Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change

Article excerpt

Imagine the scene: The first-term U.S. Representative steps up to the House podium and promises to vote "No" on any new spending. Sound familiar? Well, it might, except that it was March, 1969, and the speaker was the newly elected member from the Twelfth District of New York, the first African-American woman elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm. Chisholm had come to Congress to "focus attention on the nation's problems," and her promise to vote "No" on additional spending did just that: she would not vote to support any new money for the Defense Department and its ongoing war in Vietnam. (1)

The war was at its peak, with over 500,000 U.S. troops deployed in Vietnam, and growing tensions between supporters and opponents of the war had sparked violent confrontation in the streets of American cities. The position taken by the new Congresswoman from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Queens, NY, was not a popular one; in essence, she stood alone. But she had stood alone before. After all, she was not interested in popularity, but in solving problems like the war, poverty, equality for women and racial minorities, and poor housing. (2)

Unbought and Unbossed

Born in New York to immigrant Caribbean parents in 1924, Shirley Anita St. Hill was sent at the age of three with several sisters to Barbados to live with their maternal grandmother while her parents struggled to survive the Depression. Returning a decade later with a signature accent and British education, Chisholm went on to Brooklyn College and graduated in 1946 with a B.A. in sociology. While working as a teacher and director of nursery schools in New York, she married Conrad Q. Chisholm in 1949. In 1952, Chisholm earned her M.A. in early childhood education from Columbia University and soon after began working as a consultant to New York City's Division of Day Care. (2)

Long interested in politics and particularly in expanding women's roles in political life, Chisholm ran for and was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1964. Her political activities were focused on her constituency, and she introduced bills to support poor students with scholarships, protect domestic workers, and preserve tenure for women who left their teaching positions while on maternity leave. (3)

In 1968, redistricting opened an opportunity for Chisholm to run for the U.S. House of Representatives in her home district. Using the political slogan "Unbought and Unbossed," she fought hard against three male competitors in the Democratic Party primary and then faced James Farmer, the well known civil rights leader, in the general election. Farmer was well known for organizing the Freedom Riders movement and the Congress for Racial Equality in the early 1960s. Fluent in Spanish and able to use her knowledge of the district and its people, Shirley Chisholm prevailed and became the first Black woman elected to Congress, a seat she would hold until 1983. (3)

Representative Chisholm lived up to her reputation for independent thinking early in her congressional career. As a very junior member of Congress, she was assigned a seat on the Agricultural Committee, specifically on a subcommittee for forestry and rural development. The seniority system had been developed to protect senior members from the total control of the party leadership. Few junior members objected to their assignments because survival in the institution often meant pleasing the leadership who made these assignments. But Chisholm was not happy. "I guess they heard a tree grew in Brooklyn," she remarked as she raised her objections to this appointment with John McCormack, the Speaker of the House. Her request to change committees was rebuffed, and when she rose to protest, more senior male members were constantly recognized before her. But she was persistent, and eventually gained the floor, pointing out the great discrepancy between the number of Blacks in the population of the nation and the number representing them in Congress, noting that there were far too few Black representatives for them to be placed anywhere but where they might do the most good. …