Born the daughter of immigrants, Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn in New York City. She and her sisters spent their early years with their grandmother in Barbados on her farm. Chisholm credits her grandmother as a major influence, along with Eleanor Roosevelt. Roosevelt left the fourteen-year-old Chisholm invaluable advice that she definitely took to heart: “Don’t let anybody stand in your way.” Her interest in politics blossomed as a student at Brooklyn College, where she joined the Harriet Tubman Society, debated, and attended community meetings.
After earning a master’s degree at Columbia University, she became an educational consultant in New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare from 1959 to 1964 while still actively engaged in community and civic activities including the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League, an organization formed to support Black candidates. Chisholm’s confrontational style made her unpopular with the white Democratic establishment in New York, but her community—predominantly Black and Hispanic—gave her all the support she needed to win a seat in the state assembly in 1964. The people chose Chisholm, and she worked hard for them, focusing on education issues from day care to college, as well as gaining job security for teachers on maternity leave.
In 1968 Chisholm ran for Congress, becoming the first Black woman to serve in the House. Assigned to the Forestry Committee, she demanded reassignment to better represent her constituency. Moved to Veterans’ Affairs, she staunchly refused to take money away from children and the disadvantaged for defense spending. In 1972 Chisholm ran for US president, the first woman and Black candidate on a major party ticket. Though she didn’t win a single primary, she was truly “a catalyst for change,” leading 152 delegates to the Democratic Convention.
Chisholm was one of fifteen presidential candidates in 1972. It was a volatile time: the Vietnam War was the center of public discord, movements for civil rights and gender equality were major issues around the Western world, and the election came on the heels of the 1968 race—one of the bloodiest election years in American history. Chisholm knew she was a long shot; she even referred to herself as “literally and figuratively the dark horse.” But she knew that if she played it smart and started winning delegates, she’d have some power to leverage. Chisholm sought to create a truly representative government. She also saw her office as an opportunity to encourage women—especially women of color—to get involved in politics. Every member of her staff was a woman, half of them Black. On the national political stage, however, her race and gender were two strikes against her. She gathered support from the National Organization for Women, but when the time came for NOW to officially endorse a candidate, their squeamishness over the possibility of a Black nominee overcame their lip service. And the Black Congressional Caucus, of which Chisholm was a founding member, couldn’t bring themselves to support a female candidate. Chisholm said in her “Equal Rights for Women” speech, “As a Black person, I am no stranger to race prejudice. But the truth is that in the political world I have been far oftener discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am Black.” Her refusal to accept the status quo and run for office against all odds shows incredible leadership, decades before Barack Obama’s two-term presidency. Chisholm wrote in 1973: “The next time a woman runs, or a Black, or a Jew, or anyone from a group that the country is ‘not ready’ to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start … I ran because somebody had to do it first.”
In honor of Chisholm’s long-term service to her home city, we donated to Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration, the nation’s first nonprofit community development corporation. Restoration partners with residents and businesses to improve the quality of life of central Brooklyn by fostering economic self-sufficiency, enhancing family stability, promoting the arts and culture, and transforming the neighborhood into a safe, vibrant place to live and work.
*(c)2016 By Chandler O’Leary and Jessica Spring. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Dead Feminists: Historic Heroines in Living Color by permission of Sasquatch Books.