Shirley Chisholm: First black woman elected to the United States Congress (born: 1924 - died: 2005)
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Shirley Chisholm
First black woman elected to the United States Congress

Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisholm
The basics

Quick Facts

Intro First black woman elected to the United States Congress
A.K.A. Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm
Was Politician
From United States of America
Field Politics
Gender female
Birth 30 November 1924, Brooklyn, New York City, New York, USA
Death 1 January 2005, Ormond Beach, Volusia County, Florida, USA (aged 80 years)
Star sign Sagittarius
Politics Democratic Party
Columbia University
Brooklyn College
Teachers College
Girls' High School
Boys and Girls High School
National Women's Hall of Fame 1993
Presidential Medal of Freedom 2015
Shirley Chisholm
The details (from wikipedia)


Shirley Anita Chisholm (née St. Hill; November 30, 1924 – January 1, 2005) was an American politician, educator, and author. In 1968, she became the first black woman elected to the United States Congress, representing New York's 12th congressional district, a district centered on Bedford-Stuyvesant, for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. In the 1972 United States presidential election, she became the first black candidate to run for a major party's nomination for President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

Born in Brooklyn, Chisholm studied and worked in early childhood education, becoming involved in local Democratic party politics in the 1950s. In 1964, overcoming some resistance because she was a woman, she was elected to the New York State Assembly. Four years later she was elected to Congress, where she led expansion of food and nutrition programs for the poor and rose to party leadership. She retired from Congress in 1983 and taught at Mount Holyoke College, while continuing her political organizing. Although nominated for an ambassadorship in 1993, health issues caused her to withdraw. In 2015, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Early life and education

Shirley Anita St. Hill was born on November 30, 1924, to immigrant parents. She was of Guyanese and Bajan descent. She had three younger sisters, two born within three years of her and one later. Her father, Charles Christopher St. Hill, was born in British Guiana before moving to Barbados. He arrived in New York City via Antilla, Cuba, in 1923. Her mother, Ruby Seale, was born in Christ Church, Barbados, and arrived in New York City in 1921.

Charles St. Hill was a laborer who worked in a factory that made burlap bags and as a baker's helper. Ruby St. Hill was a skilled seamstress and domestic worker, and had trouble working and raising the children at the same time. As a consequence, in November 1929, when Shirley turned five, she and her two sisters were sent to Barbados on the MS Vulcania to live with their maternal grandmother, Emaline Seale. She later said, "Granny gave me strength, dignity, and love. I learned from an early age that I was somebody. I didn't need the black revolution to tell me that." Shirley and her sisters lived on their grandmother's farm in the Vauxhall village in Christ Church, where she attended a one-room schoolhouse. She returned to the United States in 1934, arriving in New York on May 19 aboard the SS Nerissa. As a result of her time in Barbados, Shirley spoke with a West Indian accent throughout her life. In her 1970 autobiography Unbought and Unbossed, she wrote: "Years later I would know what an important gift my parents had given me by seeing to it that I had my early education in the strict, traditional, British-style schools of Barbados. If I speak and write easily now, that early education is the main reason." As a result of her time on the island, and despite her U.S. birth, Shirley would always consider herself a Barbadian American.

Beginning in 1939, Shirley attended Girls' High School in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, a highly regarded, integrated school that attracted girls from throughout Brooklyn. Shirley earned her Bachelor of Arts from Brooklyn College in 1946, where she won prizes for her debating skills. In addition, during her time at Brooklyn College, she was a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Harriet Tubman Society. As a member of the Harriet Tubman Society, she advocated for inclusion, specifically in terms of the integration of black soldiers in the military during World War II, the addition of courses that focused on African-American history, and the involvement of more women in the student government. However, this was not her first introduction to activism or politics. Growing up, Shirley was surrounded by politics, as her father was an avid supporter of Marcus Garvey and a dedicated supporter of the rights of trade union members. Also, she was no stranger to seeing her community advocate for their rights as she witnessed the Barbados workers' and anti-colonial independence movements.

Shirley met Conrad O. Chisholm in the late 1940s. He had migrated to the United States from Jamaica in 1946, and he later became a private investigator who specialized in negligence-based lawsuits. They married in 1949 in a large West Indian-style wedding. Shirley divorced Conrad in 1977, and she married Arthur Hardwick Jr., a New York State legislator, later that year.

Early career

After graduating from college in 1946, Chisholm began working as a teacher's aide at a childcare center in Harlem. Chisholm taught in a nursery school while furthering her education, earning her Master of Arts in elementary education from Teachers College of Columbia University in 1952.

