Politics Spotlight: Shirley Chisholm

In which a Brooklyn baby goes for it

We’re jumping about a century forward from last week to celebrate a trailblazing figure in American politics. I have no doubt her name popped up in my AP U.S. History textbook, but by this point in the timeline we were glossing over a lot of things as we raced to prepare for the exam. No, there’s nothing wrong with our public education system, why do you ask?

Shirley Chisholm was a big one. The first Black Congresswoman and the first of both those demographics to seek the presidential nomination. As she lived from 30 November 1924 to New Year’s Day 2005, she witnessed and participated in a goodly number of pivotal moments in modern American history—and at least a couple of those moments were due to her.

Born Shirley St. Hill in Brooklyn to a Guyanese factory worker and a Barbadian seamstress, she studied at Brooklyn College and excelled on the debate team, prompting her professors to nudge her toward a political career. But she didn’t think the field held any serious prospects for a Black woman; understandable, considering Jim Crow practices in both legislation and general society had reached deadly heights in the ‘40s. Instead she taught preschool, along the way marrying Conrad Chisholm (a private investigator with the apt middle initial Q) and earning a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education from Columbia.

Throughout the ‘50s she was drawn into politics anyway, keeping her finger on the pulse of the burgeoning national civil rights movement and getting directly involved on the education front—she served as a consultant to the New York City Division of Day Care and became active at the Democratic Party club in her neighborhood of Bed-Stuy. By 1964 she was the second African-American in the New York State Legislature, and four years later she won a seat in Congress. There she championed all the major causes, and there were several competing for first priority: environmental regulation, racial and gender equity, redistribution of wealth, an end to the Vietnam War. And, like another Black icon of the era, she did it while rocking some spectacles.

She made such an impression that in 1972 she campaigned for the presidency. While her platform of ideas garnered enthusiastic support in theory, she came nowhere near the nomination, getting 152 of the delegates’ votes, or about ten percent of the total. But this can’t be a shock given that she was barred from the primary debates and allowed only one televised address. Her campaign was considered essentially symbolic. You’re telling me the majority of voters passed up this voice for four more years of Nixon?! Whatever, man. (Anyway, they only got two.)

Even having shot for the moon, as the saying goes, she landed among the stars: writing a book, co-founding the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971, and going on to serve as the second woman (and first Black woman) on the House Rules Committee in 1977. That year she also ditched Chisholm—though she kept his name—and married Arthur Hardwick, Jr., a fellow New York State legislator.

In 1983 she ended her congressional career and returned to teaching, this time at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She maintained her co-founding streak by forming the National Political Congress of Black Women. In 1991 she was offered an ambassadorship to Jamaica but turned it down for health reasons and lived out the rest of her life in Florida. She is buried at Forest Lawn, which is okay compensation for not having been elected President.

I’m inclined to think much of America would sadly be no more receptive to Chisholm had she come along today as opposed to fifty years ago. But many of the issues she pushed have gained traction in the mainstream and are prioritized now the way they should have been then. And her presence paved the way for greater diversity of representation in all three branches of the federal government.

And did I mention the glasses!

Image: The New York Times

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti (she/her) lives in Berlin with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. She co-hosts and produces the music commentary podcast POD SOUNDS. Her free time goes toward dancing, reading books new and old, drawing cartoons, taking city walks, and devoting too much thought to the foibles of her heroes. Connect with her on Instagram (@c_m_giglio, @ceciliagphotography, @pod_sounds_podcast) and see what else she's up to (linktr.ee/ceciliagigliotti).

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