Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm (born 1924) was the first Black woman to serve in the United States Congress. She served as the representative for the 12th district of New York from 1969 until 1982. In 1972, when she became the first black woman to actively run for the presidency of the United States, she won ten percent of the votes at the Democratic National Convention.
Born in Brooklyn, New York, to Barbadian parents, Chisholm was raised in an atmosphere that was both political and religious. Her father was a staunch follower of the West Indian political activist Marcus Garvey, who advocated black pride and unity among blacks to achieve economic and political power. Chisholm received much of her primary education in her parents homeland, Barbados, under the strict eye of her maternal grandmother. Chisholm, who returned to New York when she was ten years old, credits her educational successes to the well-rounded early training she received in Barbados.
Attending New York public schools, Chisholm was able to compete well in the predominantly white classrooms. She attended Girls' High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a section of the city with a growing poor black and immigrant population. She won tuition scholarships to both Oberlin and Vassar, but at the urging of her parents decided to live at home and attend Brooklyn College. While training to be a teacher she became active in several campus and community groups. Developing a keen interest in politics, she began to learn the arts of organizing and fund raising. She deeply resented the role of women in local politics, which consisted mostly of staying in the background, sponsoring fund raising events, and turning the money over to male party leaders who would then decide how to use it. During her school years, she became interested in the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and eventually joined both groups.
From Classroom to Congress
After graduating cum laude from Brooklyn College in 1946 Chisholm began to work as a nursery school teacher and later as a director of schools for early childhood education. In 1949 she married Conrad Chisholm. She continued to teach but her political interest never waned. After a successful career as a teacher, Chisholm decided to run for the New York State Assembly in 1964. She won the election.
During the time that she served in the assembly, Chisholm sponsored 50 bills, but only eight of them passed. The bills she sponsored reflected her interest in the cause of blacks and the poor, women's rights, and educational opportunities. One of the successful bills provided assistance for poor students to go on for higher education. Another provided employment insurance coverage for personal and domestic employees. Still another reversed a law that caused female teachers in New York to lose their tenure while they were out on maternity leave.
Chisholm served in the State Assembly until 1968 and then decided to run for the U.S. Congress. Her opponent was the noted civil rights leader James Farmer. Possibly because Chisholm was a well-known resident of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Farmer was not, she won easily. Thus began her tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives from the 91st through the 97th Congress (1969-1982). Always considering herself a political maverick, Chisholm attempted to focus as much of her attention as possible on the needs of her constituents. She served on several House committees: Agriculture, Veterans' Affairs, Rules and Education, and Labor. During the 91st Congress when she was assigned to the Forestry Committee, she protested saying that she wanted to work on committees that could deal with the "critical problems of racism, deprivation and urban decay." (There are no forests in Bedford-Stuyvesant.)
Chisholm began to protest the amount of money being expended for the defense budget while social programs suffered. She argued that she would not agree that money should be spent for war while Americans were hungry, ill-housed, and poorly educated. Early in her career as a congresswoman she began to support legislation allowing abortions for women who chose to have them. Chisholm protested the traditional roles for women professionals—secretaries, teachers, and librarians. She argued that women were capable of entering many other professions and that they should be encouraged to do so. Black women, too, she felt, had been shunted into stereotypical maid and nanny roles from which they needed to escape both by legislation and by self-effort. Her antiwar and women's liberation views made her a popular figure among college students, and she was beseiged with invitations to speak at college campuses.
In 1972 Chisholm made the decision that she would run for the highest office in the land—the presidency. In addition to her interest in civil rights for blacks, women, and the poor, she spoke out about the judicial system in the United States, police brutality, prison reform, gun control, politician dissent, drug abuse, and numerous other topics. She appeared on the television show "Face the Nation" with three other democratic presidential candidates: George McGovern, Henry Jackson, and Edmund Muskie. George McGovern won the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention, but Chisholm captured ten percent of the delegates' votes. As a result of her candidacy, Chisholm was voted one of the ten most admired women in the world.
After her unsuccessful presidential campaign, Chisholm continued to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives for another decade. As a member of the Black Caucus she was able to watch black representation in the Congress grow and to welcome other black female congresswomen. Finally, in 1982, she announced her retirement from the Congress.
From 1983 to 1987 Chisholm served as Purington Professor at Massachusetts' Mt. Holyoke College where she taught politics and women's studies. In 1985 she was the visiting scholar at Spelman College, and in 1987 retired from teaching altogether. Chisholm continued to be involved in politics by cofounding the National Political Congress of Black Women in 1984. She also worked vigorously for the presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988. "Jackson is the voice of the poor, the disenchanted, the disillusioned," Chisholm was quoted as saying in Newsweek, "and that is exactly what I was."
In 1993 President Bill Clinton nominated Chisolm as Ambassador to Jamaica, but due to declining health, she withdrew her name from further consideration.
Further Reading on Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm
Chisholm has written two autobiographical accounts, Unbought and Unbossed (1970) and The Good Fight (1973). There are several other books about her political career which are especially geared to young readers. A few of them are: Lenore K. Itzkowitz, Shirley Chisholm for President (1974); James Haskins, Fighting Shirley Chisholm (1975); and Nancy Hicks, The Honorable Shirley Chisholm, Congresswoman from Brooklyn (1971). The Congressional Record for the 91st through 97th Congress can be used to find the texts of Chisholm's speeches.