Feminist Hero Election Edition: Shirley Chisholm
by Michelle Kiang
On Tuesday, November 8, 2016 citizens of the United States will elect our next president. After a series of scandalous, overwhelming, polarizing, and downright depressing months of watching Donald Trump inspire racists to finally come out into the open with their violent ideologies that were formerly reserved for drunken Thanksgiving dinners, many of us are ready for it all to be over.
Our feminist hero this week is Shirley Chisholm. Shirley Chisholm was a community activist, an educator, an author, the first African American congresswoman, the first African American to run for president, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Shirley Chisholm was a trailblazer whom history has deliberately ignored. Today, we celebrate her accomplishments, her drive, her determination, her activism, and her guts.
Shirley Chisholm reminds us that even when politics seem futile and our votes seem insignificant, there is yet hope for change, for courage, and for radically transforming our society into one that values the lives of the most marginalized.
Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1924 to immigrant parents from the Caribbean and spent part of her childhood in Barbados with her grandmother. She graduated from Brooklyn College in 1946 and began her career as a teacher, later earning a master’s degree in elementary education from Columbia University and went on to serve as the director of a child care center from 1953 to 1959, then as an educational consultant for New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare from 1959 to 1964.
When a court-ordered redistricting carved a new Brooklyn congressional district out of her Bedford-Stuvyvesant neighborhood Chisholm decided to run for congress. She went around the new district in a sound truck with a megaphone and would announce: “ Ladies and Gentlemen… this is fighting Shirley chisholm coming through.”
When her opponent argued that "women have been in the driver's seat" in Black communities for too long and that the district needed "a man's voice in Washington," not that of a "little schoolteacher." Chisholm highlighted discrimination against women and said "There were Negro men in office here before I came in five years ago, but they didn't deliver. People came and asked me to do something … I'm here because of the vacuum." Chisholm additionally portrayed Farmer as an outsider who lived in Manhattan and used her fluent Spanish to appeal to the growing Hispanic population in the neighborhood. Chisholm won the congressional seat and became the first African American woman to serve in Congress.
When she arrived at congress many of the men did not warm up to her because of her outspoken attitude. She said, "I have no intention of just sitting quietly and observing," she said. "I intend to focus attention on the nation's problems." Because of this, she was moved from committee to committee while continuing to be the voice of the marginalized. Chisholm was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in 1971 and the Congressional Women’s Caucus in 1977, groups that still have an impact in bringing Black young people and women into politics.
In her years in congress, Chisholm championed a bill to ensure domestic workers received benefits, advocated improved access to education, sponsored a bill to expand childcare, supported the national school lunch bill, helped establish the national commission on consumer protection and product sfety, expanded the government-funded food stamps program so it would be available in every state, helped create The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (Wic), and fought for immigrant rights.
In 1972, Shirley Chisholm ran for the Democratic Presidential nomination, she states:
Below are some campaign materials from 1972:
Although she did not win the Democratic nomination for president, Shirley Chisholm made a mark in politics and in the consciousness of activists and leaders who advocate for the “have-nots.” After leaving congress in January 1983, Chisholm co-founded teh National Political Congress of Black Women and taught at Mt. Holyoke College. She settled in Palm Coast, Florida where she lectured. She passed away on January 1, 2005.
Her portrait resides in Congress and it is POC’s favorite portrait.