Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm
A distinguished congresswoman, scholar, and African American spokeswoman, Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. A dynamic public speaker who boldly challenged traditional politics, "Fighting Shirley Chisholm," as she called herself during her first congressional campaign, championed liberal legislation from her seat in the House beginning with her inauguration in 1968 and continuing until her retirement in 1982. Admirers and foes alike dubbed her the "Pepperpot" because of her fondness for saying, "I breathe fire." Known for her wit, dedication, and compassion, she remains a fierce and eloquent voice on national matters.
Chisholm was born Shirley Anita St. Hill on November 30, 1924, in the impoverished Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Her father, an emigrant from Guyana, worked as an unskilled laborer, and her mother, a native of Barbados, was a seamstress and a domestic worker. Extraordinary circumstances separated Chisholm from her parents for much of her early childhood. Struggling to save money for a house and for their children's education, the St. Hills sent their four daughters to live on the farm of a grandmother in Barbados. From the age of three to the age of 11, Chisholm received a British elementary school education and acquired a West Indian rhythm of speech. An important influence on her early life, her grandmother instilled in her the values of pride, courage, and faith. Her parents took her back to Brooklyn at the age of 11.
Graduating with an excellent academic record from a Brooklyn girls' high school, Chisholm earned a scholarship to study sociology at Brooklyn College. She quickly became active in political circles, joining the Harriet Tubman Society, serving as an Urban League volunteer, and winning prizes in debate. Her interest in her community led her to attend city meetings, where, as a student, she astonished older adults by confronting civic leaders with questions about the quality of government services to her predominantly black neighborhood. While beginning to establish her profile in her community, she also impressed her professors with a powerful speaking style and was encouraged to enter politics. She received her sociology degree with honors in 1946. While working in a nursery school she studied for a master's degree in elementary education at Columbia University where she met Conrad Chisholm, whom she married in 1949. Two years later she received her master's degree in early childhood education.
Over the next decade Chisholm built a reputation as an authority on early education and child welfare. She served as the director of the Friends Day Nursery, in Brownsville, New York, and, from 1953 to 1959, of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center, in Lower Manhattan. Taking her expertise into the public sector, she became an educational consultant in New York City's Bureau of Child Welfare from 1959 to 1964. In addition to her professional work, she participated in a variety of community and civic activities. She served on the board of directors of the Brooklyn Home for Aged Colored People and became a prominent member of the Brooklyn branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She frequently volunteered her time for such groups as the Democratic Women's Workshop; the League of Women Voters; and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League, an organization formed to support black candidates. Her intense participation in local politics—marked by her forthrightness and her willingness to confront politicians with difficult questions about racial equality—made her unpopular with the predominantly white Democratic establishment in New York. But it won her the recognition and respect of her community which was about 70 percent African American and Hispanic residents.
So well known was Chisholm in Brooklyn by 1964 that she could mount a successful campaign for a seat in the New York State Assembly despite having no support from the Democratic establishment. She stressed that "the people"had asked her to run. As an assemblywoman from 1964 to 1968, she spearheaded legislation providing for state-funded day care centers and for unemployment insurance for domestic workers. Of particular importance to her were bills that she shepherded through the Education Committee. One major accomplishment was a financial aid program known as Search for Elevation, Education and Knowledge (SEEK). Passed into law in 1965, SEEK reached out to students of color who lacked the necessary academic requirements to enter state universities by providing them with scholarships and remedial training. Other legislative successes boosted school spending limits and wiped out the practice of stripping tenure from women teachers who took maternity leave.
In 1968, Chisholm became the first African American woman to run for the U.S. Congress. In her pursuit of the Democratic nomination for the Twelfth District she bested two other African American candidates and was appointed New York's National Committee representative at the party's national convention. She later said that to win the nomination she had to beat the political machine, an entrenched bureaucracy that had never been fond of her brash style. With the nomination in hand, she faced her Republican opponent, James Farber, a liberal white male who enjoyed national prominence as a CIVIL RIGHTS leader. Farber was expected to win, but on November 5, 1968, by a margin of more than 2–1, Chisholm staged an upset victory. The success of her antiestablishment campaign, which ran under the slogan "Unbought and Unbossed," was attributed both to widespread support from women and to her ability to address Puerto Rican voters in Spanish.
From the moment she took her seat in the House of Representatives, Chisholm demonstrated the bold iconoclasm that would mark her career in Washington, D.C. With her, it would not be politics as usual. Her initial appointment to a minor subcommittee of the Agriculture Committee struck her as a waste of her talents and experience, and, despite warnings that she was endangering her career, she protested. The House Ways and Means Committee relented and she was appointed to Veterans' Affairs. In her first speech on the floor of the House she vowed to vote against all defense spending. She told lawmakers, "Our children, our jobless men, our deprived, rejected and starving fellows, our dejected citizens must come first." In May of 1969 she gave a speech to the House of Representatives in which she introduced the EQUAL RIGHTS AMENDMENT and pointed out that the bill had been introduced before every Congress for the previous 40 years. To those who argued that women were already protected under the law, she pointed out that existing laws were inadequate and that the majority of women were concentrated in lower-paying menial jobs. "If women are already equal", she asked."Why is it such an event whenever one gets elected to Congress?"
