Shirley Chisholm Biography
Politician, writer, educator
In becoming the first black, as well as the first woman, to ever seek a major political party's nomination for the U.S. presidency, former New York congresswoman Shirley Chisholm demonstrated that aspirations for the nation's executive office need not be the exclusive domain of white males. Chisholm's unsuccessful 1972 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination—largely viewed as more symbolic than practical—was intended to both break ground and prove a point. "I ran because someone had to do it first," she stated in The Good Fight, her candid recounting of the campaign. "In this country everybody is supposed to be able to run for President, but that's never been really true. I ran because most people think the country is not ready for a black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate." By staying in the race all the way to the Democratic National Convention, Chisholm hoped to set an example for other nontraditional presidential candidates. "The next time a woman runs, or a black, a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is 'not ready' to elect to its highest office, I believe he or she will be taken seriously from the start. The door is not open yet, but it is ajar."
Chisholm's reputation as a trailblazer for minorities in politics, however, is more lastingly illustrated by her tenure in Congress. The first black woman ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Chisholm served from 1969 to 1982 as congresswoman from New York's 12th District, which comprised a largely black constituency in her home city of Brooklyn. Chisholm soon became famous for her candid and strongly held viewpoints as well as her refusal to be undaunted by the status quo of the congressional power structure. "Since I went to the House of Representatives in 1969, I have grown to detest many of the white Northern liberals who are always ready with rhetoric about equal opportunity in jobs and education, when the time comes to put the heat on, in committee and on the floor, and do something, like passing an amendment or increasing an appropriation, too many of these white knights turn up missing," she wrote in The Good Fight. Criticizing what she called a media-driven image or "mold" that often predetermines candidates for public office, Chisholm suggested, "Could it be that the persistence of poverty, hunger, racism, war, semiliteracy and unemployment is partly due to the fact that we have excluded so many persons from the processes that make and carry out social policies?"
Chisholm was born Shirley Anita St. Hill in 1924 in Brooklyn. Her early schooling took place on the Caribbean island of Barbados, where she and her two sisters were sent to live with their grandmother because of family financial difficulties. "Years later I would know what an important gift my parents had given me by seeing to it that I had my early education in the strict, traditional, British-style schools of Barbados," Chisholm stated in her 1970 autobiography Unbought and Unbossed. "If I speak and write easily now, that early education is the main reason." In 1934, the daughters were rejoined with their parents, who were still struggling financially in the midst of the Great Depression but nevertheless provided a rich family life. Chisholm's father was an avid reader who introduced the youngster to the teachings of early black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, while her mother emphasized the importance of her daughters' receiving quality educations. An excellent student in high school, Chisholm received scholarship offers to Vassar and Oberlin colleges, but enrolled in the more financially accessible Brooklyn College.
At Brooklyn College, Chisholm decided to pursue a career in teaching. Her political awareness as a black—which had been fostered by her father—was heightened when she became a member of the Harriet Tubman Society. "There," as she wrote in Unbought and Unbossed, "I first heard people other than my father talk about white oppression, black racial consciousness, and black pride." Although she was assured by both professors and fellow students that she possessed ideal qualities for a political career, Chisholm continued her studies in education. She graduated with honors in the early 1940s, and subsequently worked for seven years as a teacher at a child care center in New York City. At the same time, she pursued her master's degree in early childhood education at Columbia University, where she also met her future husband, Conrad Chisholm.
During the 1950s, Chisholm became involved for the first time with political campaigning when she worked to elect a black underdog lawyer, Lewis S. Flagg, Jr., to a district court judgeship in New York. In 1960, she helped form the Unity Democratic Club, an organization that sought to promote and elect candidates for New York State's 17th Assembly District. Deciding to run herself for the 17th District representative seat, she won a landslide victory in the fall of 1964 after a long and grueling campaign. Chisholm served on the New York legislature for the next four years and gained a reputation as a competent and effective lawmaker. She helped introduce bills to assist disadvantaged students in obtaining quality education and to secure unemployment insurance for domestic employees.
