Fifty years ago this month, Shirley Chisholm, the charismatic and outspoken Brooklyn educator and politician, made history when she became the first African-American woman to serve in Congress. Small in stature, but with a larger-than-life persona, “Fighting Shirley” was a tireless advocate for her constituents, quotable and stylish and unyielding. Chisholm encapsulated the resolve of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and brought national attention to the issues she championed.
Beyond the headlines and iconic reputation she built across party lines, the New York Representative had to fight just as hard within the House for the causes she supported. Run by an old guard resistant to change, the House in the late 1960s was not the most welcoming of institutions to new Members. But Chisholm’s political career embodied a spirit of independence and her 1968 campaign slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed,” challenged the status quo. During her initial run for Congress, Chisholm proudly remarked, “I have always spoken out for what I believe: I cannot be controlled.”
She followed through on this mantra, making waves upon her arrival at the Capitol. Advised to wait patiently and keep quiet during her first term—a longstanding expectation for new Members—the Brooklyn Representative rebelled when she learned that Wilbur Mills of Arkansas, who oversaw committee selections as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, assigned her to the Agriculture Committee which had little jurisdiction over the policy interests of her Brooklyn constituents. “All I’m asking for is something more relevant than Agriculture,” Chisholm maintained.
After making a spirited plea for reassignment—which included an appeal to Speaker John McCormack, prepared remarks to the Democratic Caucus, and interviews with the press—the persistent Chisholm found a new home on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee where she influenced important policy as more and more Americans fought in the Vietnam War. Although some characterized her refusal to abide by the established rules as “political suicide” and “grandstanding,” Chisholm’s power play did more than draw attention to her determination to buck the establishment. It emphasized her understanding of the connection between relevant committee assignments and legislative success.
In her second term, Chisholm joined the Education and Labor Committee, a logical fit given her background as an educator. Chisholm won a place on the panel with the help of Hale Boggs of Louisiana, whom she had endorsed as Majority Leader—a testament to the New York Representative’s ability to strategize and work within the system to achieve her goals. This assignment provided Chisholm with a megaphone to push for more federal funding for daycare centers and improve educational opportunities for her impoverished district.
The media devoted much attention to Shirley Chisholm’s historic run for President in 1972. Impatient with the slow pace of change for minorities and the poor, she entered the race for the Democratic nomination. Although she failed to win the nomination, her campaign generated support far beyond her Brooklyn-based district, and it ensured that the Democratic platform addressed civil rights, women’s rights, and the need to combat inner-city poverty.
Back in the House, Chisholm continued to amass influence in the institution. But unlike her presidential bid, her work on the Hill often received less fanfare. In the 95th Congress (1977–1979), she bolstered her status in the House by earning a seat on the powerful Rules Committee. “I think it was because of my ability to work with different groups and because I’m articulate and rather persuasive,” Chisholm mused as to why Democratic leadership chose her for the coveted spot. Even though she had to relinquish her prized seat on Education and Labor (a requirement of serving on Rules), Chisholm jumped at the opportunity to make history as the first African-American woman on the Rules Committee. When outside supporters voiced concerns about her decision to leave Education and Labor, she pointed out that on Rules she would hold more “clout” and that she could work to bring legislation to the floor “having to do with people who’ve been rather voiceless and powerless.”
While Chisholm traversed the nation speaking on behalf of African Americans, she also recognized the potential of her position in the institution, including her spot on Rules, to promote civil rights. “If my voice was not on that committee, there would be a lot of things that would get out that would adversely affect black people,” she later observed.
Chisholm’s ability to work within the institution influenced Democratic leadership elections. In 1976, the New York delegation devised a plan to nominate one of its own Members to run for chair of the Democratic Caucus. Representative Herman Badillo nominated Shirley Chisholm to challenge then-Agriculture Committee chairman (and future Speaker of the House) Tom Foley of Washington. Badillo’s choice surprised some colleagues who worried Chisholm lacked the votes to take on Foley; others sensed that Chisholm would not stay in Congress long enough to work her way up the leadership ladder as often happened with elected party positions.