From 1953 to 1959, she was director of the Friends Day Nursery in Brownsville, Brooklyn, and of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center in Lower Manhattan. From 1959 to 1964, she was an educational consultant for the Division of Day Care. She became known as an authority on issues involving early education and child welfare.

Chisholm entered the world of politics in 1953 when she joined Wesley "Mac" Holder's effort to elect Lewis Flagg Jr. to the bench as the first black judge in Brooklyn. The Flagg election group later transformed into the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League (BSPL). The BSPL pushed candidates to support civil rights, fought against racial discrimination in housing, and sought to improve economic opportunities and services in Brooklyn. Chisholm eventually left the group around 1958 after clashing with Holder over Chisholm's push to give female members of the group more input in decision making.

She also worked as a volunteer for white-dominated political clubs in Brooklyn, like the Brooklyn Democratic Clubs and the League of Women Voters. With the Political League, she was part of a committee that chose the recipient of its annual Brotherhood Award. She also was a representative of the Brooklyn branch of the National Association of College Women. Furthermore, within the political organizations she joined, Chisholm sought to make meaningful changes to the structure and make-up of the organizations, specifically the Brooklyn Democratic Clubs, which resulted in her being able to recruit more people of color into the 17th District Club and, thus, local politics.

In 1960, Chisholm joined a new organization, the Unity Democratic Club (UDC) led by former Elect Flagg member Thomas R. Jones. The UDC's membership was mostly middle class, racially integrated, and included women in leadership positions. Chisholm campaigned for Jones who lost the election for an assembly seat in 1960, but ran again two years later and won, becoming Brooklyn's second black assemblyman.

State legislator

Chisholm reviewing political statistics in 1965

After Jones chose to accept a judicial appointment rather than run for reelection, Chisholm sought to run for his seat in the New York state assembly in 1964. Chishom faced resistance based on her sex with the UDC hesitant to support a female candidate. Chisholm chose to appeal directly to women voters, including using her role as Brooklyn branch president of Key Women of America to mobilize female voters. Chisholm won the Democratic primary in June 1964. She then won the seat in December with over 18,000 votes over Republican and Liberal party candidates, neither of which received more than 1,900 votes.

Chisholm was a member of the New York State Assembly from 1965 to 1968, sitting in the 175th, 176th and 177th New York State Legislatures. By May 1965 she had already been honored in a "Salute to Women Doers" affair in New York. One of her early activities in the Assembly was to argue against the state's literacy test requiring English, holding that just because a person "functions better in his native language is no sign a person is illiterate". By early 1966 she was a leader in a push by the statewide Council of Elected Negro Democrats for black representation on key committees in the Assembly.

Her successes in the legislature included getting unemployment benefits extended to domestic workers. She also sponsored the introduction of a SEEK program (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) to the state, which provided disadvantaged students the chance to enter college while receiving intensive remedial education.

In August 1968, she was elected as the Democratic National Committeewoman from New York State.


Initial election

In 1968, Chisholm ran for the U.S. House of Representatives from New York's 12th congressional district, which as part of a court-mandated reapportionment plan had been significantly redrawn to focus on Bedford-Stuyvesant and was thus expected to result in Brooklyn's first black member of Congress. (Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. had, in 1945, become the first black member of Congress from New York City as a whole.) As a result of the redrawing, the white incumbent in the former 12th, Representative Edna F. Kelly, sought re-election in a different district. Chisholm announced her candidacy around January 1968 and established some early organizational support. Her campaign slogan was "Unbought and unbossed". In the June 18, 1968, Democratic primary, Chisholm defeated two other black opponents, State Senator William S. Thompson and labor official Dollie Robertson. In the general election, she staged an upset victory over James Farmer, the former director of the Congress of Racial Equality who was running as a Liberal Party candidate with Republican support, winning by an approximately two-to-one margin. Chisholm thereby became the first black woman elected to Congress, and was the only woman in the freshman class that year.

Early terms

The Speaker of the House assigned Chisholm to serve on the House Agriculture Committee. Given her urban district, she felt the placement was irrelevant to her constituents. When Chisholm confided to Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson that she was upset and insulted by her assignment, Schneerson suggested that she use the surplus food to help the poor and hungry. Chisholm subsequently met Robert Dole, and worked to expand the food stamp program. She later played a critical role in the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. Chisholm would credit Schneerson for the fact that so many "poor babies [now] have milk and poor children have food". Chisholm was then also placed on the Veterans' Affairs Committee. Soon after, she voted for Hale Boggs as House Majority Leader over John Conyers. As a reward for her support, Boggs assigned her to the much-prized Education and Labor Committee, which was her preferred committee. She was the third highest-ranking member of this committee when she retired from Congress.

