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  • Mike Martinez

Congressional Lions: Shirley Chisholm

In this blog posting, I will discuss Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman ever elected to the United States Congress. I discuss Congresswoman Chisholm in my upcoming book, Congressional Lions.

Born Shirley Anita St. Hill in Brooklyn, New York, in 1924, Chisholm began her career as an educator in New York State. She married Conrad Chisholm in 1949. After working in the state educational system for years, she developed an interest in politics, eventually serving as a member of the New York State Assembly in Albany from 1965 until 1968. Recognizing that she could accomplish great things on the national level, Chisholm ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives from the 12th district of New York. She won the election, and eventually served seven terms before she decided not to run for reelection in 1982. With her victory in the 1968 election, Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress.

When she arrived in Washington, D.C. to join the 91st Congress as it convened in January 1969, Chisholm found that she had been assigned to the Rural Development and Forestry Subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee. Democratic leaders had assigned her to the Agriculture Committee because it exercised jurisdiction over the federal Food Stamp program, and the white men who assigned members to committees assumed a black woman would want to serve there. Representing the urban areas of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights of Brooklyn, New York, Chisholm believed that the assignment was nonsensical. As she later recalled, “I think it would be hard to imagine an assignment that is less relevant to my background or to the needs of the predominantly Black and Puerto Rican people who elected me, many of whom are unemployed, hungry, and badly housed.” House Speaker John McCormack asked the new congresswoman to “be a good soldier” and accept the committee assignment, but she steadfastly refused. As a result of her protest, Chisholm was reassigned to the House Veterans Affairs Committee. Later in her tenure, she served on the Education and Labor Committee and eventually the Rules Committee.

Chisholm’s introduction to the national political scene characterized her approach to politics throughout her time in the House. Recognizing that her liberal political agenda would not prevail in an era when Richard Nixon occupied the White House and Congress was becoming more politically conservative, she nonetheless unabashedly worked to articulate her goals. “My greatest political asset, which professional politicians fear, is my mouth, out of which come all kinds of things one shouldn’t always discuss for reasons of political expediency,” she later said. Not surprisingly, even when she had little chance of success, she vehemently supported the same issues she had championed in Albany, namely minimum wage increases to help the working poor, subsidized day care centers, and health insurance for domestic workers.

Chisholm became a symbol of the ascendant black politician—feisty, passionate, and unafraid to buck long-established political traditions. She also acted against her party on some occasions, notably when she publicly supported liberal Republican John Lindsay’s reelection bid for mayor of New York despite Democratic opposition. Much to the consternation of her liberal supporters, she visited Alabama’s segregationist governor, George C. Wallace, in the hospital after he had been shot during an assassination attempt in 1972. At a time when many blacks opposed abortion and birth control as thinly disguised efforts to promote genocide among people of color, the Brooklyn congresswoman served as a vocal proponent of a woman’s right to choose, even going to far as to serve as the honorary president of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL).

She became a pioneer in establishing political organizations, including the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in 1971. In July of that year, joined by more than 300 women, including Congresswoman Bella Abzug, well-known feminists Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, and Mississippi political activist Fannie Lou Hamer, among many others, Chisholm created an organization, the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC). The NWPC sought to empower women to take part in political life. Betty Friedan went a step further, arguing that “it is not so impossible that a woman may run for president in 1976—and win!” Friedan’s comment and similar pleas from her supporters convinced the congresswoman to think about what had once been unthinkable.

In 1972, Chisholm ran for president of the United States on the Democratic ticket. Reflecting on her experiences, she noted that “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 her book The Good Fight, Chisholm reflected on the difficulties she faced in the 1972 presidential campaign. Bringing together black Americans as well as women into a fragile coalition was a gargantuan task. In addition, Chisholm’s campaign was underfunded and attracted staff members with limited experience working on a national level. Because she had consistently labored as an independent voice in the House, sometimes directly contravening the leadership within her own party, Chisholm had few natural allies who were willing to support her quest. She failed to win the presidential nomination at the 1972 Democratic National Convention—South Dakota Senator George McGovern received the prize, and went on to a resounding defeat against Nixon in the fall election—but she made history, becoming the first black major-party candidate to run for president as well as the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination.

She reliably supported Democratic causes during her legislative career, frequently voting in favor of bills that would assist inner-city residents, raise the minimum wage, increase federal spending on education, and reduce military funding. By the early 1980s, Chisholm enjoyed greater seniority in the House, hence greater political power. Despite such advances, she believed that her time had come and gone. She had divorced Conrad Chisholm in 1977 and remarried not long thereafter. Her new husband, businessman Arthur Hardwick, Jr., was almost killed in a devastating automobile accident in 1979. She had to care for him while shuttling back and forth to perform her congressional duties. Weary from her dual roles as caretaker and legislator, and increasingly frustrated with the rise of political conservatism, in 1982 she publicly declined to run for an eighth term.

Although she left Congress in 1983, Shirley Chisholm remained active until her death on New Year’s Day 2005. She taught political science at Mount Holyoke College and lectured at numerous institutions of higher learning. She also supported black civil rights activist Jesse Jackson during his presidential bids in 1984 and 1988. Always willing to champion a new political group, she helped to form the National Political Congress of Black Women (NPCBW). In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated her to serve as the United States Ambassador to Jamaica, but she could not serve owing to poor health.

Chisholm received numerous awards during and after her life, including honorary degrees from Aquinas College, Smith College, and Stetson University. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2014, the United States Post Office issued Shirley Chisholm Forever Stamps featuring her likeness. In November 2015, President Barack Obama posthumously honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

Chisholm is remembered as a pioneering American politician, a precursor to Democratic presidential contenders Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. It is difficult to envision either figure as a viable political candidate without Shirley Chisholm first paving the way. An outspoken, independent, “unbossed” trailblazer, Chisholm was an unapologetic political maverick. “I do not want to be remembered as the first black woman to be elected to the United States Congress, even though I am,” she once said. “I do not want to be remembered as the first woman who happened to be black to make a serious bid for the presidency. I’d like to be known as a catalyst for change, a woman who had the determination and a woman who had the perseverance to fight on behalf of the female population and the black population, because I’m a product of both, being black and a woman.” On another occasion, she described her political epitaph succinctly: “I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts. That’s how I’d like to be remembered.”

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