The popularity of incumbent President Richard Nixon made the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination a poisoned chalice, but several distinguished political figures still wished to drink from it. Senators Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson and George McGovern, former vice president Hubert H. Humphrey, and the fiery populist Alabama Governor George Wallace were all contenders. But one candidate stood out from the rest in extraordinary ways: Representative Shirley Chisholm of New York, the first black woman elected to the United States Congress. She had already faced and overcome poverty and discrimination, and the prospect of a presidential contest held no fear for her.
Shirley St. Hill was born in Brooklyn, New York, to an immigrant family from Barbados on November 30, 1924, (the 50th birthday of another maverick politician, Winston Churchill). She spent part of her childhood in Barbados in the care of her grandmother, and later credited her “British-style” education there for her facility with language. After graduating from college with high honors, she began a career in education, and later married a Jamaican immigrant named Conrad O. Chisholm, whose name she kept even after their divorce and her remarriage.
Her work in New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare led to a lifetime of political activism. Her race and her gender, but especially the latter, posed significant obstacles when she turned her attention to elective politics. Whites and blacks alike would scold her for not attending to domestic chores and leaving politics to men. She was unfazed by the criticism and launched a successful campaign for a New York assembly seat in 1964. In Albany, she championed liberal causes and honed her political and rhetorical skills, all the while turning her eyes toward a bigger political stage.
The redistricted 12th Congressional District of New York provided the opportunity, and after triumphing in a crowded Democratic primary and a close general election, she arrived in Washington, DC in 1969, the only woman elected to the House of Representatives that year. She was to serve in Congress for seven terms, her tenure marked by devotion to the causes of education and childcare that had helped fuel her rise. Chisholm had an independent streak that sometimes alienated her liberal supporters; her biographer, Barbara Winslow, speculates, “she was thinking of her long-term future as a successful legislator, or she wanted to create allies in anticipation of a presidential run. We may never know; she never explained her shift in tactics.”
She launched her 1972 presidential campaign with a stirring announcement that included the memorable statement: “I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the woman’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that.” For any two-term Member of Congress, a presidential run would have been an audacious exercise, but for Chisholm especially, it was particularly bold. Her striking campaign poster featured the slogan that had helped to carry her into Congress: “Unbought and Unbossed.”
Chisholm would never be president, but her 1972 campaign blazed a trail that would be followed by others decades later. As she later reflected, “I ran because somebody had to do it first…I ran because most people think the country is not ready for a black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate. Someday…”
Chisholm left Congress in 1983, and spent her political retirement working in education, including a professorship at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She was a popular speaker at colleges around the nation and a prominent supporter of Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns.
Honors kept coming, including a nomination by President Bill Clinton in 1993 to be ambassador to Jamaica, but she was too unwell to accept. And yet she lived for another dozen years, dying at her Florida home on January 1, 2005. Her legacy as a civil rights pioneer was somewhat overlooked until recently, but now she is the subject of one television miniseries and two upcoming films. Her fame rests not on her achievements as a legislator, which were few, but her boldness and courage combating racism and especially sexism in American politics. She was not a champion of identity politics but rather a campaigner for equality—two very different things, often confused. As she said in a 1983 speech to high school students in Massachusetts, “We have really come too far to, again, be danced backwards into what others consider to be our place. Our place here and now is in America’s mainstream, and the upper swifter currents of the mainstream where we can assume greater responsibilities and collect the greater rewards that we are due.”
Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. He is the author of “We Shall Fight: Churchill’s Greatest Speech,” to be published by HarperCollins.