First clue: She was unbought and unbossed!
Shirley Chisholm is one of the most notable and pioneering figures in Black history. Passing away less than two decades ago, Chisholm’s work in civil rights, gender rights, and diversity and inclusion had a direct impact on the political arena we see today. A stalwart for justice and equality, Chisholm broke significant barriers to afford us the freedoms we take for granted today.
A Brooklyn native, Chisholm was the oldest of four born to Charles St. Hill, a factory worker, and Ruby Seale St. Hill, a seamstress. Armed with the wisdom of her upbringing and a dogged commitment to self, Chisholm never allowed herself to be boxed in by labels, embodying the unbought and unbossed mentality. She believed strongly in women holding the keys to our future and never shied away from saying so.
“It is not female egotism to say that the future of mankind may very well be ours to determine. It is a fact. The warmth, gentleness, and compassion that are part of the female stereotype are positive human values, values that are becoming more and more important as the values of our world begin to shatter and fall from our grasp,” explained Chisholm.
By sheer determination, she created worlds that were not deemed possible. It was her denial of the world’s state of affairs that gave her permission to occupy those spaces never touched by Black women, and she was adamant about doing it scared, unsure, and with no road map solely so others, particularly Black women, would know it could be done.
“I ran for the presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo… to give a voice to the people the major candidates were ignoring. What I hope most is that now there will be others who will feel themselves as capable of running for high political office as any wealthy, good-looking, white male,” Chisholm once said.
A political force to be reckoned with, Chisholm may very well be one of the most progressive liberals of her time. She was committed to taking action, having a seat at every table she came across, and spreading her ideas across the nation as an author, educator, and lecturer.
“You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas,” said Chisholm.
In honor of her life and legacy, here is everything you need to know about Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman in Congress:
Shirley Chisholm was born on November 24, 1924, the daughter of immigrant parents from Guyana and Barbados.
She grew up between Brooklyn and Barbados, graduating cum laude with a bachelor’s in sociology from Brooklyn College.
In 1952, she earned her master’s in early childhood education from Columbia University.
Chisholm served as an educational consultant for New York City’s division of daycare from 1959 to 1964.
She was inspired to run for political office after the redistricting of her Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood.
Chisholm ran a campaign for all people, focusing heavily on gender equality and issues important to marginalized communities. Her “Unbought and Unbossed” slogan was a source of contention with many men, Black and white alike.
In 1965, she was elected to the New York State Legislature, making history as the second African-American woman to serve in Albany.
On January 3, 1969, she was sworn in as the nation’s first Black Congresswoman.
In 1971, Chisholm became one of 13 founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
In 1972, she made history as the first Black woman to run as the Democratic nominee for President, getting her name on 12 primary ballots and receiving 152 delegate votes, or 10% of the total at the Democratic National Convention.
In 1974, Gallup named Chisholm one of 10 most admired women in America, ranking above Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Coretta Scott King.
She was co-founder of the National Political Congress of Black Women.
Chisholm served 7 terms in Congress, becoming a leader on issues of anti-poverty and educational advocacy and reform policy.
The Brooklyn native was a vocal supporter of Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential bids.
Chisholm served as a professor at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
She passed away on January 1, 2005, in Florida at the age of 80.
In 2015, Chisholm was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
Brooklyn announced the opening of Shirley Chisholm State Park in 2019, the largest park in the state of New York.
“Shirley Chisholm fought to improve the health and wellness of underserved communities, a legacy we are carrying on through the Vital Brooklyn Initiative, so we are proud to dedicate this park in memory of her leadership and accomplishments,” said former NY Governor Andrew Cuomo during the park’s ribbon cutting ceremony.
In 2019, Chisholm’s old office in Congress became occupied by Ayanna Pressley, the first Black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress, who also took the oath of office on the same day that Shirley Chisholm did in 1969.
"Shirley Chisholm has been a shero of mine since I was a girl. Her commitment to fighting injustice and lifting up the voices of the disenfranchised is an inspiration and an example I hope to follow. I am humbled to occupy the same space she did on Capitol Hill,” said Pressley.
In 2021, legislation was introduced to honor Chisholm with a statue in the State Capitol.
She is the subject of a litany of documentaries and films, including a new Netflix movie starring actress Regina King as Chisholm.
Her primary focus was to be a catalyst for change.
"When I die, I want to be remembered as a woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be a catalyst of change. I don’t want to be remembered as the first Black woman who went to Congress. And I don’t even want to be remembered as the first woman who happened to be Black to make the bid for the presidency. I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the 20th century. That’s what I want.”
This day and every day, we salute the life and light of Shirley Chisholm. Because of her, we can!
Everything you need to know about Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman in Congress. Photo Courtesy of Charles Gorry/Associated Press