Biography of Shirley Chisholm, First Black Woman in Congress

Shirley Chisholm Announcing Her Run for the Presidency 1972
Don Hogan Charles/New York Times Co./Getty Images

Shirley Chisholm (born Shirley Anita St. Hill, November 30, 1924–January 1, 2005) was the first African-American woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress, representing the 12th Congressional District in New York for seven terms (1968–1982). She quickly became known for her work on minority, women's, and peace issues.

Fast Facts: Shirley Chisholm

  • Known For: the first African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Congress, from 1968–1982.
  • Born: November 30, 1924, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, New York, USA.
  • Parents: West Indian immigrants Charles and Ruby Seale St. Hill.
  • Education: Brooklyn College (B.A., sociology, cum laude); Columbia University (M.A., elementary education).
  • Died: January 1, 2005, Ormond Beach, Florida, USA.
  • Published Works: "Unbought and Unbossed" and "The Good Fight."
  • Spouse(s): Conrad O. Chisholm (1959–1977), Arthur Hardwicke, Jr. (1977–1986)
  • Children: None.
  • Quote: "That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black and a woman proves, I think, that our society is not yet either just or free."

Early Life

Shirley Chisholm was born in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York on November 30, 1924. She was the eldest of four daughters of her immigrant parents, Charles St. Hill, a factory worker from British Guiana, and Ruby Seale St. Hill, a seamstress from Barbados. In 1928, because of financial hardship, Shirley and two of her sisters were sent to Barbados to be raised by her grandmother, where they were educated in the island's British-style school system. They returned to New York in 1934, even though the financial situation had not been resolved.

Shirley attended Brooklyn College for a degree in sociology, where she won prizes in debating but found she was barred from the social club, as all blacks were, so she organized a rival club. She graduated with honors in 1946 and found work at two-day care centers in New York. She became an authority on early education and child welfare, and an educational consultant for Brooklyn's Bureau of Child Welfare. At the same time, she worked as a volunteer with the local political leagues and the League of Women Voters.

Deeper Involvement in Politics

In 1949, Shirley married Conrad O. Chisholm, a private investigator and graduate student from Jamaica. Together they became increasingly involved in New York municipal political issues, establishing a number of local organizations to bring blacks and Hispanics into politics.

Shirley Chisholm returned to school and obtained a master's degree in elementary education from Columbia University in 1956, and became involved in grassroots community organizing and the Democratic Party, helping to form the Unity Democratic Club in 1960. Her community base helped make possible a win when she ran for the New York State Assembly in 1964.

Congress

In 1968, Shirley Chisholm ran for Congress from Brooklyn, winning that seat while running against James Farmer, an African-American veteran of the 1960's Freedom Rides in the south and the former national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality. With her win, she became the first black woman elected to Congress.

Her first congressional battle—she fought many—was with the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Wilbur Mills, who was responsible for assigning committee appointments. Chisholm was from the urban 12th district from New York; Mills assigned her to the agricultural committee. "Apparently," she said, "all they know here in Washington about Brooklyn is that a tree grew there." The Speaker of the House told her to "be a good soldier" and accept the assignment, but nevertheless she persisted, and eventually Mills assigned her to the education and labor committees.

She hired only women for her staff, and she was known for taking positions against the Vietnam War, for minority and women's issues, and for challenging the Congressional seniority system. She was outspoken and uninterested in conforming: in 1971, Chisholm was a founding member of the National Women's Political Caucus and in 1972, she visited the voluble segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace in the hospital where he was recovering from an assassination attempt. He was astonished to see her, and she was criticized for visiting him, but the act opened doors, and in 1974, Wallace provided his support for her bill to extend federal minimum wage provisions to domestic workers.

Running for President and Leaving Congress

Chisholm ran for the Democratic nomination for U.S. President in 1972. She knew that she could not win the nomination, which eventually went to George McGovern, but she nevertheless wanted to raise issues she felt were important. She was the first black person and the first black woman to run for president on a major party ticket, and the first woman to win delegates for a presidential nomination by a major party.

In 1977, she divorced her first husband and married businessman Arthur Hardwicke, Jr. Chisholm served in Congress for seven terms, until 1982, when she retired, she said because moderate and liberal lawmakers were "running for cover from the new right," but she also had in mind taking care of her husband, who had been injured in an automobile accident; he died in 1986. In 1984, she helped form the National Political Congress of Black Women (NPCBW). From 1983 to 1987 she taught politics and women's studies as the Purington Professor at Mount Holyoke College, and spoke widely.

She moved to Florida in 1991. She briefly served as the ambassador to Jamaica during the first Clinton administration.

Death and Legacy

Shirley Chisholm died at her home in Ormond Beach, Florida on January 1, 2005 after suffering a series of strokes.

Chisholm's legacy of grit and persistence is apparent in all of her writings, speeches, and actions in and out of government. She was involved in the founding or administration or strong support of numerous organizations, including the National Organization of Women, the League of Women Voters, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), and the National Women's Political Caucus.

In 2004, she said about herself, "I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself."

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