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Shirley Chisholm: ‘Unbought and unbossed’

Introduction

Though the U.S has yet to have a woman president, the presence of women in the political arena is a powerful statement regarding the ongoing fight for gender equality. 

Explanation

Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman to serve in Congress in the United States. She was also the first African-American woman candidate to run for the presidency. Her commitment to political reform served as invaluable representation for women of color in the country. 

Shirley Chisholm

Chisholm was born on November 30, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York. She was the daughter of immigrants; her father a Guyanese factory worker and her mother a seamstress from Barbados. Chisholm attended both the Brooklyn Girls’ High School and Brooklyn College, and received a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Columbia University. The community wherein her identity was forged was also the stage for her political debut: In 1964, she was elected to the state legislature in New York.

The History

Before getting into politics, Chisholm was a committed educator. After earning her B.A. in Sociology from Brooklyn College, she became a nursery school teacher. Later on, she was promoted to Director of two different daycare centers. In 1959, she made a big step forward in her career, joining the New York City's Division of Day Care as an educational consultant. 

Her involvement in education issues was core to her understanding of the systemic discrimination that marginalized communities faced. Being a Black woman, she was very aware of these injustices. Having been a part of local political organizations, like the Brooklyn Democratic Club, she decided to run for a seat in the New York General Assembly, where she served from 1964 to 1968. Her vast achievements in education and women's issues did not go unnoticed. She was one of the main individuals behind passing a bill that would provide unemployment insurance for domestic workers. She also presented a bill to provide daycare centers with state aid, continuing her lifelong battle for equal educational services. 

Shirley Chisholm's work in the N.Y General Assembly was significant in making her a popular political figure in her community, known as an advocate for the rights of disempowered civilians. When she ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968, she kept those values in mind. She connected with her community as no other candidate did, based on her theory that she needed to let "people feel [her]" in order to win. She spoke in Spanish to the Latin American people in her District. She campaigned in a truck in every neighborhood, constantly stopping by to strengthen her relationship with all voters. This gave her an advantage against running contestant James Farmer, a liberal Republican who said that "women have been in the driver's seat" for too long, thus emphasizing his sexist ideals. Chisholm utilized such sexist remarks to explain the sexism that existed in politics, and how qualified she was to fight it. She won and became the first Black woman elected to Congress, where she would serve seven terms, until 1982. 

As a congresswoman, Chisholm was not afraid to speak her mind; she stated from the beginning that she had “no intention of just sitting quietly and observing." Her years in Congress were filled with progressive and liberal outspokenness that many other political figures did not like coming from a woman. This included her early stance against the Vietnam War in 1969, the year she was elected. She voted “no” against any proposed defense appropriation bill. She firmly believed that a larger budget for social programs catered to women, children, and other marginalized communities, was way more beneficial than spending more budget on the War. 

As expected, her fight was prominent in the women's rights movement, and her position in Congress led to the creation of key structural change. Chisholm played an instrumental role in implementing the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), a program that "provides federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income women", and also in advocating for the Equal Rights Amendments and Title IX. In 1966, she was one of the main leaders behind the creation of the National Organization for Women, and in 1971, she was the co-founder of the National Women's Political Caucus. 

In 1972, she declared in a notorious speech that she was a candidate for president. She told Americans that she was “not the candidate of any political bosses or special interests. [She was] the candidate of the people,” only reaffirming what she had shown throughout her political career in Congress. Her motto: “Unbought and unbossed.” 

America was not ready for a Black female president, and her campaign was both not taken seriously and underfunded. It was mainly “symbolic.” Her candidacy represented a threat to the men, both White and Black, especially because of Shirley’s continuous support to the women’s cause and the poor. Throughout this campaign, she would encounter sexism at alarming levels, about which she would later say that "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." What was more surprising was the lack of support she received from her White feminist sisters, especially Bella Abzug, who was very outspoken about endorsing George McGovern instead. 

Apart from blatant sexism, Chisholm had to overcome many other barriers. She even had to take legal action to be allowed to speak at debates, challenging the prominent discrimination in American society. However, her underfinanced campaign allowed her to get 152 delegates. Though she failed to earn the nomination, her campaign was seen as hope for a more equitable future in which people of all genders and races could actively construct a more just society. 

After retiring from Congress, she became a professor at Mount Holyoke College, and a visiting professor at Spelman College, still committed to advance the education of women. She also founded the National Political Congress of Black Women. 

A few years before passing away in 2005, Chisholm said that she “wanted to be remembered as a woman … who dared to be a catalyst of change.” And indeed, she was. 

Why Care?

Shirley Chisholm was behind many of the progressive, anti-sexist laws that exist in the United States today. However, when discussing the rise of feminism and feminist policy in the 1960s and 70s, little is said about her role; people give credit to her White feminist sisters instead. Understanding her political career, as well as her long term commitment to education, is core to acknowledging the great contributions that women of color have provided to society, and that have been erased from history books and classrooms.

As it was said earlier, we have yet to have a woman president, let alone a woman president of color. Giving attention to the bravery of Shirley Chisholm in fighting against sexism and racism as a Black woman is important in understanding why, even today, women struggle to get to such positions. Much of the hate and discrimination that Chisholm faced still exists. In order to fully uplift the voices and political careers of women of color, we need to recognize their struggles.

Think Further

  1. Many people say that Shirley Chisholm’s campaign for presidency was “symbolic.” What do you think they mean and why?
  2. Shirley Chisholm’s political stances were considered controversial. Why? Do you think they would be considered controversial today, too?
  3. What would be the outcome if Shirley Chisholm ran for president today? Would it be easier, or equally challenging? Would she be taken more seriously?

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  1. 2019 Belongs to Shirley Chisholm. (2019, July 12). Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/06/sunday-review/shirley-chisholm-monument-film.html
  2. First but not the Last: Women Who Ran for President – National Women’s History Museum. (2019). Retrieved June 4, 2020, from https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/zAJim2pJexmPJw
  3. Michals, Debra. “Shirley Chisholm.” National Women’s History Museum. National Women’s History Museum, 2015. 
  4. 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.
  5. Scheader, Catherine. Shirley Chisholm: Teacher and Congresswoman. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1990.