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Who Was Shirley Chisholm?

In 2020, Senator Kamala Harris of California was chosen to be former Vice President Joe Biden’s running mate. She becomes the first Black woman and first person of Indian descent to be on a major party ticket. Many women, especially women of color, have paved the way for Harris and it would be unfair to credit one person over another. However, an important person to start with is the groundbreaking Shirley Chisholm.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1924, Chisholm (then Shirley St. Hill) was the daughter of two immigrants from the Caribbean. She spent much of her early childhood living in Barbados with her grandmother. In 1946, she graduated from Brooklyn college, attracting attention and awards for her debating skills. Chisholm had grown up around politics as her father was politically active. She had also witnessed the power organized activism in Barbados. In college, she was part of the Harriet Tubman Society where she advocated for integration in the military during World War II, more classes focused on Black history, and more female involvement in student government. In 1949, she married Conrad O. Chisholm

She began her career as a teacher, working her way to becoming the director of several nursery schools. Her first foray into politics came when she worked to get Lewis Flagg Jr. to the bench, making him the first Black judge in Brooklyn. The group to get him elected morphed into the Belford-Stuyvesant Political League which promoted candidates that supported civil rights, fought housing discrimination, and pushed for economic opportunity. Chisholm eventually left the group, unsatisfied with the little say female members had. But her political involvement continued. She joined several political organizations, helping change their makeup by recruiting more members of color.

In 1964, Chisholm decided to run for office. She faced much resistance based on her sex but pushed through, using a strategy of getting out female voters. She won and served in the New York Assembly until 1968. In those few years, she managed to make many important changes. Chisholm pushed back against the state literacy test being in English only and succeeded in getting unemployment benefits extended to domestic workers. She worked on legislation that furthered education opportunities to disadvantaged students and helped put more Black members on key Assembly committees.

Then, she broke barriers in Congress. In 1968, she ran for Congress in New York’s 12th district. The district had been redrawn to cover much of her home Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. It resulted in the white incumbent seeking reelection in a different district, opening the door for Chisholm. She won and became the first Black woman to be elected to Congress. It took her beating two men in a primary. She then upset her opponent, another man, outpacing by a margin of two votes to one.

In Congress, she worked to expand many social services, changing the lives of countless Americans. She earned a seat on the Education and Labor Committee, eventually working her way up to the third highest ranking member. She broke more ground by hiring only women for her office and was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. In 1972, she put political and philosophical differences aside to visit noted segregationist George Wallace in the hospital after he was shot. Her willingness to work across the aisle paid off when Wallace used his connections to help her get the votes needed to pass a bill that would give domestic workers the right to a minimum wage. From 1977 to 1981, she served in Democratic Leadership as the Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus.

But Chisholm was not done. In 1972, she ran for president, becoming the first Black candidate for a major party nomination and the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination. She ran on a platform of being the people’s representative, all people, and to, as she said, exemplify “a new era in American politics.” She was ignored by the establishment and struggled to fundraise. “When I ran for the Congress, when I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men,” she later explained. She even faced death threats. But she persisted and eventually became the first female to take part in a presidential debate. She would eventually lose but only after breaking several barriers. She said that she ran for office, despite the odds, “to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.”

She would retire from Congress in 1982. Chisholm returned to a career in education but continued to be active in politics. President Clinton even nominated her to be Ambassador to Jamaica, but she withdrew due to poor health. Chisholm would pass away at the age of 80 on New Year’s Day in 2005. But her contributions are still remembered. In 2015, President Obama posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.