Waging "The Good Fight": The Political Career of Shirley Chisholm, 1953-1982

Article excerpt

"I will fight until I can't fight anymore. I don't mind the challenge," Shirley Chisholm boldly declared after her historic victory in 1968 over James Farmer, former head of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). (1) Taking a momentous step, she advanced from the New York State Assembly to become the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress. Chisholm hailed from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, one of the poorest urban districts in the nation. She was a vocal advocate for an activist government to redress economic, social, and political injustices, and frequently used her national prominence to bring attention to racial, sexual, and class-based inequality. At a time when some people within the black and feminist communities chose radical resistance to "the system," Chisholm chose to remain a part of it. She had a firm belief in the promise of the political structure, but she felt there was much to be changed before it could be truly fair and responsive.

This essay explores Chisholm's political career from her early years as a grassroots activist to her election to the House of Representatives and her still unprecedented success as a woman in a major-party primary election for the U.S. presidency. It examines the ways she successfully navigated the rough political landscape, contending with racial and gender discrimination which were deeply embedded in the political culture, and achieved victory where other African American women had earlier tried and failed. Chisholm clearly benefited from the changes that the civil rights and women's movements had yielded. However, Chisholm's success as a political "first" was the result of far more than a timely campaign. She won because of a combination of factors, including her ideas about equality and justice, her political acumen and strong personality, consistent support she received from African American women in her district, and the efforts of other grassroots activists. Chisholm used her position in New York state politics to fight for the rights of all women, people of color, and the poor. In arguing for women's rights, Chisholm forced the State Assembly and Congress to contend with sexual discrimination in ways that they had hitherto not done, and she pushed members of the predominantly white, middle-class, feminist establishment to address their weaknesses in thinking about the needs of women of color. In fighting to end racial discrimination and for anti-poverty programs, Chisholm joined with other African American political leaders and white progressives in the Democratic Party to demand that Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs make good on their promises. At the same time, while Chisholm was successful at gaining access to the inner chambers of political power and fought for progressive legislation, her ability to get bills passed was hindered by the political structures she confronted. With limited political networks and few powerful allies in Congress to help usher her bills through committee or to a vote, Chisholm's leadership remained an important symbol and inspiration to many, but as a legislator, she was not particularly successful. However, Chisholm's political life offers important lessons about the opportunities and limitations for women and African Americans in local and national politics in the 1960s and 1970s.

EARLY YEARS AND INFLUENCES

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York, in November 1924. She was the first of four daughters of Ruby Seale and Charles St. Hill, who were immigrants from the Caribbean. Early in her life, economic challenges compelled Chisholm's parents to send the girls to live with their maternal grandmother in Barbados. Six years later, in March 1934, Shirley and her sisters returned to the now unfamiliar streets of Brooklyn. It was the middle of the Great Depression, and Chisholm's mother, a seamstress by trade, accepted domestic work to keep the family afloat. …