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date: 01 April 2020

Chisholm, Shirley

Abstract and Keywords

Shirley Chisholm (1924–2005) was a political leader and activist best known as the first African American woman elected to the US House of Representatives and the first African American to seek the Democratic Party nomination for US President.

Keywords: Democratic Party, US Congress, US Presidential candidate, early childhood education legislation, women’s rights, civil rights

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm (1924–2005) was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York. Her parents were Charles St. Hill, a factory worker, and Ruby Seale, a seamstress. She was the oldest of four daughters. Chisholm spent her early childhood and education in Barbados with her maternal grandmother (1928–34). She credits this strict British style early education for her academic successes. She graduated with honors from the prestigious Girls’ High School in Brooklyn, NY; a BA in Sociology from Brooklyn College (1946); and, a MA in elementary education from Columbia University (1952). Chisholm was a member of Delta Sigma Theta, Inc. sorority. After college, Chisholm directed the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Centers (1953–59). She also served as an educational consultant for New York City’s Division of Day Care (1959–64).

Shirley Chisholm was a political leader and activist. Motivated by the negative impact policy makers were having on the Bedford-Stuyvesant community, Chisholm successfully ran for and was elected to the New York State Assembly (1964). She was the first African American woman to serve in this body. Chisholm served on the Education Committee during her tenure. Using the slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed,” Chisholm successfully ran for and was elected to represent the 12th Congressional District (Brooklyn, NY) in the US House of Representatives (1968–1982). This seven term Congresswoman was the first African American woman to be elected to this body. Most notably, Chisholm hired an all-female congressional staff, half of whom were African American. As a freshman member of the US Congress, Chisholm was initially assigned to the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Forestry and Rural Villages. She refused this assignment on the premise that this committee was irrelevant to the needs of her inner city constituency. While this did not help her to gain popularity among her Congressional colleagues, Chisholm was applauded in the media for having “clarity of purpose” in her role as a representative of her constituents. She was reassigned to the Committee on Veteran’s Affairs, and later became a member of the House Education and Labor Committee. Chisholm was a founding member of the National Organization of Women (1970) and the Congressional Black Caucus (1971).

During her tenure in the US House of Representatives, Chisholm was a champion of the poor, civil rights, and women’s rights. She was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. She was an advocate for early childhood education, and was an early proponent of the Head Start program. Chisholm fought tirelessly to educate African Americans about the need for reproductive health services. She was a vocal opponent of the US judicial system, specifically as it related to police brutality, prison reform, gun control, and substance abuse policies. Chisholm was the first African American to make a bid for the US Presidential nomination by the Democratic Party (1972). While she did not gain the nomination, she did gain 151 delegates, which was about 10% of the total share of delegates.

Chisholm earned a great deal of political capital throughout her career. She was considered as a Vice-Presidential candidate for Independent candidates John Anderson (1980) and Ross Perot (1982). After retiring from the US House of Representatives, Chisholm joined the faculty of Mount Holyoke College (MA) where she held the Purington Professorship (1983–1987). She taught politics, sociology and women’s studies. She was also a Visiting Scholar at Spellman College (GA) (1985). Chisholm was nominated by President Bill Clinton to serve as US Ambassador to Jamaica (1993); however, due to health concerns, she was not able to accept the nomination. Chisholm received almost 40 honorary degrees and numerous awards. She retired to Palm Coast, Florida (1993) until her death on January 1, 2005. Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold medal by the 109th US Congress (2005). Chisholm said that she wanted to be “remembered as a catalyst for a change in America.” Indeed, Chisholm was a catalyst for change. She shattered racial and gender barriers as she championed the cause of social justice for poor and vulnerable populations.