Shirley Anita Chisholm (née St. Hill; November 30, 1924 – January 1, 2005) was an American politician, educator, and author.
In 1968, she became the first black woman elected to the United States Congress, and she represented New York’s 12th congressional district for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. In 1972, she became the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
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In 2015, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Shirley Anita St. Hill was born on November 30, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York, to immigrant parents from the Caribbean region. She had three younger sisters, two born within three years after St. Hill, one later. Their father, Charles Christopher St. Hill, was born in British Guiana, lived in Barbados for a while, and then arrived in the United States via Antilla, Cuba, on April 10, 1923, aboard the S.S. Munamar in New York City. Their mother, Ruby Seale, was born in Christ Church, Barbados, and arrived in New York City a board the S.S. Pocone on March 8, 1921.
Her father was an unskilled laborer who sometimes worked in a factory that made burlap bags, but when he could not find factory employment instead worked as a baker’s helper, while her mother was a skilled seamstress and domestic worker who had trouble working and raising the children at the same time. As a consequence, in November 1929 as St. Hill turned five, she and her two sisters were sent to Barbados on the S.S. Vulcana to live with their maternal grandmother, Emaline Seale. There they lived on the grandmother’s farm in the Vauxhall village in Christ Church, where she attended a one-room schoolhouse that took education seriously. She did not return to the United States until May 19, 1934, aboard the SS Nerissa in New York. As a result, St. Hill spoke with a recognizable West Indian accent throughout her life. In her 1970 autobiography Unbought and Unbossed, she wrote: “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. If I speak and write easily now, that early education is the main reason.” As a result of her time on the island, and regardless of her U.S. birth, St. Hill would always consider herself a Barbadian American. Regarding the role of her grandmother, she later said, “Granny gave me strength, dignity, and love. I learned from an early age that I was somebody. I didn’t need the black revolution to tell me that.”
Beginning in 1939, St. Hill attended Girls’ High School in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, a highly regarded, integrated school that attracted girls from throughout Brooklyn. St. Hill earned her Bachelor of Arts from Brooklyn College in 1946, where she won prizes for her debating skills. She was a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
In 1946, Shirley Chisholm graduated from Columbia University in Harlem with honors. Many companies she applied to for employment rejected her, but she managed to find a job at the Mount Calvary Child Care Center in Harlem.
At Mt. Calvary, where her experiences with underprivileged children reinforced her commitment to fighting against ignorance and poverty and led to her becoming an activist in local Democratic politics, the League of Women Voters, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Throughout this period she also attended graduate school at Columbia University, where she completed a master’s degree in early childhood education. It was during graduate school that she met and married another graduate student, Conrad Chisholm.
From 1953 to 1959, she was director of the Friends Day Nursery in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center in lower Manhattan. From 1959 to 1964, she was an educational consultant for the Division of Day Care. She became known as an authority on issues involving early education and child welfare.
Running a day care center got her interested in politics, and during this time she formed the basis of her political career, working as a volunteer for white-dominated political clubs in Brooklyn, and with the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League and the League of Women Voters. With the Political League she was part of a committee that chose the recipient of its annual Brotherhood Award. She also was a representative of the Brooklyn branch of the National Association of College Women.
Chisholm was a Democratic member of the New York State Assembly from 1965 to 1968, sitting in the 175th, 176th and 177th New York State Legislatures. By May 1965 she had already been honored in a “Salute to Women Doers” affair in New York. One of her early activities in the Assembly was to argue against the state’s literacy test requiring English, holding that just because a person “functions better in his native language is no sign a person is illiterate”. By early 1966 she was a leader in a push by the statewide Council of Elected Negro Democrats for black representation on key committees in the Assembly.
Her successes in the legislature included getting unemployment benefits extended to domestic workers. She also sponsored the introduction of a SEEK program (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) to the state, which provided disadvantaged students the chance to enter college while receiving intensive remedial education.
In August 1968, she was elected as the Democratic National Committeewoman from New York State.
