“I would 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 am a product of both, being Black and a woman.”
- SHIRLEY ANITA CHISHOLM
Born on November 30, 1924 in Brooklyn, New York City to a low-income family, Shirley Anita Chisholm was formally educated while living with her grandmother in Barbados. After reuniting with her parents at age 11, Chisholm was introduced to her father’s beliefs in black excellence and racial equality; this served as her initiation into the political and communal spheres.
However, Chisholm’s political career took off during her time at Brooklyn College, where she partook in the College’s Democratic clubs. While working as a nursery school teacher and later a daycare director, Chisholm graduated cum laude with a BA in sociology in 1946. In 1951, Chisholm received her master’s degree in early childhood education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Driving her theoretical and practical expertise into the public sector, Chisholm served as an educational consultant for the New York Division of Daycare from 1959 to 1964; all the while, Chisholm volunteered in her community by fighting for racial and gender equality. Her service bolstered her standing within her community, the population of which consisted of about 70 percent African American and Hispanic people.
HER POLITICAL CAREER AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS
In 1964, she was selected as a state assemblywoman, which gave her the ability to make a considerable impact in her community. Chisholm was responsible for shepherding numerous bills through the education committee. Additionally, Chisholm sponsored the academic financial aid program known as Search for Elevation, Education and Knowledge (SEEK). This program was funded by the New York State to help provide academic, financial and psychological support for low income students enrolled in the CUNY system. She also co-sponsored legislation surrounding state-funded daycares and unemployment insurance and supported the legalization of abortion. In 1968, she was appointed as the honorary president of the newly formed National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL).
“Fighting Shirley Chisholm,” as she came to be known due to her campaign slogan, was elected to Congress as a member of the Democratic Party in 1968. Chisholm represented the Brooklyn congressional district, which had become a majority Black district during the civil rights movement. Her fearless and successful campaign made her the first Black woman in Congress.
While in office, Chisholm continued to fight for racial equality. She also supported the provision of housing and education aid while also promoting new anti-discrimination legislation. In May 1969, she gave a speech to the House of Representatives in which she introduced the Equal Rights Amendment, which sought to guarantee equal legal rights to all Americans, regardless of sex. In 1970, Chisholm published an autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed, which later became her presidential campaign slogan.
After observing the monopolization of power in the government, Chisholm saw the need for a revamp in the traditional political system. She wanted politicians to support themselves and the community regardless of their party line. She once campaigned for a member of the Republican Party, John B. Lindsay, who was running for a mayoral election. As a bold woman who fought for good governance, Chisholm said her reason for supporting a rivalry party candidate is because he was the perfect man for the job and the only one who had the people’s interest at heart, which is one of her main motivations as a politician. This decision caused her a lot of disapproval and backlash from her own party. However, this did not stop her from fighting the good fight; in 1971, alongside author Gloria Steinem and other feminist leaders, Shirley co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus as an avenue to continue expressing her concerns about discrimination against black women.
In July 1971, Shirley began exploring the possibility of running for president while still a member of Congress. Encouraged by the rising number of Black people serving in elected office, she formally announced her interest in running on January 25, 1972, making her the first Black woman ever to run for the presidential nomination from a major political party. Despite wide opposition, a lack of party support, and limited financial backing, Shirley traveled across the country campaigning for the presidency. She succeeded in getting her name onto 12 primary ballots and received 152 delegate votes, which was 10 percent of the total. She was also featured on Gallup’s poll of America’s 10 most admired women at that time.
While Chisholm did not win the election, she made history raising her political status and uniting a larger audience against gender and racial discrimination. She wrote The Good Fight in 1972, which reflected her struggles and the efforts of her unsuccessful bid for the presidency.
AWARDS AND HONORS
After her presidential defeat, Chisholm was re-elected to the House of Representatives in 1972, serving five terms until 1982.. In January 1983, Shirley announced her imminent retirement after serving 14 years in Congress. Although no longer an elected official, Chisholm continued to fight against gender discrimination and racial inequality. A distinguished scholar and educator, Chisholm lectured at Mount Holyoke College from 1983 until 1987, and visited other campuses as a guest lecturer. She also received a Distinguished Alumni Award from Teachers College, Columbia University in 1985. In total, Chisholm received honorary doctorates from 31 colleges and universities. Remaining influential in the public and political affairs of her community, she co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women, becoming its president in 1985. In 1988, Shirley campaigned for Jesse Jackson’s presidential bid, using her platform to educate, promote, influence and advocate for racial equality. Due to her career-long fight for women’s rights, Chisholm was asked to give the commencement address at East Stroudsburg University in 1991, where she received the university’s first honorary doctorate. Additionally, the University created the Shirley Chisholm award, to be given annually to an extraordinary and communal spirited female student committed to activism.
In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Chisholm as the U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica, but Chisholm declined due to her ill health. She was later invited to be a commencement speaker at San Diego State University College of Health and Human Services in 1999, where she received her 38th honorary degree. Chisholm also received the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Andrus Award for community service in May 2000. In an interview with AARP's magazine, when asked who her role models were, Chisholm mentioned her grandmother, Eleanor Roosevelt and Harriet Tubman as her two greatest influences. She settled in Palm Coast, Florida, where she lectured and wrote until her death on January 1, 2005 at the age of 85. In 2015, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
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