Women’s History Month: Spotlight on Congresswoman Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm
“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
– Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, (11/30/24 – 1/1/05)
Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was America’s first African American woman elected to U.S. Congress in 1968. Her work and legacy have inspired millions of people to make their voices heard in politics and in their communities.
Shirley was born in 1924 in Brooklyn, New York City, to immigrant parents from British Guiana and Barbados. She first became interested in politics while running a day care center, and began volunteering for the then white-dominated political clubs in Brooklyn. Chisholm also worked with the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League and the League of Women Voters.
She joined the New York State Assembly from 1965 – 1968. Her notable accomplishments during that period include getting unemployment benefits extended to domestic workers. Chisholm also sponsored the introduction of the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) program to the state, which provided disadvantaged students the opportunity to go to college while completing their remedial education.
Shirley Chisholm ran for the US House of Representatives from New York’s 12th congressional district in 1968, under her slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed.” She won, becoming the first black woman elected to Congress. She ruffled feathers almost immediately by reaching across the aisle and by criticizing the Democratic leadership as often as she did the Republicans in the White House.
Chisholm was assigned to the House Agricultural Committee, and worked with Bob Dole to expand the food stamp program. She played a critical role in the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (Now known as WIC).
Shirley founded the Congressional Black Caucus with 12 other Congressmen in 1971. She also founded the National Women’s Political Caucus in July of 1971 along with over 320 women in government.
In January of 1972, Shirley Chisholm ran for President – the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. She had little support from her colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus or elsewhere. Of her experiences, Chisholm said, “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… They think I am trying to take power from them. The black man must step forward, but that doesn’t mean the black woman must step back.”
During her campaign, Chisholm’s life was threatened three times. The U.S. Secret Service has protected all major presidential candidates since the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, but did not provide her any protection until May 1972. Her husband acted as her bodyguard in the interim. Although her bid for the presidency was not successful, she inspired men and women to enter politics. Barbara Lee, one of her campaign volunteers, continued to work in politics and became a congresswoman 25 years later, in 1997.
- Worked on a bill with George Wallace to give domestic workers the right to a minimum wage
- Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus from 1977 – 1981
- Retired in 1983, and became Purington Chair at the all-women Mount Holyoke College (MHC) in Massachusetts
- Taught a variety of subjects at MHC, mainly focusing on politics as it involved women and race
Shirley Chisholm retired to Florida in 1991. President Bill Clinton had nominated her to be the U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica, but she had to decline due to poor health. She passed away in 2005 after a series of strokes, and was buried in Buffalo, New York. Her gravestone inscription reads, “Unbought and Unbossed.” President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm’s legacy runs deep in everyday Americans’ lives. Her tireless work to increase rights for the poor, hungry and under-educated continues to improve everyday Americans’ lives today. Shirley Chisholm was a woman who made a difference.
“I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.” – Shirley Chisholm