CHISHOLM, Shirley Anita

CHISHOLM, Shirley Anita
Oil on canvas, Kadir Nelson, 2008, Collection of U.S. House of Representatives About this object
Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress
1924–2005

Biography

The first African–American Congresswoman, Shirley Anita Chisholm represented a newly reapportioned U.S. House district centered in Brooklyn, New York. Elected in 1968 because of her roots in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood, Chisholm was catapulted into the national limelight by virtue of her race, gender, and outspoken personality. In 1972, in a largely symbolic undertaking, she campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination. But "Fighting Shirley" Chisholm's frontal assault on many congressional traditions and her reputation as a crusader limited her influence as a legislator. "I am the people's politician," she once told the New York Times. "If the day should ever come when the people can't save me, I'll know I'm finished. That's when I'll go back to being a professional educator."1

Shirley Anita St. Hill was born on November 20, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York. She was the oldest of four daughters of Charles St. Hill, a factory laborer from Guyana, and Ruby Seale St. Hill, a seamstress from Barbados. For part of her childhood, Shirley St. Hill lived in Barbados on her maternal grandparents' farm, receiving a British education while her parents worked during the Great Depression to settle the family in Bedford–Stuyvesant. The most apparent manifestation of her West Indies roots was the slight, clipped British accent she retained throughout her life. She attended public schools in Brooklyn and graduated with high marks. Accepted to Vassar and Oberlin colleges, Shirley St. Hill attended Brooklyn College on scholarship and graduated cum laude with a B.A. in sociology in 1946. From 1946 to 1953, Chisholm worked as a nursery school teacher and then as the director of two daycare centers. She married Conrad Q. Chisholm, a private investigator, in 1949. Three years later, Shirley Chisholm earned an M.A. in early childhood education from Columbia University. She served as an educational consultant for New York City's Division of Day Care from 1959 to 1964. In 1964, Chisholm was elected to the New York state legislature; she was the second African–American woman to serve in Albany.

A court–ordered redistricting that carved a new Brooklyn congressional district out of Chisholm's Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood convinced her to run for Congress. The influential Democratic political machine, headed by Stanley Steingut, declared its intention to send an African American from the new district to the House. The endorsement of the machine usually resulted in a primary victory, which was tantamount to election in the heavily Democratic area. In the primary, Chisholm faced three African–American challengers: civil court judge Thomas R. Jones, a former district leader and New York assemblyman; Dolly Robinson, a former district co–leader; and William C. Thompson, a well–financed state senator. Chisholm roamed the new district in a sound truck that pulled up outside housing projects while she announced: "Ladies and Gentlemen … this is fighting Shirley Chisholm coming through." Chisholm capitalized on her personal campaign style. "I have a way of talking that does something to people," she noted. "I have a theory about campaigning. You have to let them feel you."2 In the primary in mid–June 1968, Chisholm defeated Thompson, her nearest competitor, by about 800 votes in an election characterized by light voter turnout.

In the general election, Chisholm faced Republican–Liberal James Farmer, one of the principal figures of the civil rights movement, a cofounder of the Congress for Racial Equality, and an organizer of the Freedom Riders in the early 1960s. The two candidates held similar positions on housing, employment, and education issues, and both opposed the Vietnam War. Farmer charged that the Democratic Party "took [blacks] for granted and thought they had us in their pockets.… We must be in a position to use our power as a swing vote."3 But the election turned on the issue of gender. Farmer hammered away, arguing 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."4 Chisholm, whose campaign motto was "unbought and unbossed," met that charge head–on, using Farmer's rhetoric to highlight discrimination against women and explain her unique qualifications. "There were Negro men in office here before I came in five years ago, but they didn't deliver," Chisholm countered. "People came and asked me to do something … I'm here because of the vacuum." Chisholm portrayed Farmer as an outsider (he lived in Manhattan) and used her fluent Spanish to appeal to the growing Hispanic population in the Bedford–Stuyvesant neighborhood. (Puerto Rican immigrants accounted for about 20 percent of the district vote.) The deciding factor, however, was the district's overwhelming liberal tilt: More than 80 percent of the voters were registered Democrats. Chisholm won the general election by a resounding 67 percent of the vote.5

Chisholm's freshman class included two African Americans of future prominence: Louis Stokes of Ohio and William L. (Bill) Clay, Sr., of Missouri—and boosted the number of African Americans in the House from six to nine, the largest total up to that time.6 Chisholm was the only new woman to enter Congress in 1969.

