Chisholm, Shirley (1924—)

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Chisholm, Shirley (1924—)

First African-American woman elected to U.S. House of Representatives (1968) and first African-American woman candidate for the presidency of the U.S. (1972). Pronunciation: CHIZ-um. Born Shirley Anita St. Hill on November 30, 1924, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York; daughter of Charles Christopher St. Hill (an unskilled laborer in a burlap-bag factory) and Ruby (Seale) St. Hill (a seamstress and domestic born in Barbados); attended elementary school in Barbados, completed in Brooklyn; graduated from Girls' High School in Brooklyn (1942); Brooklyn College, B.A. cum laude in sociology (1946); Columbia University, M.A. in education (1953); married Conrad Chisholm, on October 8, 1949 (divorced, February 1977); married Arthur Hardwick, Jr., on November 26, 1977; no children.

From age 3 to 11, spent the years in Barbados with maternal grandmother (1927–35); returned to Brooklyn and completed elementary and high school; worked in various child-care centers and completed M.A. in education; became director of the large Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center in Lower Manhattan (1953–59); began work for the New York City Division of Day Care, and gained recognition as a child-care expert (1959); was active in Democratic Party politics (1950–80), founding, with others, the reform-oriented Unity Democratic Club in Brooklyn (early 1960s); elected to New York State Assembly (1964); elected to U.S. House of Representatives (1968) and served seven terms (retiring in 1982); in Congress, concentrated on issues related to jobs, housing, education and welfare; ran for the Democratic nomination for president of the U.S. (1972); taught courses on politics, race, and women at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts; lecturer and author (since 1982).

Selected publications:

Unbought and Unbossed (Houghton Mifflin, 1970); The Good Fight (Harper and Row, 1973).

On Wednesday night, July 12, 1972, at the Democratic National Convention, Percy Sutton, black president of the borough of Manhattan in New York City, moved to place in nomination the name of Shirley Chisholm for the top office in the land; the motion was seconded by Charles Evers, the black mayor of Fayette, Mississippi. Thus, Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American female nominated for president of the United States, paving the way for the later nominations of both minority and female candidates for national office.

Her presidential campaign capped her efforts in early childhood education and politics, in which she served as an outspoken champion of the rights of the disadvantaged—including the poor, women, and minorities. During the 1950s, '60s and '70s, her career played out against the turbulent backdrop of changing demands and roles of both women and minorities in American society.

Shirley Chisholm was a native of the district she would later represent in the U.S. Congress, the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, New York. She was born Shirley St. Hill on November 30, 1924, to Charles St. Hill and Ruby St. Hill , both impoverished immigrants. Her father came from Guyana and worked as a laborer in a burlap-bag factory, while her mother, a native of Barbados, was employed as a seamstress and domestic worker.

In an effort to educate each of their children, the St. Hills sent three-year-old Shirley and two other daughters to live with their maternal

grandmother in Barbados. "What an important gift my parents had given me by seeing to it that I had my earliest education in the strict, traditional, British-style schools of Barbados," noted Chisholm. "If I speak and write easily now, that early education is the main reason." While the move was intended to be temporary, Shirley was eleven before the family was reunited in Brooklyn. Thus, her grandmother, a "very stern and determined person who constantly preached from morning to night the virtues of pride, courage and faith," had a major impact on her childhood.

Readjusting to the American school system proved challenging. As a junior-high student, Shirley had to master U.S. history and geography, which she had not studied in Barbados' schools. Frustrated, she became a discipline problem, but the rebellion was short lived. With the help of a tutor, she not only caught up but surpassed her natural grade level. She also got along well with her classmates, most of whom were white.

But when the family moved to a larger apartment—in a neighborhood that was more racially mixed—Shirley encountered her first racial slurs. While attending Girls' High School in Brooklyn, she managed to sidestep the many racial incidents she observed, experiencing, instead, discrimination because of gender. Despite the fact that most of the information doled out in history classes centered around white males, Chisholm's historical heroes were Harriet Tubman , a slave who became a famous "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, and Susan B. Anthony , a white woman who fought against slavery.

Chisholm's mother, who worked as a maid to a white family, left Shirley in charge of her three younger sisters, a position that she took seriously, causing tension between Shirley and her sisters. It would later contribute to her awareness for the need for day care. Meanwhile, her father was actively involved in the labor movement, and much of the family kitchen-table talk revolved around unions. His awareness of racial issues also had a profound effect. Charles St. Hill, wrote Chisholm, was "a very proud black man, who instilled pride in his children, a pride in ourselves and our race" that was not then fashionable. He was a great admirer of Marcus Garvey, who would influence many black separatists. Garvey argued that blacks would never achieve full equality in white societies.

