ABWW Heroine of the Day: Shirley Chisholm
One of first memories of seeing a black person on TV outside of a situation comedy was a dignified, straightforward African American woman campaigning for President. I remember thinking if she could so that, I could do anything. In 1968, she became the first black woman elected to Congress. On January 25, 1972, she became the first major-party black candidate for President of the United States and the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Shirley Anita St. Hill was born in Brooklyn, New York, of immigrant parents. Her father, Charles Christopher St. Hill, was born in British Guiana and her mother, Ruby Seale, was born in Christ Church, Barbados. Born in Brooklyn, New York and at the age three, Chisholm was sent to Barbados to live with her maternal grandmother and did not return to New York City until roughly seven years later. 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.”
In 1964, Chisholm ran for and was elected to the New York State Legislature. In 1968, she ran as the Democratic candidate for New York’s 12th District congressional seat and was elected to the House of Representatives. Defeating Republican candidate James Farmer, Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress. Chisholm joined the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969 as one of its founding members. 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. By the time she retired from Congress she was the third highest-ranking member of the prestigious Education and Labor Committee. 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.
All those Chisholm hired for her office were women, half of them black. Chisholm said that during her New York legislative career, she had faced much more discrimination because she was a woman than because she was black. In the 1972 U.S. presidential election, she made a bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. George McGovern won the nomination in a hotly contested set of primary elections, with Chisholm campaigning in 12 states and winning 28 delegates during the primary process.At the 1972 Democratic National Convention, as a symbolic gesture, McGovern opponent Hubert H. Humphrey released his black delegates to Chisholm] giving her a total of 152 first-ballot votes for the nomination. Chisholm’s base of support was ethnically diverse and included the National Organization for Women. Chisholm said she ran for the office “in spite of hopeless odds… to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.” Among the volunteers who were inspired by her campaign was Barbara Lee, who continued to be politically active and was elected as a congresswoman 25 years later.
She announced her retirement from Congress in 1982. Her seat was won by a fellow Democrat, Major Owens, in 1983. After leaving Congress, Chisholm was named to the Purington Chair at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. She taught there for four years. She also lectured frequently as a public speaker. Chisholm was married to Conrad Chisholm, a Jamaican private investigator from 1949 to 1977. Upon their divorce, she married Arthur Hardwick Jr., a Buffalo businessman who died in 1986. Check out the wonderful documentary of her extraordinary life at veoh.com