Chisholm's goals as a congresswoman were twofold. First, when she took office, only nine of the 435 House members were black, so she made herself an advocate for African Americans both in and out of her district. Second, she tried to advance the goal of racial equality. She supported programs that provided housing and education aid to cities, voted to uphold laws that would end discrimination in federally funded jobs, and promoted new antidiscrimination legislation. ABORTION rights also became a focal point in her politics. As a state assemblywoman she had supported bills that would make it easier for women whose lives were endangered to have abortions, although she had opposed outright legalization of abortion. But in 1968, with a change of heart, she agreed to be honorary president of the newly formed National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. This would have been a dangerous position for an established politician, let alone a newly elected House member.
Independence of thought was Chisholm's hallmark, however, and the following year she crossed party lines to support Republican mayor John V. Lindsay in the New York mayoral election. Her decision so outraged her own party that some members called, unsuccessfully, for her ouster from the Democratic National Committee. But Chisholm saw the need for revamping traditional politics, supporting foes if necessary, and creating new bases of power. In 1971, along with such feminist leaders as author GLORIA STEINEM, she helped found the National Women's Political Caucus.
Chisholm's dramatic decision to run for president in 1972 came in part through her widely publicized opposition to the VIETNAM WAR
and the policies of President RICHARD M. NIXON. While speaking at college campuses she was frequently asked if she would consider running. At first doubtful that an African American woman would stand a chance, she became encouraged by the growing numbers of blacks serving in elected office. Initially she received little support, even within black political circles, but following an enthusiastic tour of Florida, she announced her candidacy on January 25, 1972. During campaign stops she asked voters to replace entrenched white male leadership with a new voice: "I am your instrument of change. … give your votes to me instead of one of those warmed-over gentlemen who come to you once every four years." Criticized for running a hopeless campaign, she remained steadfast. "Some people call me a freak for running for the presidency," she said,"but I am very glad to be a freak in order to break down this domain."
Despite her popularity with women and young people, Chisholm's campaign suffered from limited finances, internal disarray, and lukewarm support from black political leaders. By July 1972, she had 28 delegates, almost half of what she had hoped to bring to the Democratic National Convention. Nevertheless, she won the support of the convention's black caucus, and, in a symbolic move, HUBERT H. HUMPHREY released his black delegates to vote for her. As a result, on the first ballot, she received 152 delegates and addressed the convention. But the number was far too small to stop candidate George S. McGovern from winning the party's nomination.
After the election the trouble that had beset her campaign continued. A 1973 report by the government's GENERAL ACCOUNTING OFFICE recommended that the U.S. JUSTICE DEPARTMENT investigate possible misconduct in handling campaign funds but a 1974 investigation found no evidence of any wrongdoing.
Following her reelection to the House in the fall of 1972, Chisholm served every two-year term until 1982. The seniority she earned over seven terms—she was the only woman on the House Rules Committee—made her effective in building coalitions among liberal politicians. In addition to supporting women's equality, she was instrumental in advancing welfare legislation designed to help poor and needy citizens. However, the onset of the Reagan era drastically changed the political landscape in Washington, D.C., as liberals were swept aside by conservative challengers. Announcing her retirement on February 10, 1982, Chisholm cited as her chief reason the defeat of liberal senators and representatives, which made it impossible for the old alliances to work.
Chisholm accepted an invitation to join the faculty at Mount Holyoke, the United States' oldest women's college, where she taught courses in political science and women's studies until 1987. She was also a visiting professor at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. At one commencement address she urged new graduates to be active citizens: "Ask questions and demand answers. Do not just tend your garden, collect your paycheck, bolt the door, and deplore what you see on television. Too many people are doing that already. Instead, you must live in the mainstream of your time and of your generation." Although she had left Washington, D.C., she remained immersed in politics. In 1985, she became the first president of the newly formed National Political Congress of Black Women, which in three years grew from five hundred to 8,500 members. In 1988, she campaigned for the Reverend JESSE JACKSON, who was seeking the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.
Using her retirement to give speeches and commencement addresses on vital issues, Chisholm has continued to inspire the public imagination. She has advocated sex education for students beginning at the age of seven in order to combat the "national plague" of teenage pregnancy. In 1991, calling the small numbers of African American college professors a crisis in black education, she warned, "Blacks run the risk of becoming an intellectual boat people, just drifting." Opposing the Persian Gulf War in 1991, she argued that the expense of U.S. militarism blocked the goals of peace and equality. "The foundation is being laid for yet another generation of minority Americans to be denied the American dream," she cautioned.
In 1993, Chisholm was nominated to the position of ambassador to Jamaica but was prevented from assuming the role because of poor health. In 1999, she was a commencement speaker at San Diego State University College of Health and Human Services, where she received her 38th honorary degree. Chisholm received the AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF RETIRED PERSONS (AARP) Andrus Award in May 2000. The award is given biennially to nationally recognized older Americans who have made significant contributions to society. In an interview with AARP's news magazine Modern Maturity, the former congresswoman listed her grandmother, ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, and Harriet Tubman as her three greatest influences and stated that race and poverty were the two major issues that still need to be addressed in modern America.