The Women in History: Shirley Chisholm

"At present, our country needs women’s idealism and determination, perhaps more in politics than anywhere else"

-Shirley Chisholm

Photo from Don Hogan Charles/New York Times Co./Getty Images

Shirley Chisholm was a New York State Assembly member, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, the first Black candidate for a major party's nomination for President of the United State, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. She was therefore the first woman to appear in a United States presidential debate.

Born in Brooklyn, NY in 1924, Shirley grew up in an immigrant and politically active household. She was sent to her parents’ home of Barbados for five years to live with her grandmother, and upon her return to America in 1934, Shirley began to attend school. She received her Bachelor of Artsfrom Brooklyn College in 1946; there, she advocated for integration in the military and the inclusion of women in establishments like student government. Chisholm later attended Teachers College at Columbia University and earned her MA in elementary education in 1952.

After volunteering with various political organizations- including Brooklyn Democratic Clubs, the League of Women Voters, and the Unity Democratic Club- Shirley ran for a seat in the New York state assembly in 1964, and won by a landslide. Chisholm was elected as the Democratic National Committeewoman from New York State in August 1968.

In 1968, Shirley ran for the U.S. House from New York's 12th congressional district, and won in an upset; she was the only woman in the freshman class that year. There, she served on the House Agricultural Committee, the Veterans' Affairs Committee, and the Education and Labor Committee. In 1971, Chisholm was a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women's Political Caucus. Throughout her years in Congress, Shirley worked to increase funding for education, health care, and child care. She opposed the involvement in the Vietnam War and supported reducing military spending.

In 1971, Shirley began her campaign for president with the slogan “Unbought and Unbossed.”While it was underfunded and not many people took her seriously, Chisholm paved the way for future Black and female presidential candidates. She received 152 delegates, but finished fourth at the Democratic convention.

Chisholm retired from Congress in 1982, after serving as the Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus for four years. She dedicated the rest of her life to education and activism. In 1990, she helped form the African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom.

Shirley Chisholm died on January 1, 2005. In 2015, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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