Shirley Chisholm: First Black Woman to Run For President

Elected to House of Representatives, She Eyed the Next House - The White House

Shirley Chisholm. Thomas J. O'Halloran / U.S. News & World Reports

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was a political figure who was decades ahead of her time. As a woman and a person of color, she has a long lists of firsts to her credit, including:

  • First African American woman elected to Congress (1968)
  • First African American woman to seek a major party nomination for President of the United States (1972)
  • First woman to have her name placed in nomination for President at the Democratic National Convention
  • First African American to be on the ballot as a candidate for President

"Unbought and Unbossed"

After serving just three years in Congress representing New York's 12th District, Chisholm decided to run using the slogan that had gotten her elected to Congress in the first place: "Unbought and Unbossed."

From the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, NY, Chisholm initially pursued a professional career in child care and early childhood education. Switching to politics, she served four years in the New York State Assembly before she made a name for herself as the first black woman to be elected to Congress.

Chisholm Just Said No

Early on, she was not one to play political games. As her presidential campaign brochure tells it:

When given an assignment to sit on the House Agriculture Committee Congresswoman Chisholm rebelled. There is very little agriculture in Brooklyn...She now sits on the House Education and Labor Committee, an assignment that allows her to combine her interests and experience with the critical needs of her constituents.

The woman who refused to knuckle under decided to run "to give a voice to the people the major candidates were ignoring."

"Candidate of the People of America"

In announcing her presidential campaign on January 27, 1972, at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY, Chisholm said:

I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States of America.

I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud.

I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I am equally proud of that.

I am not the candidate of any political bosses or fat cats or special interests.

I stand here now without endorsements from many big name politicians or celebrities or any other kind of prop. I do not intend to offer to you the tired and glib cliches, which for too long have been an accepted part of our political life. I am the candidate of the people of America. And my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history.

Shirley Chisholm's 1972 presidential campaign placed a black woman squarely in the center of a political spotlight previously reserved for white men. If anyone thought she might tone down her rhetoric to fit in with the existing old boys' club of presidential candidates, she proved them wrong.

As she had promised in her announcement speech, 'tired and glib cliches' had no place in her candidacy.

 

Telling it Like it Is

As Chisholm's campaign buttons reveal, she never held back from letting her attitude emphasize her message:

 

  • Ms. Chis. For Pres.
  • Chisholm - Ready or Not
  • Take the Chisholm trail to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
  • Chisholm - President of All the People

 

"An Independent, Creative Personality"

John Nichols, writing for The Nation, explains why the party establishment - including most prominent liberals - rejected her candidacy:

Chisholm's run was dismissed from the start as a vanity campaign that would do nothing more than siphon votes off from better-known anti-war candidates such as South Dakota Senator George McGovern and New York City Mayor John Lindsay. They were not ready for a candidate who promised to "reshape our society," and they accorded her few opportunities to prove herself in a campaign where all of the other contenders were white men. "There is little place in the political scheme of things for an independent, creative personality, for a fighter," Chisholm observed. "Anyone who takes that role must pay a price."

 

Instead of Old Boys, New Voters

 

Chisholm's presidential campaign was the subject of filmmaker Shola Lynch's 2004 documentary, "Chisholm '72," broadcast on PBS in February 2005.

In an interview discussing Chisholm's life and legacy

in January 2005, Lynch noted the particulars of the campaign:

 

She ran in the majority of the primaries and went all the way to the Democratic National Convention with delegate votes.

She entered the race because there was no strong Democratic front runner....there were about 13 people running for the nomination....1972 was the first election impacted by the voting age change from 21 to 18. There were going to be millions of new voters. Mrs. C wanted to attract these young folks as well as anyone who felt left out of politics. She wanted to bring these people into the process with her candidacy.

She played ball until the end because she knew her delegate votes could have been the difference between the two candidates in a closely contested nomination battle. It did not exactly turn out that way but it was a sound, and clever, political strategy.