Chisholm accepted the nomination which she aptly characterized as an “uphill fight” imploring the New York delegation to support her candidacy “with vigor, enthusiasm and true commitment.” By the time she entered the leadership race, however, Foley already had ample support for his candidacy ensuring his victory, 194 votes to Chisholm’s 96 votes. Chisholm nevertheless went on to serve on the leadership team as the Democratic Caucus Secretary from 1977 to 1981, giving her another opportunity to push for a domestic agenda that would help minorities and her urban district.
As shown by her selection to the Rules Committee and her position in the Democratic leadership, Chisholm knew how to build coalitions. She possessed sharp political instincts, even if they were not always respected at the time. As a lifelong advocate for civil rights, for example, many people, including those in the black community, denounced her decision to visit Alabama Governor George Wallace, an avowed opponent of desegregation, after he had been shot during a campaign stop in 1972. At the time of the assassination attempt, Chisholm and Wallace both were seeking the Democratic nomination for President. Chisholm defended her decision to visit Wallace noting that all the other presidential candidates did the same and that she told him “I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.” Wallace understood the risk Chisholm took and greatly appreciated the gesture. He later repaid the favor when Chisholm reached out to her unlikely new ally when working to gather support to extend minimum-wage coverage to domestic workers, who were not included in the wage protections guaranteed in the original Fair Labor Standards Act. “Many of the Southerners did not want to make the vote,” she recalled. But after Wallace intervened on her behalf she observed that some Members who had been opposed to the policy had a change of heart and backed the bill.
From the time of her election in 1968, Chisholm rose to “instant celebrity” status on the Hill. One of only 10 African-American Representatives in the 91st Congress, and the first black woman in either the House or the Senate, Chisholm never strayed far from the public eye. Although the media attention helped her pursue a national platform, it also meant she felt pressure to represent women and minorities from across the country.
Alongside this expanded role, Chisholm continued to serve her constituents, and used her position to help her diverse Brooklyn district which experienced high rates of poverty. The New York Representative returned home to meet with constituents and discuss local issues every Friday. “I find myself constantly having to mediate because I have a multifaceted, complex district,” Chisholm explained. High unemployment rates cast a shadow over her representation in Congress. “When I go home on weekends, eight out of 10 people say, ‘I am not interested in what legislation you put in this week, I am not interested Shirley, I want a job. I want something to do.’ ” Her efforts to solve this problem and the “abuse” she received because of it placed an additional burden on a Member already facing extraordinary expectations from her district, as well as national civil rights leaders.
Chisholm died in 2005, but her legacy as a leader and a trailblazer had been ensured long before. “I do things that need to be done, that others don’t have the guts, stamina or audacity to do,” Chisholm once said about her fearless political philosophy. Throughout her seven terms in Congress she walked the line between pushing for change outside of the institution and working within the system to achieve her goals. A natural disrupter, Chisholm found success—albeit more quietly—building alliances and using shrewd strategies to make the most of her position in the House.
Sources: Congressional Record, House, 93rd Cong., 1st sess. (1 May 1973): 13846–13847; Atlanta Constitution, 7 May 1972; Baltimore Afro-American, 8 January 2005; Baltimore Sun, 31 January 1969; Christian Science Monitor, 24 December 1968; Los Angeles Times, 6 December 1976; New York Times, 26 October 1968, 30 January 1969, 13 April 1969, 22 May 1970, 23 July 1976, 19 January 1977, 11 February 1982, 12 October 1982; The Skanner (Portland, OR), 30 April 1980; Washington Post, 11 October 1968, 30 January 1969, 14 May 1972, 6 June 1982, 4 January 2005; Catherine Scheader, Shirley Chisholm: Teacher and Congresswoman (Hillsdale, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1990); Shirley Chisholm, The Good Fight (New York: Harper & Row, 1973).Follow @USHouseHistory