Chisholm's political aspirations broadened in the late 1960s with the creation of New York's 12th Congressional District. She decided to pursue the new congressional seat in spite of sparse campaign funds and entered a heated primary race against a much-favored Democratic party candidate, William Thompson. Her hard work, combined with a low voter turnout, resulted in a slim primary victory and helped carry her in the fall election against Republican opponent James Farmer. Chisholm proved to be a determined and outspoken representative who was especially vocal in her support of programs and policies that benefited disadvantaged groups. During her tenure, she served on the Veterans' Affairs Committee, the Education and Labor Committee, and the influential House Rules Committee.
Three years into her congressional career, Chisholm further distinguished herself by becoming the first black woman to seek a major political party nomination for the presidency. Although many political observers considered her chances for victory remote, Chisholm nonetheless pressed ahead, and at the final Democratic convention tally, she received a total of 151 votes. In The Good Fight she assessed the possible long-range effects of her campaign: "The United States was said not to be ready to elect a Catholic to the Presidency when Al Smith ran in the 1920s. But Smith's nomination may have helped pave the way for the successful campaign John F. Kennedy waged in 1960. Who can tell? What I hope most is that now there will be others who will feel themselves as capable of running for high political office as any wealthy, good-looking white male."
Chisholm retired from public office in 1982, wanting to spend more time with her ailing second husband Arthur Hardwick, who had been critically injured in an automobile accident. At the time of her retirement from Congress, Chisholm expressed her frustration with both the male-dominated power structure on Capitol Hill as well as the social policies of President Ronald Reagan's administration. In her typically direct manner, she stated in a 1982 Glamour article that one of the major problems in the United States was a "scarcity of people in power who are sensitive to the needs, hopes, and aspirations of the various segments of our multi-faceted society. We have become too plastic; we have become too theoretical.… We need individuals who are compassionate, concerned, committed." Commenting on the necessity of more women pursuing political careers, Chisholm added, "Men don't seem to have time for complexity.… They really do not give enough attention to the areas of conservation and preservation of human resources."
Her retirement from Congress did not cast Chisholm into oblivion. She remained extremely active, serving as Purington Professor at Massachusetts' Mt. Holyoke College. There she taught politics and women's studies throughout the 1980s. She also remained involved in U.S. politics, co-founding in 1984, the National Political Congress of Black Women, which in 1988 sent a delegation of over 100 women to the Democratic National Convention. Chisholm also participated in the presidential campaigns of black candidate Jesse Jackson. "Jackson is the voice of the poor, the disenchanted, the disillusioned," she was quoted as saying in Newsweek, "and that is exactly what I was."
Chisholm moved to Florida in 1991 and eased into less strenuous retirement. After suffering many strokes, Chisholm died at age 80 on January 1, 2005, in her Florida home. She will be remembered well. Her career, especially her struggle for political power, was brought vividly to life in the documentary, Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed. Producer Shola Lynch compiled newsreels and fresh interviews to highlight Chisholm's run for the presidency, even including interviews with Chisholm in her old age. In the documentary, Chisholm explained that despite her many historic "firsts" she would like to be remembered differently: "When I die, I want to be remembered as a woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be a catalyst of change," Chisholm noted in the film, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the 20th century." National Public television aired the documentary in February to commemorate Chisholm's life. Hopefully, the world will remember her as she saw herself; according to Newsweek her preferred epitaph would be "Shirley Chisholm had guts."
Unbought and Unbossed, Houghton, 1970.
The Good Fight, Houghton, 1973.
Scheader, Catherine, Shirley Chisholm: Teacher and Congresswoman, Enslow, 1990.
Essence, August 1982.
Glamour, November 1982.
Houston Chronicle, January 9, 2005.
Jet, January 24, 2005.
Newsweek, November 14, 1983; May 21, 1984; January 17, 2005.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 3, 2005.
Time, June 21, 1982.
Variety, February 9, 2004.
"About Shirley Chisholm," PBS, www.pbs.org/pov/pov2005/chisholm/about_chisholm.html (March 9, 2005).
" Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed," Black Sky Media, www.chisholm72.net (March 9, 2005).
"Shirley Chisholm's 1972 Presidential Campaign," Jo Freeman, www.jofreeman.com/polhistory/chisholm.htm (March 9, 2005).
Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed (film), REAL-side Productions, 2004.
—Michael E. Mueller and
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