Shirley Chisholm ultimately lost her campaign for the presidency. But by the conclusion of the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida, 151.95 votes had been cast for her. She had drawn attention to herself and the ideals she had campaigned for. She had brought the voice of the disenfranchised to the forefront. In many ways, she had won.

During her 1972 run for the White House, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm encountered obstacles at nearly every turn. Not only was the political establishment of the Democratic Party against her, but the money wasn't there to fund a well-managed and effective campaign.

 

If She Could Do It Over Again

Feminist scholar and author Jo Freeman was actively involved in trying to get Chisholm on the Illinois primary ballot and was an alternate to the Democratic National Convention in July 1972.

In an article about the campaign, Freeman reveals how little money Chisholm had, and how new legislation would have made her campaign impossible today:

After it was over Chisholm said that if she had to do it over again, she would, but not the same way. Her campaign was under-organized, under-financed and unprepared....she raised and spent only $300,000 between July 1971 when she first floated the idea of running, and July of 1972, when the last vote was counted at the Democratic Convention. That did not include the [money] raised and spent on her behalf...by other local campaigns.

By the next Presidential election Congress had passed the campaign finance acts, which required careful record keeping, certification and reporting, among other things. This effectively ended grass roots Presidential campaigns like those in 1972.

 

"Was It All Worth It?"

In the January 1973 issue of Ms. magazine, Gloria Steinem reflected on the Chisholm candidacy, asking "Was it all worth it?" She observes:

 

Perhaps the best indicator of her campaign's impact is the effect it had on individual lives. All over the country, there are people who will never be quite the same....If you listen to personal testimony from very diverse sources, it seems that the Chisholm candidacy was not in vain. In fact, the truth is that the American political scene may never quite be the same again.

 

Realism and Idealism

 

Steinem goes on to include viewpoints from both women and men in all walks of life, including this commentary from Mary Young Peacock, a white, middle-class, middle-aged American housewife from Fort Lauderdale, FL:

Most politicians seem to spend their time playing to so many different points of view....that they don't come out with anything realistic or sincere. The important thing about Chisholm's candidacy was that you believed whatever she said....it combined realism and idealism at the same time....Shirley Chisholm has worked out in the world, not just gone from law school straight into politics. She's practical.

 

"Face and Future of American Politics"

 

Practical enough that even before the 1972 Democratic National Convention was held in Miami Beach, FL, Shirley Chisholm acknowledged that she couldn't win in a speech she gave on June 4, 1972:

I am a candidate for the Presidency of the United States. I make that statement proudly, in the full knowledge that, as a black person and as a female person, I do not have a chance of actually gaining that office in this election year. I make that statement seriously, knowing that my candidacy itself can change the face and future of American politics - that it will be important to the needs and hopes of every one of you - even though, in the conventional sense, I will not win.

 

"Somebody Had to Do It First"

 

So why did she do it? In her 1973 book The Good Fight, Chisholm answers that significant question:

I ran for the Presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo. The next time a woman runs, or a black, or a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is 'not ready' to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start....I ran because somebody had to do it first.


By running in 1972, Chisholm blazed a trail that candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama - a white woman and a black man - would follow 35 years later.

The fact that both those contenders for the Democratic nomination spent much less time discussing gender and race - and more time promoting their vision for a new America - bodes well for the lasting legacy of Chisholm's efforts.

Sources:

"Shirley Chisholm 1972 Brochure." 4President.org.

"Shirley Chisholm 1972 Announcement." 4President.org.

Freeman, Jo. "Shirley Chisholm's 1972 Presidential Campaign." JoFreeman.com February 2005.

Nichols, John. "Shirley Chisholm's Legacy." The Online Beat, TheNation.com 3 January 2005.

"Remembering Shirley Chisholm: Interview with Shola Lynch."WashingtonPost.com 3 January 2005.

Steinem, Gloria. "The Ticket That Might Have Been..." Ms. Magazine January 1973 reproduced at PBS.org