In 1942, Chisholm graduated with honors from Girls' High School in Brooklyn. While she received scholarship offers from many prestigious private colleges, her parents argued that, for financial reasons, she should attend a college nearer to home, so she entered Brooklyn College and majored in sociology. There, her political interests began to slowly surface. She received much encouragement, especially from a blind political science professor, Louis Warsoff, and tentatively joined the college chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Through community involvement with hospitals, the Urban League, and other service organizations, she began to feel how "useless it was for blacks to sit and talk with the leading 'people' in the community."

During her senior year, Chisholm became involved in Democratic Party politics but was soon disillusioned. "Political organizations are formed to keep the powerful in power," she wrote. "Their first rule is 'Don't rock the boat.'" She was soon convinced that blacks—or others interested in major change—would need to develop their own organizations. She joined forces with Mac Holder, who formed the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League, a splinter group, to elect an outstanding black lawyer, Lewis S. Flagg, to a judgeship. Chisholm would remain active in the league until 1958.

Though Chisholm graduated from Brooklyn College cum laude in 1946, she had great difficulty finding a teaching job. The experience only served to intensify her feelings regarding discrimination against both blacks and women. She went to work at Mt. Calvary Child Care Center in Harlem and enrolled in classes at Columbia University, where she received a master's degree in education in 1953. That year, she was appointed director of a private nursery school in Brooklyn. Six years later, she went to work for the New York City Division of Day Care, clearly having established herself as a leading advocate for children and poor women, as well as an expert on early childhood education. Chisholm also continued to be active in the Democratic reform movement in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

While studying at Columbia, she had met Conrad Chisholm, a detective with a private security company. They married in 1949, when she was 25, and moved into a house in Brooklyn. They were unable to have children. "Probably few men could have stayed happily married to me for more than twenty years," recalled Chisholm. "I don't think Conrad has ever had a moment of insecurity or jealousy over the fact that I have always been a public figure."

In the early 1960s, spurred on by the Civil Rights Movement, many African-Americans became more politically active. Shirley Chisholm was drawn back into Democratic politics in Brooklyn and formed, with about six others, a new organization named the Unity Democratic Club. Their goal was to take over the 17th (state) Assembly District and remove the failing, but still potent, white machine that had dominated the party, even as the area itself became increasingly populated by minorities. Similar political rebellions were occurring in many districts of New York City in 1960. By 1962, Chisholm's group controlled the Democratic Party in her district.

In 1964, asked to run by those in her district, Chisholm was elected to the New York State Assembly, largely because of the Unity Democratic Club's organization and her own strong campaign arguments on behalf of women, blacks, and hispanics. During her tenure, she adopted the legislative style that would guide her later in the U.S. Congress. As a woman and a minority member, she was well aware that most legislative weapons (the rules and a fraternal power structure) were not available to her. She would have to adopt strong stances on issues and confront the leaders of the assembly and important committees directly if she wanted to make a difference. "There is little place in the political scheme of things for an independent, creative personality, for a fighter," she wrote. "Anyone who takes that role must pay a price." Nevertheless, "Being a maverick," she wrote, "hasn't kept me from being an effective legislator." Chisholm believed that her colleagues supported her on issues, because they felt there was "no personal vindictiveness" in her rebellions, that she was fighting for things she believed in. "They respect me as a person even when I horrify them as a politician."

In the assembly, she promoted day-care services and civil-rights training for law-enforcement personnel, along with many programs for the urban poor. She successfully sponsored SEEK, a plan that enabled minority students lacking necessary academic requirements to enter state universities with remedial help. Chisholm, who had to run twice because of changing district boundaries, won reelection in 1965 and 1966 and enhanced her political reputation in her district. Her vote-getting strength was soon a given.

In 1968, a new Congressional district, which included Bedford-Stuyvesant, was created by court-ordered reapportionment. Shirley Chisholm, the first candidate to file for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Representative, was opposed in the primary of June 1968 by two other black candidates. With the slogan "unbought and unbossed," she succeeded in beating out party regulars with support from women, some of whom conducted a door-to-door campaign on her behalf. Some observers also give credit for her narrow primary victory (799 votes) to her ability to speak to Puerto Rican audiences in Spanish.

In the 1968 general election for the U.S. House of Representatives seat, Chisholm was opposed by James Farmer, the former director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and a civil-rights leader of national reputation. Chisholm asserted throughout the campaign that she would win because she knew her constituents and their needs better than Farmer, a resident of Manhattan. Despite the fact that both candidates campaigned strongly on basic issues, such as local control of schools, opposition to the Vietnam War, employment, and housing, Chisholm defeated Farmer that November by a margin of 2.5 votes to 1. Asked to comment on her election as the first black woman in Congress, she replied, "It's sad, really; it should have happened years ago." Only nine blacks were sent to Congress in 1968.

