Shirley Chisholm: A True Winner

Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.) presents her views in Washington on June 24, 1972, before the panel drafting the platform for the Democratic National Convention. (James Palmer/AP)

Black History Month Profiles

Shirley Anita Chisholm is a name that many of us may not have been familiar with until recently, if at all. As of late, her name has been mentioned in comparison to female politicians like Stacy Abrams and Vice President Kamala Harris. But it was because of groundbreaking women such as Shirley Chisholm that women like Kamala Harris can even exist today. 

HERStory

Shirley Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York on November 30, 1924. During her childhood she briefly lived with her grandmother in Barbados. After graduating from Brooklyn College in 1946 Chisholm did not go straight into politics. In fact, Chisholm went into education in her early adult life. Chisholm worked as an education consultant and a director of a child care center before she ever got involved in politics as a career. But while she was working in the child welfare system she was still involved in political organizations such as NAACP. It was not until the mid to late 60’s that she really began to get her feet wet

From 1964 until 1968, Shirley Chisholm became engulfed in politics as a representative for her district in Brooklyn in the New York State Legislature. After her success representing her district, Chisholm decided to run against James Farme, a civil rights activist in New York. She defeated him and was historically elected into the U.S. House of Representatives. This made her the first Black Congresswoman to ever be elected.

Fifteen members of the Congressional Black Caucus pose on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 1977, from left to right: (front row) Barbara Jordan of Texas, Robert Nix, Sr., of Pennsylvania, Ralph Metcalfe of Illinois, Cardiss Collins of Illinois, Parren Mitchell of Maryland, Gus Hawkins of California, Shirley Chisholm of New York; (middle row) John Conyers, Jr., of Michigan, Charles Rangel of New York, Harold Ford, Sr., of Tennessee, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke of California, Walter Fauntroy of the District of Columbia; (back row) Ronald Dellums of California, Louis Stokes of Ohio, and Charles C. Diggs, Jr., of Michigan.

By this point, Shirley Chisholm had already pushed through barriers that no other had before. But she was only getting started. According to an article written on HISTORY, “After initially being assigned to the House Forestry Committee, she shocked many by demanding reassignment. She was placed on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, eventually graduating to the Education and Labor Committee.” In this role Chisholm was not a complacent woman. She knew what she was after, and she was willing to take risks to acquire them. Such drive caused Shirley Chisholm to, in 1969, become one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, a contingency made up of the African American members of Congress that still exists to this day.

Roots & Rights

Chisholm did not completely forgo her roots in education when she became a Congresswoman. She consistently spoke up and pushed for minority education. In fact, she spent 7 terms in office before taking a giant leap of faith. In 1972 she decided to put a bid in for the Presidency. Shirley Chisholm was only the second woman to ever run for U.S. President, the first being Victoria Woodhull. However, Chisholm was the first Black woman to ever run. Because of this, Chisholm had a lot of odds to beat. Not only was she not supported by White America, but even African American men felt she was incapable of the job choosing instead to support Democratic nominee, George McGovern.

Upon announcing her bid for President, Shirley Chisholm declared, “I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people, and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history.” By these powerful words we learn that Shirley Chisholm was aware of how unlikely her chances of getting elected were, but she never let that discourage her. She wanted to be a candidate for the people that were unheard and silenced. She wanted to be living proof that it was a new day in America.

A Way Maker

Unfortunately, because she was unable to gain the support of Black communities in the way that she needed to have a fighting chance Shirley Chisholm had to withdraw from the Presidential race. In spite of this, Shirley Chisholm was in no way a loser. She had crossed uncharted territory. And for every step she took another Black woman followed in her footsteps taking Black women in politics just a little bit further.

Just because she withdrew did not mean she gave up. Shirley Chisholm continued to do the work underserved communities of color needed during her years in Congress. She went on to found the NWPC, or the National Women’s Political Congress, where she continued to fight for minorities in every sense of the word. 

When it was time for Chisholm to retire, she returned to her roots in education. She became a guest lecturer at schools such as Spelman University. She even went on to write two books, Unbought and Unbossed in 1970 and The Good Fight in 1973. After all she had done in her lifetime, she finally rested at the age of 80 on January 1st, 2005.

Her life was not lived in vain. It is because of her, and others like her, that we are all able to now say that we have a Black woman as the Vice President of the United States of America. It is because of her that even Hilary Clinton was able to make it so far in the Presidential race and Stacy Abrams was able to be so influential as a grassroots organizer. So while we admire the women, white and of color, that have come so far, we must remember that someone had to go before them. During this Black History month, we acknowledge these individuals that helped to crack the glass ceilings, so that those who follow might have the chance at shattering them.

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