In 1968 she ran for the U.S. House of Representatives from New York’s 12th congressional district, which as part of a court-mandated reapportionment plan had been significantly redrawn to focus on Bedford-Stuyvesant and was thus expected to result in Brooklyn’s first black member of Congress. (Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. had, in 1945, become the first black member of Congress from New York City as a whole.) As a result of the redrawing, the white incumbent in the former 12th, Representative Edna F. Kelly, sought re-election in a different district. Chisholm announced her candidacy around January 1968 and established some early organizational support. Her campaign slogan was “Unbought and unbossed”. In the June 18, 1968, Democratic primary, Chisholm defeated two other black opponents, State Senator William S. Thompson and labor official Dollie Robertson. In the general election, she staged an upset victory over James L. Farmer, Jr., the former director of the Congress of Racial Equality who was running as a Liberal Party candidate with Republican support, winning by an approximately two-to-one margin. Chisholm thereby became the first black woman elected to Congress.
Chisholm was assigned to the House Agricultural Committee. Given her urban district, she felt the placement was irrelevant to her constituents. When Chisholm confided to Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson that she was upset and insulted by her assignment, Schneerson suggested that she use the surplus food to help the poor and hungry. Chisholm subsequently met Robert Dole and worked to expand the food stamp program. She later played a critical role in the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. Chisholm would credit Schneerson for the fact that so many “poor babies [now] have milk and poor children have food”.[ Chisholm was then also placed on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Soon after, she voted for Hale Boggs as House Majority Leader over John Conyers. As a reward for her support, Boggs assigned her to the much-prized Education and Labor Committee, which was her preferred committee. She was the third highest-ranking member of this committee when she retired from Congress.
All those Chisholm hired for her office were women; half of these were black. Chisholm said that she had faced much more discrimination during her New York legislative career because she was a woman than because of her race.
Chisholm joined the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971 as one of its founding members. In the same year, she was also a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus.
In May 1971 she, along with fellow New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug, introduced a bill to provide $10 billion in federal funds for child care services by 1975. A less expensive version introduced by Senator Walter Mondale eventually passed the House and Senate as the Comprehensive Child Development Bill, but was vetoed by President Richard Nixon in December 1971, who said it was too expensive and would undermine the institution of the family.
Chisholm created controversy when she visited rival and ideological opposite George Wallace in the hospital soon after his shooting in May 1972, during the presidential primary campaign. Several years later, when Chisholm worked on a bill to give domestic workers the right to a minimum wage, Wallace helped gain votes of enough Southern congressmen to push the legislation through the House.
From 1977 to 1981, during the 95th Congress and 96th Congress, Chisholm was elected to a position in the House Democratic leadership, as Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus.
Throughout her tenure in Congress, Chisholm worked to improve opportunities for inner-city residents. She was a vocal opponent of the draft and supported spending increases for education, health care and other social services, and reductions in military spending.
In the area of national security and foreign policy, Chisholm worked for the revocation of Internal Security Act of 1950. She opposed the American involvement in the Vietnam War and the expansion of weapon developments. During the Jimmy Carter administration, she called for better treatment of Haitian refugees.
Chisholm’s first marriage ended in divorce in February 1977. Later that year she married Arthur Hardwick, Jr., a former New York State Assemblyman whom Chisholm had known when they both served in that body and who was now a Buffalo liquor store owner. Chisholm had no children.
Hardwick was subsequently injured in an automobile accident; desiring to take care of him, and also dissatisfied with the course of liberal politics in the wake of the Reagan Revolution, she announced her retirement from Congress in 1982. Hardwick died in 1986.
Chisholm began exploring her candidacy in July 1971, and formally announced her presidential bid on January 25, 1972, in a Baptist church in her district in Brooklyn. There she called for a “bloodless revolution” at the forthcoming Democratic nomination convention. Chisholm became the first black major-party candidate to run for President of the United States, in the 1972 U.S. presidential election, making her also the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination (U.S. Senator Margaret Chase Smith had previously run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964). In her Presidential announcement, Chisholm describes herself as representative of the people and offered a new articulation of American identity: “I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the woman’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people and my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history.”
