Chisholm, Shirley Anita

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Chisholm, Shirley Anita

(b. 30 November 1924 in New York City; d. 1 January 2005 in Ormond Beach, Florida), politician and writer who was the first African-American woman both to serve in the U.S. Congress, beginning in 1969, and to seek a major-party presidential nomination, in 1972.

Chisholm was born Shirley Anita St. Hill in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Her father, Charles St. Hill, a native of British Guiana (now the nation of Guyana), grew up in Cuba and in Barbados before coming to the United States, where he worked at a bag factory. Her mother, Ruby (Seale) St. Hill, also emigrated from Barbados and worked as a seamstress. From 1928 to 1934 Shirley and her younger sisters Odessa and Muriel (a third sister, Selma, was born later) lived with their maternal grandmother in Barbados. Her parents remained in Brooklyn struggling to save money during the Great Depression. She excelled in the British-style school system and developed a Caribbean accent that she retained for life.

In 1934 the St. Hill family was reunited in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, which was heavily populated by Jewish and eastern European immigrants. Shirley graduated from Brooklyn’s Girls High School in 1942 and received several college scholarship offers; unable to afford room and board at an out-of-town school, she attended Brooklyn College. She graduated with a BA in sociology in 1946 and then earned an MA from Columbia University in 1952. From 1946 to 1953 she worked as a nursery school teacher. Later, she worked as a day-care center director and as an educational consultant, from 1959 to 1964. On 8 October 1949 she married Conrad Q. Chisholm, an investigator. The couple had no children and divorced in February 1977. Shortly thereafter, on 26 November 1977, Shirley Chisholm married Arthur Hard-wick, a Buffalo native and former New York State assemblyman.

Chisholm’s earliest political memories were of her father’s admiration for the black nationalist Marcus Garvey, who preached black pride and racially oriented self-reliance. Chisholm’s upbringing in multiethnic Brooklyn, however, seemingly impressed upon her the notion that only cooperation among the races could overcome bigotry and prejudice. She first engaged herself in grassroots politics in the 1940s and 1950s, as a member of Brooklyn’s Seventeenth Assembly District Democratic Club, of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League, and of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The assertiveness of the diminutive Chisholm—as an adult she weighed less than 100 pounds—often irritated Democratic leaders within Brooklyn’s political machine. Nevertheless, when the Seventeenth Assembly District seat in the state legislature became vacant, Chisholm secured the Democratic nomination. Voters sent her to Albany with 87 percent of the vote on 4 November 1964.

One of Chisholm’s first acts in her official capacity was to oppose Stanley Steingut, Brooklyn’s Democratic political boss, in his failed attempt to become assembly speaker. Chisholm was assigned to the Education Committee and in time steered four bills into law. Her chief achievement was the Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge program, which provided scholarships for and used state funds to provide remedial education and counseling for African-American and Hispanic college students. A colleague once observed that while Chisholm enjoyed debating and weighed issues judiciously, once she took a position, “You couldn’t blast her out of it.” She won more than 80 percent of the vote in a 1965 election forced by redistricting and also in the regularly scheduled 1966 election.

In 1968 court-ordered reapportionment reshaped New York’s Twelfth U.S. Congressional District, which encompassed portions of Brooklyn, including Chisholm’s Bedford-Stuyvesant political base. Chisholm then announced her candidacy for a congressional seat, convinced that women and the African-American and Puerto Rican voters who composed a majority of the district’s new voters would enthusiastically support her. Declaring herself to be “unbought and unbossed,” she brought her campaign to housing projects and to street corners. She once noted, “I have a way of talking that does something to people.... I have a theory about campaigning. You have to let them feel you.” In the four-way Democratic primary held in June 1968, she defeated her chief rival, the state senator William C. Thompson, by 800 votes.

In the general election, Chisholm faced the civil rights activist and Liberal-Republican candidate James Farmer, an organizer of the 1960s Freedom Rides, which were held in support of integration on buses in the South. On most substantive issues—regarding housing, economic opportunities, education, and opposition to the Vietnam War—the candidates agreed, but they sparred over gender issues and the fact that Farmer resided in Manhattan. Chisholm assailed Farmer’s carpetbagger status and used her fluency in Spanish to court Puerto Rican voters, while Farmer bluntly urged constituents not to send a “little schoolteacher” to Congress. He insisted, “Women have been in the driver’s seat” in black communities for too long. Ultimately, the district’s overwhelming Democratic tilt helped Chisholm win the November 1968 election with 67 percent of the vote. In her six subsequent campaigns, she was never seriously challenged, winning each election with 80 percent of the vote or more.

