Shirley Chisholm and Courage

Shirley Chisholm and Courage

by Barbara Winslow

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm (1924-2005) wanted to be know as a catalyst for change. She should be known as a catalyst for courage.

In 1968, Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to Congress and in 1972, the first African American to run for the presidency of the U.S. on a major party platform. Just think: In 1972, someone who looked like her dared to demand entrance into the all-white all boys club called the presidency of the United States. She did the unthinkable. It took another 38 years for her audacity of hope and courage to be realized.

Born of immigrant parents on November 25, 1924 in Brooklyns Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Chisholm spent seven years living with her Bajan grandmother. Those years instilled in this young girl the courage she displayed throughout her life. A sociology major at Brooklyn College and interested in politics, she was not allowed to participate in the college’s Democratic Club. As a result, she founded the Harriet Tubman Club, allowing African American college students to participate in politics. Graduating cum laude, she pursued a Master’s Degree in Early Childhood Education (one of the few professions open to African American women at the time) and then ran a childcare center for two years.

Chisholm became one of the few black women involved in the all white and all-male 17th District Democratic Club in Brooklyn, and in 1964, was elected to the New York State Assembly. Again, she had the courage to buck the entrenched and overwhelmingly white male leadership. It was there that Chisholm decided that she would not necessarily follow the ‘party line,’ but be her own boss. “Unbought and Unbossed,” became her political mantra. [See the On The Issues Magazine video interview of of Chisholm filmmaker, Shola Lynch.]

An extraordinary successful legislator, and the only female, she was most proud of the passage of SEEK (Seek Education, Empowerment and Knowledge), which provided financial and education assistance for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, along with passage of New York State’s first unemployment insurance for domestic workers, an end to legal discrimination against pregnant teachers and provisions for state aid to day care centers.

In 1968 she made history as the first African American woman elected to Congress. She became the first and only African American woman in a very male, very white, and very time-warped Congress, where members treated her either as a freak, a pesky gadfly, or someone to be dismissed.

Undeterred, but again demonstrating the courage of her convictions, Chisholm shook up the Democratic establishment. In her first two terms in Congress she was not afraid to speak her mind. Her first speech in Congress was an impassioned plea to end the U.S. war against Vietnam and she pledged (and kept her pledge) to vote against any bill that provided funds to the Department of Defense. An avowed feminist, a founder of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), the National Woman’s Political Caucus and member of the National Organization for Women (NOW), she challenged the argument voiced by some in the Black Freedom movement that abortion and birth control were genocide. She was never deferential to male leaders — white or black and said, “of my two ‘handicaps, being female put more obstacles in my path than being black.”

In 1972 Chisholm announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. In spite of the obstacles that only she faced, Chisholm managed to get on the ballot in six states and to come the national Democratic convention with 150 ballots. Her campaign galvanized hundreds of thousands of young people in a movement that transcended traditional party politics. Many of her supporters today will tell you that only the campaign of Barack Obama had such a transformative impact.

From 1972 until 1986, her tenure in Congress focused solely on serving her constituents, and less on the national and international stage. Writing about her candidacy in a book, The Good Fight, Chisholm said, “what I hope now is that there will be others who will feel themselves as capable of running for high political office as any wealthy, good-looking white male.” It took 38 years, but Chisholm’s courage opened the way for Obama’s victory.

July 24,2009

Barbara Winslow is the Coordinator of the Womens Studies Program at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York and Director the Shirley Chisholm Project of Brooklyn Women’s Activism, 1945 to the Present. She can be reached at [email protected].

Also see “Filmmaker Shola Lynch Talks about Shirley Chisholm and Unbought and Unbossed, a video interview in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See Judith Arcana, Grace Paley and Nimah I. Nawwab speak of truth and rebellion in The Poets Eye, edited by co-poetry editor Clare Coss, in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.