Shirley Chisholm announced that she did not intend to be "a quiet freshman Congressman," and she was not. In a rousing first speech on the House floor, delivered March 26, 1969, she declared that she would vote against any defense spending bill, "until the time comes when our values and priorities have been turned right-side up again." She fought against the leaders of her own party to obtain committee assignments that would let her work on the domestic policy proposals she considered vital. By the end of her first term, she had succeeded in being appointed to the House Education and Labor Committee.

During her early years in the House, Chisholm received some 3,000 invitations to speak, becoming a celebrated advocate of women, minorities, and domestic priorities. She was amazed, however, that she often encountered "harsher criticism" in fighting for the rights of women than in fighting for civil rights for blacks. In the early 1970s, the women's movement gained national attention. Women began to demand and demonstrate for equal rights, just as blacks had done during the 1960s. This prompted some to ask, "Why not a woman president?" Women's groups, black women, even college students, who were unusually active politically during this era, began to urge Chisholm to run for president. Almost every politician, however, black or white, urged her to refrain.

On January 25, 1972, Shirley Chisholm announced her candidacy:

I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States. I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate for the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I am equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or special interests. … I am the candidate of the People.

Chisholm thus became the first black woman, and only the second woman, to seek the presidency (the first was Victoria Woodhull ).

The campaign suffered from internal conflicts and a lack of a strong national organization. With limited financial backing, Chisholm had to devote hours to fund-raising. Women's groups supporting her claimed that blacks were trying to take over the campaign, while blacks complained that women were doing the same. Women portrayed Chisholm as a women's candidate, while blacks presented her as a black candidate. In her first primary, in Florida, she won only 4% of the vote. What political scientists Sandra Baxter and Marjorie Lansing have called the "double whammy," the combined effect of being black and female, seemed overwhelming to the Chisholm candidacy.

The mere fact that a black woman dared to run for President, seriously, not expecting to win, but sincerely trying to, is what it was all about. "It can be done"; that was what I was trying to say, by doing it.

—Shirley Chisholm

Still, she pressed on. Charged with lack of experience and lack of a clear platform, Chisholm responded that she was forced to discuss herself often in the campaign, rather than issues, because she was continually being bombarded with questions regarding her qualifications to serve as president. She urged blacks to vote for her in the primaries in order to strengthen their position within the Democratic Party and their bargaining power at the national convention. Her actual percentage of primary votes received, in the ten primaries she entered, averaged about 3%.

At the national convention, during the roll-call vote on the presidential nomination, Chisholm received 151.25 votes. Much of her support came from southern black delegates, who had hoped for a show of unity behind the Chisholm candidacy. Black unity, however, never evolved at the convention, partially because Chisholm was not endorsed by key black political groups such as the Black Congressional Caucus. Similarly, women delegates split their votes among many candidates. "Even more than the blacks, I think, [women] showed the effects of their past exclusion from the political process," wrote Chisholm, "and unlike blacks, they found it hard to believe that they had a great deal to learn." In reflecting on her presidential campaign in her autobiography The Good Fight, Chisholm expressed disappointment that more of her issue positions were not adopted by the 1972 Democratic Convention. She also expressed pride in how much was accomplished:

with next to no money, with a haphazard, volunteer organization, and with no planning worthy of the name. The only way I can explain it is that there must have been a lot of people who were fed up with traditional candidates and campaigns, and eager to throw themselves into an effort to change the way things are done, and open up national politics to full participation by women, minorities and other excluded groups.

Chisholm returned to the Congress after her presidential campaign, serving in the House of Representatives until 1982. She continued to fight for changes in economic and social policy that she felt essential to the advancement of minorities and the poor. In addition, she staunchly supported the "women's agenda" of the 1970s, including fair-credit laws, child-care legislation, and abortion rights. In the early 1980s, she began teaching at Mt. Holyoke College and continued to speak out on the issues:

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. Their way will still be hard, but it is essential that they travel it. We Americans have a chance to become someday a nation in which all racial stocks and classes can exist in their own selfhoods, but meet on a basis of respect and equality and live together, socially, economically, and politically. It can still happen. I hope I did a little to make it happen.


Baxter, Sandra, and Marjorie Lansing. Women and Politics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1980.

Chisholm, Shirley. The Good Fight. NY: Harper and Row, 1973.

——. Unbought and Unbossed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Haskins, Jim. One More River to Cross: The Stories of Twelve Black Americans. NY: Scholastic, 1992.

suggested reading:

LeVeness, Frank P., and Jane P. Sweeney, eds. Women Leaders in Contemporary U.S. Politics. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1987.

Jacqueline DeLaat , Associate Professor of Political Science, Marietta College, Marietta, Ohio