original, and I thank her for all she did to advance the causes of African Americans, women, children, and the inner city poor in her absolutely wonderful life. As she once famously said, “Service is the rent you pay for room on this earth.” Enough said.
“Women in Congress: 1917-2006,” prepared under the direction of The Committee on House Administration of the U.S. House of Representatives (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC), 2006.
Dr. Shirley Washington, “Outstanding Women Members of Congress” (U.S. Capitol Historical Society), 1995.