A political leader for many years, and a co-founder of the National women’s Political Caucus, Shirley Chisholm is one of the most famous African – American women in politics. She was the first black woman to be elected to congress, and also was the first black woman to run for president (1972). She was even asked by bill Clinton to serve as American – ambassador to Jamaica.

In 1924 Shirley Chisholm was born by parents Charles St. Hill and Ruby Seale, who had immigrated to Brooklyn from Barbados in the early 1920s. Shirley was the oldest out of 4 girls, her other 3 sisters being Odessa, Muriel, and Selma.

When Shirley was 3 her parents sent her to live with her grandmother (on her mother’s side) in Barbados where there was more room to run and play. At her grandmother’s, Shirley lived with her 4 cousins. There was no running water, or electricity here so the children had to do many chores like getting fresh water, cleaning the house, tending to the garden, and feeding animals at the farm. However, the reward was to go to the beach and swim, play, and run in the clear waters of the Caribbean.

Then in 1934, when Shirley was 10, an event happened that would change her life forever. Her parents, the St. Hills decided to take Shirley back to Brooklyn. Brooklyn was very different from her grandmother’s farm and Shirley found herself getting very confused and getting lost in the streets and neighborhoods.

The St. Hills were the first blacks in a neighborhood of whites, Jewish immigrants, and 1st generation Americans. Shirley and her father often had long talks about politics and social issues. Also the St. Hills friends, West Indian immigrants, would have long late night discussions about debates and social politics. They often talked about the problems they faced because of their color. She would take these discussions into mind and vowed to make a difference.

Although Shirley and her sisters were among the few blacks at her school, and among the few of their religion, Shirley was determined to be heard. Shirley was branded as a trouble maker because she was always willing to do whatever she needed to be heard. As this was happening she joined many committees and clubs like the Bedford Political league (Shirley moved to the Bedford neighborhood in 1936). The purpose of the Bedford Political league was to get blacks elected to every level of government. Shirley was also in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the League of Women Voters. Then Shirley decided that it wasn’t fair to judge people on the color of their skin, and that she wouldn’t spend her whole life fighting racism.

Shirley excelled in high school and graduated from Girls High in 1942. She then accepted a scholarship and attended Brooklyn College. After receiving her BA at Brooklyn college Shirley attended Columbia where she received her master’s Degree. Then in 1949 while still in Columbia University she fell in love and married a quiet man named Conrad Chisholm.

Although she was becoming more and more famous she still had 2 main obstacles to overcome, she was black, and was a woman. These 2 obstacles limited the fields she could go into. She then chooses politics remembering the decisions her and her father had talked about when she was a child. So in 1960 Mrs. Chisholm formed the Unity Democratic Club, which tried to get black leaders elected to the New York Assembly. This club was very popular and well-known, and by 1962 the club had their first victory.

Tom Jones, an African – American man was elected to the New York Assembly. In 1964 Shirley Chisholm decided that she was tired of doing all the work for other people and decided to run for assembly. Then in 1964 she was victorious and was elected to the New York Assembly. When she arrived at the capital she was only 1 of 6 black assembly members, and she was the only black woman. One of the most important bills an Assembly woman Chisholm got passed was a program called SEEK. This program helped young men and women from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Shirley learned many things as an assembly women, and in 1968 she ran for the U.S. Congress. Shirley used strategies such as speaking Spanish in Spanish and Puerto Rican areas, and when her counterpart, James Farmer, said that government was a man’s job in a district where women voters outnumbered men voters. These strategies and plain old hard work paid off when in November of 1968 Shirley Chisholm Beat James Farmer by a two and one half to one margin.

While in Congress Chisholm was placed in the Agriculture Committee, and was assigned the sub-committees forestry and rural development. She felt that these two sub-committees had nothing to do with the poor black, Hispanic, and white people of the Bedford neighborhood. Shrilly was enraged, so she called the speaker of the house, John McCormick, and she explained her predicament. He agreed to see what he could do, but no more. Chisholm was not happy with his decision and decided to go to the floor and speak about her problem. She made a brief, but powerful speech, and was then assigned to the Veterans Affairs Committee.

While in Congress Shirley choose two major themes, to be a leader for women and African – Americans across the country. Also, while in Congress Chisholm fought for jobs, education, enforcement for anti-discrimination laws, and other social issues, while opposing the Vietnam War and giving more money up for the war. She was in support of repealing anti-abortion laws, she wanted equal rights for women, more daycare centers, and better working conditions for both men and women.

The 4 years Shirley Chisholm spent in congress was a good experience for her as she learned a lot about Congress and politics. She believed that she learned enough to run for president under a democratic nomination. But the experienced she lacked and the little money she had caused her defeat at the Democratic Convention to George McGovern, who later lost to Richard Nixon.

Like being the first black woman to be in Congress, she was the first black woman to run for president. With Shirley Chisholm now knowing that she could probably never be president because she was a woman she continued her career as a congresswoman until 1982 when she retired to return to an early childhood dream, teaching. She taught at Mt. Holyoke College until she moved to Florida.

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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