Chisholm only hired women for her office; half of them were black. Chisholm said that she had faced much more discrimination during her New York legislative career because she was a woman than because of her race.

Chisholm (seated, second from right) with fellow founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971

Chisholm joined the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971 as one of its founding members. In the same year, she was also a founding member of the National Women's Political Caucus.

In May 1971, Chisholm, along with fellow New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug, introduced a bill to provide $10 billion in federal funds for child care services by 1975. A less expensive version introduced by Senator Walter Mondale eventually passed the House and Senate as the Comprehensive Child Development Bill, but was vetoed by President Richard Nixon in December 1971, who said it was too expensive and would undermine the institution of the family.

Later terms

Chisholm at the 1984 Democratic National Convention

Chisholm created controversy when she visited rival and ideological opposite George Wallace in the hospital soon after his shooting in May 1972, during the presidential primary campaign. Several years later, when Chisholm worked on a bill to give domestic workers the right to a minimum wage, Wallace helped gain votes of enough Southern congressmen to push the legislation through the House.

From 1977 to 1981, during the 95th Congress and 96th Congress, Chisholm was elected to a position in the House Democratic leadership, as Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus.

Throughout her tenure in Congress, Chisholm worked to improve opportunities for inner-city residents. She was a vocal opponent of the draft and supported spending increases for education, health care and other social services, and reductions in military spending.

In the area of national security and foreign policy, Chisholm worked for the revocation of Internal Security Act of 1950. She opposed the American involvement in the Vietnam War and the expansion of weapon developments. During the Jimmy Carter administration, she called for better treatment of Haitian refugees.

Chisholm's first marriage ended in divorce in February 1977. Later that year she married Arthur Hardwick, Jr., a former New York State Assemblyman whom Chisholm had known when they both served in that body and who was now a Buffalo liquor store owner. Chisholm had no children.

Hardwick was subsequently injured in an automobile accident; desiring to take care of him, and also dissatisfied with the course of liberal politics in the wake of the Reagan Revolution, she announced her retirement from Congress in 1982. Hardwick died in 1986.

1972 presidential campaign

Shirley Chisholm 1972 presidential campaign poster

Chisholm began exploring her candidacy in July 1971, and formally announced her presidential bid on January 25, 1972, in a Baptist church in her district in Brooklyn. There she called for a "bloodless revolution" at the forthcoming Democratic nomination convention. Chisholm became the first African American to run for a major party's nomination for President of the United States, in the 1972 U.S. presidential election, making her also the first woman ever to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination (U.S. Senator Margaret Chase Smith had previously run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1964). In her presidential announcement, Chisholm described herself as representative of the people and offered a new articulation of American identity: "I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people and my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history."

Her campaign was underfunded, only spending $300,000 in total. She also struggled to be regarded as a serious candidate instead of as a symbolic political figure; she was ignored by much of the Democratic political establishment and received little support from her black male colleagues. She later 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." In particular, she expressed frustration about the "black matriarch thing", saying, "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." Her husband, however, was fully supportive of her candidacy and said, "I have no hangups about a woman running for president." Security was also a concern, as during the campaign three confirmed threats were made against her life; Conrad Chisholm served as her bodyguard until U.S. Secret Service protection was given to her in May 1972.

Chisholm skipped the initial March 7 New Hampshire contest, instead focusing on the March 14 Florida primary, which she thought would be receptive due to its "blacks, youth, and a strong women's movement". But due to organizational difficulties and Congressional responsibilities, she only made two campaign trips there and ended with 3.5 percent of the vote for a seventh-place finish. Chisholm had difficulties gaining ballot access, but campaigned or received votes in primaries in fourteen states. Her largest number of votes came in the June 6 California primary, where she received 157,435 votes for 4.4 percent and a fourth-place finish, while her best percentage in a competitive primary came in the May 6 North Carolina one, where she got 7.5 percent for a third-place finish. Overall, she won 28 delegates during the primaries process itself. Chisholm's base of support was ethnically diverse and included the National Organization for Women. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem attempted to run as Chisholm delegates in New York. Altogether during the primary season, she received 430,703 votes, which was 2.7 percent of the total of nearly 16 million cast and represented seventh place among the Democratic contenders. In June, Chisholm became the first woman to appear in a United States presidential debate.