Chisholm's welcome in the House was not warm, due to her immediate outspokenness. "I have no intention of just sitting quietly and observing," she said. "I intend to focus attention on the nation's problems." She did just that, lashing out against the Vietnam War in her first floor speech on March 26, 1969. Chisholm vowed to vote against any defense appropriation bill "until the time comes when our values and priorities have been turned right–side up again."7 She was assigned to the Committee on Agriculture, a decision she appealed directly to House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts (bypassing Ways and Means Committee Chairman Wilbur Mills of Arkansas, who oversaw Democratic committee appointments). McCormack told her to be a "good soldier," at which point Chisholm brought her complaint to the House Floor. She was reassigned to the Veterans' Affairs Committee which, though not one of her top choices, was more relevant to her district's makeup. "There are a lot more veterans in my district than trees," she quipped.8 From 1971 to 1977 she served on the Committee on Education and Labor, having won a place on that panel with the help of Hale Boggs of Louisiana, whom she had endorsed as Majority Leader.9 She also served on the Committee on Organization Study and Review (known as the Hansen Committee), whose recommended reforms for the selection of committee chairmen were adopted by the Democratic Caucus in 1971. From 1977 to 1981, Chisholm served as Secretary of the Democratic Caucus. She eventually left her Education Committee assignment to accept a seat on the Rules Committee in 1977, becoming the first black woman—and the second woman ever—to serve on that powerful panel. Chisholm also was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in 1971 and the Congressional Women's Caucus in 1977.

Chisholm continued to work for the causes she had espoused as a community activist. She sponsored increases in federal funding to extend the hours of daycare facilities and a guaranteed minimum annual income for families. She was a fierce defender of federal assistance for education, serving as a primary backer of a national school lunch bill and leading her colleagues in overriding President Gerald R. Ford's veto on this measure. However, Chisholm did not view herself as a "lawmaker, an innovator in the field of legislation"; in her efforts to address the needs of the "have–nots," she often chose to work outside the established system. At times she criticized the Democratic leadership in Congress as much as she did the Republicans in the White House. She was an explorer and a trailblazer rather than a legislative artisan.10

True to this approach, Chisholm declared her candidacy for the 1972 Democratic nomination for President, charging that none of the other candidates represented the interests of blacks and the inner–city poor. She campaigned across the country and succeeded in getting her name on 12 primary ballots, becoming as well known outside her Brooklyn neighborhood as she was in it. At the Democratic National Convention she received 152 delegate votes, or 10 percent of the total, a respectable showing given her modest funding. A 1974 Gallup Poll listed her as one of the top 10 most–admired women in America—ahead of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Coretta Scott King and tied with Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for sixth place.11 But while the presidential bid enhanced Chisholm's national profile, it also stirred controversy among her House colleagues. Chisholm's candidacy split the CBC. Many black male colleagues felt she had not consulted them or that she had betrayed the group's interests by trying to create a coalition of women, Hispanics, white liberals, and welfare recipients.12 Pervasive gender discrimination, Chisholm noted, cut across racial lines: "Black male politicians are no different from white male politicians. This ‘woman thing' is so deep. I've found it out in this campaign if I never knew it before."13 Her presidential campaign also strained relations with other women Members of Congress, particularly Bella Abzug of New York, who endorsed George McGovern instead of Chisholm.

By 1976, Chisholm faced a stiff challenge from within her own party primary by a longtime political rival, New York City Councilman Samuel D. Wright. Born and raised in Bedford–Stuyvesant, Wright was a formidable opponent who had represented Brooklyn in the New York assembly for a number of years before winning a seat on the city council. He criticized Chisholm for her absenteeism in the House, brought on by the rigors of her presidential campaign, and for a lack of connection with the district. Chisholm countered by playing on her national credentials and her role as a reformer of Capitol Hill culture. "I think my role is to break new ground in Congress," Chisholm noted. She insisted that her strength was in bringing legislative factions together. "I can talk with legislators from the South, the West, all over. They view me as a national figure and that makes me more acceptable."14 Two weeks later Chisholm turned back Wright and Hispanic political activist Luz Vega in the Democratic primary, winning 54 percent of the vote to Wright's 36 percent and Vega's 10 percent.15 She won the general election handily with 83 percent of the vote.16

