Obituary: Shirley Chisholm ; First Black Woman to Sit in the US House of Representatives

Article excerpt

SHIRLEY CHISHOLM will go down in US political history as the first black woman to sit in the House of Representatives, who took on as few had before the hidebound ways of an institution she branded as out of touch with the country, "ruled by a small group of old men".

The new member for New York's solidly Democratic 12th Congressional District in Brooklyn arrived on Capitol Hill in January 1969 at the start of Richard Nixon's presidency, after a shock primary election victory over her heavily favoured opponent, hand-picked by the local party machine. Her slogan then was "Unbought and Unbossed". In Washington, she continued in exactly similar vein.

That first year, she became a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Chisholm operated with an all-female staff and became a passionate campaigner for civil rights, women's rights and the poor, and against the Vietnam War. Even more noteworthy, she took on and defeated the entrenched seniority system (a political version of "Buggins' Turn") by which the House then operated - and to a large extent still does.

As a very junior and theoretically insignificant member, she was sent to serve on the Agriculture Committee. Others would not have complained, but Chisholm did, saying the job was pointless for someone who represented an urban district like Brooklyn.

After publicly challenging Wilbur Mills, the hugely powerful chairman of the Ways and Means Committee who distributed such assignments, she secured new posts, first on the Veterans' Affairs panel, and then on the prestigious Education and Labor Committee, far more suitable to her background in teaching and child welfare.

By now Chisholm was a celebrity, and she became an even larger one midway through her second term when she entered the race for the Democratic nomination to take on Nixon in November 1972. Although she contested several primaries and collected a more-than- respectable 151 convention delegates, the bluntly honest Chisholm admitted from the outset she had no realistic chance of winning. Her goal, she said, was to make a point, and raise the profile of not only blacks but also women in political life. …