Her campaign was underfunded, only spending $300,000 in total She also struggled to be regarded as a serious candidate instead of as a symbolic political figure; she was ignored by much of the Democratic political establishment and received little support from her black male colleagues. She later said, “When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men.” In particular, she expressed frustration about the “black matriarch thing”, saying, “They think I am trying to take power from them. The black man must step forward, but that doesn’t mean the black woman must step back.” Her husband, however, was fully supportive of her candidacy and said, “I have no hangups about a woman running for president.” Security was also a concern, as during the campaign three confirmed threats were made against her life; Conrad Chisholm served as her bodyguard until U.S. Secret Service protection was given to her in May 1972.
Chisholm skipped the initial March 7 New Hampshire contest, instead focusing on the March 14 Florida primary, which she thought would be receptive due to its “blacks, youth and a strong women’s movement”. But due to organizational difficulties and Congressional responsibilities, she only made two campaign trips there and ended with 3.5 percent of the vote for a seventh-place finish.
Chisholm had difficulties gaining ballot access, but campaigned or received votes in primaries in fourteen states.
Her largest number of votes came in the June 6 California primary, where she received 157,435 votes for 4.4 percent and a fourth-place finish, while her best percentage in a competitive primary came in the May 6 North Carolina one, where she got 7.5 percent for a third-place finish. Overall, she won 28 delegates during the primaries process itself.
Chisholm’s base of support was ethnically diverse and included the National Organization for Women.
Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem attempted to run as Chisholm delegates in New York.
Altogether during the primary season, she received 430,703 votes, which was 2.7 percent of the total of nearly 16 million cast and represented seventh place among the Democratic contenders.
At the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida, there were still efforts taking place by the campaign of former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey to stop the nomination of Senator George McGovern. After that failed and McGovern’s nomination was assured, as a symbolic gesture, Humphrey released his black delegates to Chisholm. This, combined with defections from disenchanted delegates from other candidates, as well as the delegates she had won in the primaries, gave her a total of 152 first-ballot votes for the nomination during the July 12 roll call. (Her precise total was 151.95.) Her largest support overall came from Ohio, with 23 delegates (slightly more than half of them white), even though she had not been on the ballot in the May 2 primary there. Her total gave her fourth place in the roll call tally, behind McGovern’s winning total of 1,728 delegates. Chisholm said she ran for the office “in spite of hopeless odds … to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo”.
It is sometimes stated that Chisholm won a primary in 1972, or won three states overall, with New Jersey, Louisiana, and Mississippi being so identified. None of these fit the usual definition of winning a plurality of the contested popular vote or delegate allocations at the time of a state primary or caucus or state convention. In the June 6 New Jersey primary, there was a complex ballot that featured both a delegate selection vote and a non-binding, non-delegate-producing “beauty contest” presidential preference vote. In the delegate selection vote, Democratic front-runner Senator George McGovern defeated his main rival at that point, Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, and won the large share of available delegates. Most of the Democratic candidates were not on the preference ballot, including McGovern and Humphrey; of the two that were, Chisholm and former governor of North Carolina Terry Sanford, Sanford had withdrawn from the contest three weeks earlier. In the actual preference ballot voting, which the Associated Press described as “meaningless”, Chisholm received the majority of votes: 51,433, which was 66.9 percent. During the actual balloting at the national convention, Chisholm received votes from only 4 of New Jersey’s 109 delegates, with 89 going to McGovern. In the May 13 Louisiana caucuses, there was a battle between forces of McGovern and Governor George Wallace; nearly all of the delegates chosen were those who identified as uncommitted, many of them black. Leading up to the convention, McGovern was thought to control 20 of Louisiana’s 44 delegates, with most of the rest uncommitted. During the actual roll call at the national convention, Louisiana passed at first, then cast 18 1⁄2 of its 44 votes for Chisholm, with the next best finishers being McGovern and Senator Henry M. Jackson with 10 1⁄4 each. As one delegate explained, “Our strategy was to give Shirley our votes for sentimental reasons on the first ballot. However, if our votes would have made the difference, we would have gone with McGovern.” In Mississippi, there were two rival party factions that each selected delegates at their own state conventions and caucuses: “regulars” representing the mostly white state Democratic Party and “loyalists” representing many blacks and white liberals. Each slate professed to be largely uncommitted, but the regulars were thought to favor Wallace and the loyalists McGovern. By the time of the national convention, the loyalists were seated following a credentials challenge, and their delegates were characterized as mostly supporting McGovern, with some support for Humphrey. During the convention, some McGovern delegates became angry about what they saw as statements from McGovern that backed away from his commitment to end U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, and cast protest votes for Chisholm as a result. During the actual balloting, Mississippi went in the first half of the roll call, and cast 12 of its 25 votes for Chisholm, with McGovern coming next with 10 votes.