From the late 1970s onward, Brooklyn Democrats speculated that Chisholm was losing interest in her House seat. Her name was widely floated as a possible candidate for several jobs related to education, including president of the City College of New York and chancellor of the New York City public school system.17 In 1982, Chisholm declined to seek re–election. "Shirley Chisholm would like to have a little life of her own," she told the Christian Science Monitor, citing personal reasons for her decision to leave the House; she wanted to spend more time with her second husband, Arthur Hardwick, Jr., a New York state legislator she had married about six months after divorcing Conrad Chisholm in 1977.18

Other reasons, too, factored into Chisholm's decision to leave the House. She had grown disillusioned over the conservative turn the country had taken with the election of President Ronald W. Reagan in 1980. Also, there were tensions with people on her side of the political fence, particularly African–American politicians who, she insisted, misunderstood her efforts to build alliances. While her rhetoric about racial inequality could be passionate at times, Chisholm's actions toward the white establishment in Congress were often conciliatory. Chisholm maintained that many members of the black community did not understand the need for negotiation with white politicians. "We still have to engage in compromise, the highest of all arts," Chisholm noted. "Blacks can't do things on their own, nor can whites. When you have black racists and white racists it is very difficult to build bridges between communities."19

After leaving Congress in January 1983, Chisholm helped cofound the National Political Congress of Black Women and campaigned for Jesse Jackson's presidential bids in 1984 and 1988. She also taught at Mt. Holyoke College in 1983. Though nominated as U.S. Ambassador to Jamaica by President William J. Clinton, Chisholm declined due to ill health. She settled in Palm Coast, Florida, where she wrote and lectured, and died on January 1, 2005, in Ormond Beach, Florida.

Footnotes

1Susan Brownmiller, "This Is Fighting Shirley Chisholm," 13 April 1969, New York Times: SM32.

2Brownmiller, "This Is Fighting Shirley Chisholm."

3John Kifner, "G.O.P. Names James Farmer for Brooklyn Race for Congress," 20 May 1968, New York Times: 34; John Kifner, "Farmer and Woman in Lively Bedford–Stuyvesant Race," 26 October 1968, NewYork Times: 22.

4Shirley Washington, Outstanding Women in Congress (Washington, DC: U.S. Capitol Historical Society, 1995): 17.

5"Election Statistics, 1920 to Present," available at http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

6In November 1970, George W. Collins of Illinois won a special election to the remainder of the 91st Congress (1969–1971), bringing the House total to 10 black Members.

7Current Biography, 1969 (New York: H. W. Wilson and Company, 1969): 94; Hope Chamberlin, A Minority of Members: Women in Congress (New York: Praeger, 1973): 325.

8Karen Foerstel, Biographical Dictionary of Congressional Women (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999): 56.

9Jane Perlez, "Rep. Chisholm's Angry Farewell," 12 October 1982, New York Times: A24.

10Marcy Kaptur, Women of Congress: A Twentieth–Century Odyssey (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1996): 150–151; seealso Shirley Chisholm, Unbought and Unbossed (Boston: HoughtonMifflin, 1970): 70, 112.

11"The Gallup Poll: Meir, Betty Ford Are Most Admired," 2 January 1975, Washington Post: B3.

12Kaptur, Women of Congress: 150; William L. Clay, Sr., Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1991 (New York: Amistad Press, 1993): 222.

13Karen Foerstel and Herbert Foerstel, Climbing the Hill: Gender Conflict in Congress (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996): 30.

14Charlayne Hunter, "Chisholm–Wright Feud in Brooklyn Is Eroding Blacks' Political Power," 20 March 1976, New York Times: 24; Ronald Smothers, "Rep. Chisholm Battling Wright in Showdown Race in Brooklyn," 30 August 1976, New York Times: 26; Ronald Smothers, "Wright, Mrs. Chisholm Trade Charges in Face–to–Face Debate in Brooklyn," 3 September 1976, New York Times: A14.

15"Voting in Primaries for U.S. House and State Legislature," 16 September 1976, New York Times: 34.

16"Election Statistics, 1920 to Present," available at http://clerk.house.gov/member_info/electionInfo/index.aspx.