At the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida, there were still efforts taking place by the campaign of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey to stop the nomination of Senator George McGovern. After that failed and McGovern's nomination was assured, as a symbolic gesture, Humphrey released his black delegates to Chisholm. This, combined with defections from disenchanted delegates from other candidates, as well as the delegates she had won in the primaries, gave her a total of 152 first-ballot votes for the nomination during the July 12 roll call. (Her precise total was 151.95.) Her largest support overall came from Ohio, with 23 delegates (slightly more than half of them white), even though she had not been on the ballot in the May 2 primary there. Her total gave her fourth place in the roll call tally, behind McGovern's winning total of 1,728 delegates. Chisholm said she ran for the office "in spite of hopeless odds ... to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo".

It is sometimes stated that Chisholm won a primary in 1972, or won three states overall, with New Jersey, Louisiana, and Mississippi being so identified. None of these fit the usual definition of winning a plurality of the contested popular vote or delegate allocations at the time of a state primary, caucus, or state convention. In the June 6 New Jersey primary, there was a complex ballot that featured both a delegate selection vote and a non-binding, non-delegate-producing "beauty contest" presidential preference vote. Only Chisholm and former governor of North Carolina Terry Sanford were on the statewide preference ballot. Sanford had withdrawn from the contest three weeks earlier. Chisholm received the majority of votes in the non-binding statewide contest: 51,433, which was 66.9 percent. During the actual balloting at the national convention, Chisholm received votes from only 4 of New Jersey's 109 delegates, with 89 going to McGovern.

In the May 13 Louisiana caucuses, there was a battle between forces of McGovern and Governor George Wallace; nearly all of the delegates chosen were those who identified as uncommitted, many of them black. Leading up to the convention, McGovern was thought to control 20 of Louisiana's 44 delegates, with most of the rest uncommitted. During the actual roll call at the national convention, Louisiana passed at first, then cast 18.5 of its 44 votes for Chisholm, with the next best finishers being McGovern and Senator Henry M. Jackson with 10.25 each. As one delegate explained, "Our strategy was to give Shirley our votes for sentimental reasons on the first ballot. However, if our votes would have made the difference, we would have gone with McGovern." In Mississippi, there were two rival party factions that each selected delegates at their own state conventions and caucuses: "regulars", representing the mostly-white state Democratic Party, and "loyalists", representing many blacks and white liberals. Each slate professed to be largely uncommitted, but the regulars were thought to favor Wallace and the loyalists McGovern. By the time of the national convention, the loyalists were seated following a credentials challenge, and their delegates were characterized as mostly supporting McGovern, with some support for Humphrey. During the convention, some McGovern delegates became angry about what they saw as statements from McGovern that backed away from his commitment to end U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia, and cast protest votes for Chisholm as a result. During the actual balloting, Mississippi went in the first half of the roll call, and cast 12 of its 25 votes for Chisholm, with McGovern coming next with 10 votes.

During the campaign, the German filmmaker Peter Lilienthal shot the documentary film Shirley Chisholm for President for the German television channel ZDF.

Later life and death

Shirley Chisholm (center) with Congressman Edolphus Towns (left) and his wife, Gwen Towns (right)

After leaving Congress, Chisholm made her home in suburban Williamsville, New York. She resumed her career in education, being named to the Purington Chair at the all-women Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. As such she was not a member of any particular department, but would be able to teach classes in a variety of areas; those previously holding the position included W. H. Auden, Bertrand Russell, and Arna Bontemps.

In 1984, Chisholm and C. Delores Tucker co-founded the National Congress of Black Women.

During those years, she continued to give speeches at colleges, by her own count visiting over 150 campuses since becoming nationally known. She told students to avoid polarization and intolerance: "If you don't accept others who are different, it means nothing that you've learned calculus." Continuing to be involved politically, she traveled to visit different minority groups and urging them to become a strong force at the local level. In 1984 and 1988, she campaigned for Jesse Jackson for the presidential elections. In 1990, Chisholm, along with 15 other black women and men, formed the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom.

Chisholm retired to Florida in 1991. In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated her to be United States Ambassador to Jamaica, but she could not serve due to poor health and the nomination was withdrawn. In the same year she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Chisholm died on January 1, 2005, in Ormond Beach (near Daytona Beach), after suffering several strokes. She is buried in the Birchwood Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, where the legend inscribed on her vault reads: "Unbought and Unbossed".


In 1984, The National Black Women's Political Caucus was established during the vice presidential campaign of Geraldine Ferraro. African-American women from various political organizations convened to set forth a political agenda emphasizing the needs of women of African descent. Chisholm was chosen as its first chair.

In February 2005, Shirley Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed, a documentary film, aired on U.S public television. It chronicled Chisholm's 1972 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. It was directed and produced by independent African-American filmmaker Shola Lynch. The film was featured at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. On April 9, 2006, the film was announced as a winner of a Peabody Award.