During the campaign, the German filmmaker Peter Lilienthal shot the documentary film Shirley Chisholm for President for German Television channel ZDF.
After leaving Congress, Chisholm made her home in suburban Williamsville, New York.
She resumed her career in education, being named to the Purington Chair at the all-women Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. As such she was not a member of any particular department, but would be able to teach classes in a variety of areas; those previously holding the position included W. H. Auden, Bertrand Russell, and Arna Bontemps.
At Mount Holyoke, she taught politics and sociology from 1983 to 1987. She focused on undergraduate courses that covered politics as it involved women and race. Dean of faculty Joseph Ellis later said that Chisholm “contributed to the vitality of the College and gave the College a presence.” In 1985 she was a visiting scholar at Spelman College.
During those years, she continued to give speeches at colleges, by her own count visiting over 150 campuses since becoming nationally known. She told students to avoid polarization and intolerance: “If you don’t accept others who are different, it means nothing that you’ve learned calculus.” Continuing to be involved politically, she traveled to visit different minority groups and urging them to become a strong force at the local level. In 1984 and 1988, she campaigned for Jesse Jackson for the presidential elections. In 1990, Chisholm, along with 15 other black women and men, formed the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom.
Chisholm retired to Florida in 1991. In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated her to be United States Ambassador to Jamaica, but she could not serve due to poor health and the nomination was withdrawn. In the same year, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Chisholm died on January 1, 2005, in Ormond Beach near Daytona Beach, after suffering several strokes. She is buried in the Oakwood Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, where the legend inscribed on her vault reads: “Unbought and Unbossed”.
In February 2005, Shirley Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed, a documentary film, aired on U.S public television. It chronicled Chisholm’s 1972 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was directed and produced by independent African-American filmmaker Shola Lynch. The film was featured at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. On April 9, 2006, the film was announced as a winner of a Peabody Award.
Chisholm’s legacy came into renewed prominence during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton staged their historic “firsts” battle – where the victor would either be the first major party African-American nominee, or the first woman nominee – with at least one observer crediting Chisholm’s 1972 campaign as having paved the way for both of them.
In 1984, The National Black Women’s Political Caucus was established during the presidential campaign of Geraldine Ferraro. African American women from various political organizations convened to set forth a political agenda emphasizing the needs of women of African descent. Chisholm was chosen as its first chair.
The Shirley Chisholm Project on Brooklyn Women’s Activism (formerly known as the Shirley Chisholm Center for Research) exists at Brooklyn College to promote research projects and programs on women and to preserve the legacy of Chisholm. The Chisholm Project also houses an archive as part of the Chisholm Papers in the college library Special Collections.
In 2014, the first adult biography of Chisholm was published, Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change, by Brooklyn College history professor Barbara Winslow, who was also the founder and first director of the Shirley Chisholm Project. Until then, only several juvenile biographies had appeared.
Chisholm’s speech “For the Equal Rights Amendment”, given in 1970, is listed as No. 91 in American Rhetoric’s Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century (listed by rank).
Chisholm has been a major influence on other women of color in politics, among them California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who stated in a 2017 interview that Chisholm had a profound impact on her career.
Photo credit: Wikipedia 1965.