17Marcia Chambers, "School Post Weighed for Mrs. Chisholm," 18 February 1978, New York Times: B13; Samuel Weiss, "Rep. Chisholm Is a Candidate for College Job," 19 February 1981, New York Times: B12.

18Julia Malone, "Advice From Retiring Insiders on Shaping Better Congress," 3 November 1982, Christian Science Monitor: 1.

19Malone, "Advice From Retiring Insiders on Shaping Better Congress."

View Record in the Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress

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External Research Collections

Rutgers University Library
Special Collections and University Archives

New Brunswick, NJ
Papers: 1963-1994, approximately 3.7 cubic feet. The papers of Shirley Chisholm consist of speeches, 1971-1989, on a wide variety of topics; congressional files, 1965-1981, composed primarily of complimentary letters received and presidential campaign materials; general files, 1966-1986, consisting chiefly of biographical materials, including information on Shirley Chisholm's record in Congress; newspaper clippings, 1969-1990, in the form of editorials written by Shirley Chisholm, as well as coverage of her speeches, writings and retirement; constituent newsletters, 1969-1982, complemented by selected press releases; photographs (including photocopies and other reproductions), 1969-1990, many of which depict Shirley Chisholm with other political figures; publications, 1969-1992, with additional coverage of Shirley Chisholm's political career and her retirement; and campaign miscellany, 1969 and 1972, including buttons from her presidential campaign and political posters. Also included in the collection are papers, 1963-1985 (bulk 1980-1984), of Shirley Chisholm's aide Robert Frishman.
Papers: In the New Democratic Coalition of New York Records, 1960-1978, 49 cubic feet. Persons represented include Shirley Chisholm.

Brooklyn College
Library and Special Collections

Brooklyn, NY
Papers: 1968-2003 (bulk), 17 boxes (8.5 cubic feet). This small collection of material regarding Shirley Chisholm includes photographs, several boxes of research and reference materials as well as selects/interviews which took place during the period when Ms. Chisholm ran for President of the United States in 1972. There are also interviews relative to Ms. Chisholm’s run for President in 1972. In addition, there are film clips from assorted databases as well as screening notes from 1971-72 and some stock footage on the Chisholm Project. This collection also includes several boxes of transcripts mainly of interviews on or about Ms. Chisholm. In addition, there is a box of materials from Mr. James P. Pitts who was very proactive in helping Ms. Chisholm during her run for the presidency. Finally, in the miscellaneous listings there are books by or about Ms. Chisholm, newspaper clippings, articles, fliers, pamphlets and some correspondence.

Columbia University
Rare Book and Manuscript Library

New York, NY
Papers: In the Bella Abzug Papers, 1970-1976, approximately 554,100 items. Correspondents include Shirley Chisholm.
Papers: In the Howard J. Samuels Papers, 1970, 1 item. Correspondents include Shirley Chisholm.

Howard University
Moorland-Spingarn Research Center

Washington, DC
Oral History: In the In the Ralph J. Bunche Oral History Collection, 1973, 30 pages. The interview with Shirley Chisholm on May 2, 1973 includes comments on her initial political involvement, discussion on the failures of the National Black Political Convention and its leaders, Delegate Fauntroy's promise to deliver candidacy votes for Shirley Chisholm from the District of Columbia delegates, support she received from common people, her retirement from politics, how her involvement with the Women's Liberation Movement has been misconstrued, and the corruption permeating the American political system.

Library of Congress
Archive of Folk Culture, American Folklife Center

Washington, DC
Oral History: In the National Visionary Leadership Project, 1997-2003, amount unknown. Interviewees include Shirley Chisholm. Excerpts of the interviews are available online: http://www.visionaryproject.org/chisholmshirley/.

Library of Congress
Manuscript Division

Washington, DC
Papers: In the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) Records, ca. 1943-1991, 93,350 items. Correspondents include Shirley Chisholm.

New York University
The Taminent Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

New York, NY
Papers: In the National Organization for Women New York City Records, ca. 1966-1984, 11 linear feet. Correspondents include Shirley Chisholm.

Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
Schlesinger Library

Cambridge, MA
Papers: In the Dolores Alexander Papers, 1960-1973, 4 linear feet. Subjects include Shirley Chisholm.
Papers: In the Mary Bancroft Papers, ca. 1872-1997, 10.5 linear feet. Subjects include Shirley Chisholm.
Papers: In the Betty Friedan Papers, 1933-1993, 94 linear feet. Subjects include Shirley Chisholm.
Papers: In the Patricia Gold Papers, 1964-1990, 1.25 linear feet. The collection documents the presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm.
Photographs: In the Diana Mara Henry Photographs, 1969-1976, 49 folders and 1 oversize folder. Subjects include Shirley Chisholm.
Papers: In the 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women (U.S.) Records, 1972-1986, 28.5 linear feet. Subjects include Shirley Chisholm.
Papers: In the National Organization of Women (NOW) Officers Papers, 1966-1981, 3 linear feet. Subjects include Shirley Chisholm.

Stanford University Libraries
Department of Special Collections

Stanford, CA
Videocassette: In the Associated Students of Stanford University Speakers Bureau Collection, 1986, 1 videocassette. The videocassette contains an event when Shirley Chisholm spoke at Stanford University on the observance of Martin Luther King, Jr's, birthday. Topics included the political and racial situation in South Africa, U. S. politics, and the 1960s.

Temple University Libraries
Urban Archives

Philadelphia, PA
Photographs: In the Fellowship Commission Photographs, 1946-1985, 2.5 linear feet. Noted personalities include Shirley Chisholm.

Transylvania University
Special Collections, Library

Lexington, KY
Papers: In the Activities Files, 1889-1994, 8 cubic feet, and 15 videotapes. The collection also includes videotapes of the Kenan Lecture Series which is held at Transylvania. Among the noted national figures who have participated is Shirley Chisholm.

University of Pennsylvania
Special Collections, Van Pelt Library

Philadelphia, PA
Papers: In the Marian Anderson Papers, 1972, 1 item. Correspondents include Shirley Chisholm.

Western Kentucky University
Department of Library Special Collections, University Archives, Helm Library-100

Bowling Green, KY
Papers: In the Audiotapes, 1963-1980, 500 audiotapes. Among the guest lecturers taped at Western is Shirley Chisholm.
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Bibliography / Further Reading

Anderson, Delores Joan. "Black Women and Politics: Intersectionality of Race and Gender and the Transformative Production of Knowledge in Political Science." Ph.D. diss., The Union Institute, 2000.

Barnwell, Cherron Annette. "The Dialogics of Self in the Autobiographies of African-American Public Women: Ida B. Wells, Shirley Chisholm, Angela Davis and Anita Hill." Ph.D. diss., Howard University, 2002.

Brownmiller, Susan. Shirley Chisholm. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1970.

Canas, Kathryn Anne. "Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm, and Lani Guinier: Crafting Identification Through the Rhetorical Interbraiding of Value." Ph.D. diss., The University of Utah, 2002.

Chisholm, Shirley. The Good Fight. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.

___. Unbought and Unbossed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Duffy, Susan, comp. Shirley Chisholm: A Bibliography of Writings by and About Her. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1988.

Falk, Erika A. "Women, Press, and the Presidency." Ph.D., diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2001.

Gallagher, Julie A. "Women of Action, In Action: The New Politics of Black Women in New York City, 1944-1972." Ph.D. diss., University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2003.

Haskins, James. Fighting Shirley Chisholm. Los Angeles: Dutton Books, 1975.

Hicks, Nancy. The Honorable Shirley Chisholm: Congresswoman From Brooklyn. New York: Lion Books, 1971.

Marshall-White, Eleanor. Women: Catalysts For Change; Interpretive Biographies of Shirley St. Hill Chisholm, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Nancy Landon Kassebaum. New York: Vantage Press, 1991.

Ralph Nader Congress Project. Citizens Look at Congress: Shirley Chisholm, Democratic Representative from New York. Washington, D. C.: Grossman Publishers, 1972.

Scheader, Catherine. Shirley Chisholm: Teacher and Congresswoman. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1990.

"Shirley Anita Chisholm" in Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2008.

"Shirley Anita Chisholm" in Women in Congress, 1917-2006. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2006.

Williamson, Dorothy Kay. "Rhetorical Analysis of Selected Modern Black American Spokepersons on the Women's Liberation Movement." Ph.D., diss., The Ohio State University, 1980.

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Committee Assignments

  • House Committee - Education and Labor
  • House Committee - Rules
  • House Committee - Veterans' Affairs
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