In 2014, the first biography of Chisholm for an adult audience was published, Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change, by Brooklyn College history professor Barbara Winslow, who was also the founder and first director of the Shirley Chisholm Project. Until then, only several juvenile biographies had appeared.

Chisholm's speech "For the Equal Rights Amendment", given in 1970, is listed as number 91 in American Rhetoric's Top 100 Speeches of the 20th Century (listed by rank).

On January 20, 2021, Kamala Harris, the first black woman to become Vice President of the United States, wore a purple dress in Shirley Chisholm's honor during her inauguration.


The Shirley Chisholm Project on Brooklyn Women's Activism (formerly known as the Shirley Chisholm Center for Research) exists at Brooklyn College to promote research projects and programs on women and to preserve the legacy of Chisholm. The Chisholm Project also houses an archive as part of the Chisholm Papers in the college library Special Collections.

In January 2018, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced his intent to build the Shirley Chisholm State Park, a 407-acre (165 ha) state park along 3.5 miles (5.6 km) of the Jamaica Bay coastline, adjoining the Pennsylvania Avenue and Fountain Avenue landfills south of Spring Creek Park's Gateway Center section. The state park was dedicated to Chisholm that September. The park opened to the public on July 2, 2019.

A memorial monument of Chisholm is planned for the entrance to Prospect Park in Brooklyn by Parkside Avenue station, designed by artists Amanda Williams and Olalekan Jeyifous.


Chisholm's legacy came into renewed prominence during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton staged their historic "firsts" battle – where the victor would either be the first major-party African-American nominee, or the first woman nominee – with at least one observer crediting Chisholm's 1972 campaign as having paved the way for both of them.

Chisholm has been a major influence on other women of color in politics, among them California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who stated in a 2017 interview that Chisholm had a profound impact on her career.

Kamala Harris recognized Chisholm's presidential campaign by using a similar color scheme and typography in her own 2020 presidential campaign's promotional materials and logo. That red-and-yellow design could be seen in a video announcing Harris's run for president. Harris launched her presidential campaign 47 years to the day after Chisholm's presidential campaign.

In popular culture

Actress Uzo Aduba portrays Chisholm in the miniseries Mrs. America, released in April 2020, in which she won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series. Danai Gurira has been cast as Shirley Chisholm in "The Fighting Shirley Chisholm". The film will follow Chisholm's historical run for president in 1972.The film will be directed by Cherien Dabis. Another Shirley Chisholm film was announced in February 2021, with Regina King starring as Chisholm and John Ridley directing.

Honors and awards

American honors

Honorary degrees

  • In 1974, Chisholm was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree by Aquinas College and was their commencement speaker.
  • In 1975, Chisholm was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree by Smith College.
  • In 1996, she was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree by Stetson University, in Deland, Florida.

Other recognition

  • In 1991, Chisholm was the commencement speaker at East Stroudsburg University in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, where she received the first ever conferred honorary doctorate from the university. An annual ESU student award was created in her honor.
  • In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
  • In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Shirley Chisholm on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
  • On January 31, 2014, the Shirley Chisholm Forever Stamp was issued. It is the 37th stamp in the Black Heritage series of U.S. stamps.
  • The Shirley Chisholm Living-Learning Community at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, is a residential hall floor where students of African descent can choose to live.


Chisholm wrote two autobiographical books:

  • Chisholm, Shirley (1970). Unbought and Unbossed. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0-395-10932-8.
    • Chisholm, Shirley (2010). Scott Simpson (ed.). Unbought and Unbossed: Expanded 40th Anniversary Edition. Take Root Media. ISBN 978-0-9800590-2-1. Also available via the editor Scott Simpson's site.
  • Chisholm, Shirley (1973). The Good Fight. Harper Collins. ISBN 978-0-06-010764-2.


  • Brooks-Bertram, Peggy; Nevergold, Barbara A. (2009). Uncrowned Queens, Volume 3: African American Women Community Builders of Western New York. In Commemoration of the Centennial of the Niagara Movement. Buffalo, New York. ISBN 978-0-9722977-2-1.
  • Howell, Ron Boss of Black Brooklyn: The Life and Times of Bertram L. Baker Fordham University Press Bronx, New York 2018
  • Winslow, Barbara (2014). Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change. Lives of American Women. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press. ISBN 978-0-8133-4769-1.
  • Fitzpatrick, Ellen (2016). The Highest Glass Ceiling : Women's Quest for the American Presidency. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 9780674088931. LCCN 2015045620.
The contents of this page are sourced from Wikipedia article on 29 Nov 2021. The contents are available under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.
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