Thus, nearly 100 years after the first African-American man was elected to Congress, Chisholm’s initial victory made her the first black woman to serve as such; she was the second woman of color to become a U.S. representative, as Patsy Mink, a Japanese American from Hawaii, had been elected in 1964. Chisholm remarked, “I am an historical person at this point, and I’m very much aware of it,” and she in fact used that cachet to challenge prevailing conventions. Regarding the traditional role of newcomers to the House of Representatives, she noted, “I have no intention of just sitting quietly and observing. I intend to speak out immediately in order to focus attention on the nation’s problems.” Indeed, she introduced a resolution to end the draft and called for the cessation of the Vietnam War. House leaders told her to be a “good soldier” when they assigned her to the Agriculture Committee; they moved her to Veterans’ Affairs after she protested publicly that few trees, let alone farmers, were present in her district. In her second term, she received an assignment on a preferred committee, Education and Labor.

In an institution in which only several dozen women had served, Chisholm also stood out because of her gender. Along with the New York representative Bella Abzug, she became one of Congress’s most recognizable faces, joining a vanguard of modern feminists. In 1977 she became a founding member of the Congressional Women’s Caucus. Among the women’s and family issues that she championed was a measure to use federal money to extend day-care facility hours, which was passed by Congress in 1971 but was vetoed by President Richard M. Nixon. Chisholm also proposed a minimum annual income for families, authoring the Adequate Income Act of 1971, and regularly backed federal funding for educational programs. In April 1975 the House passed a bill that Chisholm sponsored to open the national school lunch program to more than 5 million new students and to extend a special supplemental food program for women, infants, and children. With Chisholm exhorting colleagues to enact the measure, Congress overrode a presidential veto in October 1975.

When Chisholm announced her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination on 25 January 1972, she became the first African-American woman to seek a major-party presidential nomination. With sparse funding, she campaigned nationally in the spring primaries, was listed on ballots in a dozen states, and won the support of 152 delegates, some 10 percent of the total, at the July 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida. Her motivation, in part, was to open the way for other minorities to attain higher office. Afterward, she wrote, “The door is not open yet, but it is ajar.” The symbolic campaign made Chisholm a household name, although it also strained relations with House colleagues, particularly male members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who perceived her efforts to forge a coalition among woman, Hispanics, and white liberals as competing with the caucus’s objectives. Chisholm attributed these frictions to the “woman thing,” once observing, “Sexism has no color line.”

In January 1977 Chisholm was awarded a seat on the powerful House Rules Committee, which controls the flow and debate structure for measures that come before the chamber. She believed that she made her chief political contributions not as a “lawmaker, an innovator in the field of legislation” but as a mediator. She once noted, “I can talk with legislators from the South, the West, all over. They view me as a national figure and that makes me more acceptable.” Late in her career, Chisholm expressed disappointment over African-American leaders’ having misinterpreted her consensus-building efforts. Citing family considerations and frustration with what she described as a conservative turn in national politics, Chisholm retired from the House in January 1983.

After leaving Congress, Chisholm taught politics and sociology at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, holding the school’s Purington Chair for four years. In 1984 she cofounded the National Political Congress of Black Women. In 1986 her second husband, Arthur Hardwick, died, and she retired to Palm Coast, Florida, where she wrote and lectured. Nominated as U.S. ambassador to Jamaica by President Bill Clinton on 29 July 1993, she declined because of poor health. After a series of strokes, Chisholm died on 1 January 2005 in a nursing facility near her home in Ormond Beach, Florida. She is interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery, in Buffalo, New York.

Chisholm’s status as a bold trailblazer, as characterized by her plainspoken approach and willingness to confront the political establishment, constrained her as a legislator in the U.S. House of Representatives. Nevertheless, as a leading feminist advocate, she provided a model that helped to reorient congresswomen toward an activist “women’s issues” agenda. The Washington congresswoman Catherine May said, “The arrival of personalities like Shirley Chisholm... shook our august body to its foundation.” May further noted that Chisholm was “not what the male members of Congress had come to expect from a female colleague” because she “got just as demanding and as noisy and as difficult as the men did!” Chisholm’s primary legacy is as a political pioneer among African-American women, twenty-three of whom had followed her into Congress by 2006.

Papers covering aspects of Chisholm’s career from 1963 to 1994 are housed in the Special Collection and University Archives Division at Rutgers University Library, New Brunswick, New Jersey. The papers consist of speeches that she delivered, editorials that she wrote, legislative files from both the New York State Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives, correspondence, newspaper clippings, constituent newsletters, press releases, photographs, and miscellany from her campaigns. Chisholm’s memoir, published early in her congressional career, is Unbought and Unbossed (1970). She also wrote a second autobiographical work, focusing on her political endeavors, titled The Good Fight (1973). A brief biography intended for a juvenile audience is Susan Brownmiller, Shirley Chisholm (1970). Obituaries are in the New York Times (3 Jan. 2005) and Washington Post (4 Jan. 2005). A thirty-page oral history, conducted with Chisholm in 1973, is at Howard University’s Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Washington, D.C.

Matthew A. Wasniewski