Today is the 50th anniversary of Shirley Chisholm’s election to Congress as the first African American woman. Chisholm represented Brooklyn, New York in a district that was newly reapportioned and was majority African American and Hispanic. She served seven terms in Congress and ran for president.
Shirley Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1924 to two immigrant parents from Guyana and Barbados. Chisholm started her career as a nursery school teacher and earned a master’s degree in early childhood education from Columbia University in 1951. In 1960 she became a consultant to the New York City Division of Day Care and in 1964 she became the second African American to serve in the New York State Legislature. Four years later a new Congressional district was created in Brooklyn, inspiring Chisholm to run for Congress with the campaign slogan “Fighting Shirley”. In Congress she continued to fight for the issues that mattered most to her including racial and gender equality, education, and ending poverty. Chisholm introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation, was a co-founder of the National Women’s Political Caucus, and was the first black women to serve on the Rules Committee.
In 1972 Shirley Chisholm was the first African American and the first woman to run for president as part of a major political party. Many saw her run as a political stunt which led to her campaign slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed.” In her book The Good Fight, Chisholm wrote, “I ran for the Presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.” During her presidential run, Chisholm faced both racism and sexism; both the Congressional Black Caucus and the women’s movement failed to come out support her as a whole. However, many chapters of the National Organization for Women proudly endorsed her for President. Chisholm won a primary and earned 152 delegates, more than two of her male primary opponents, Ed Muskie and Hubert Humphrey.
Shirley Chisholm served her Congressional district until 1981 and was nominated to serve as the ambassador to Jamaica by then President Bill Clinton; she turned down the opportunity due to poor health. When asked later how she would like to be remembered she said this, “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.”
Sources: Smithsonian.org 4/25/2016, United States House of Representatives website 2018, National Women’s History Museum 2015, The Nation 6/6/2016