If the world had fully appreciated Shirley Chisholm in 1972 she could have been America’s first female President. Besides being the first black person to run for the Presidency for a major party, she was also the first woman to run for the Democrats presidential nomination. She was the first black woman elected to Congress and was a congresswoman for seven terms.
Shirley was born in Brooklyn as Shirley Anita St. Hill. She moved temporarily to Barbados to be raised by her grandmother when she was five. She attended a strict British-style school there and gained an excellent education. She has a beautiful quote about the grandmother that she lived with: “Granny gave me strength, dignity, and love. I learned from an early age that I was somebody. I didn’t need the black revolution to tell me that.”
She received her Bachelor of Arts from Brooklyn College and was a prize winning debater. She met Conrad Chisholm and they married in 1949. Shirley worked in a nursery school while working towards her Masters in elementary education from Columbia University. She worked in early education for several years and was deeply devoted to child welfare.
Her career as a politician brought unemployment benefits to domestic workers and introduced the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) program to NY state. She worked to expand the food stamp program and helped to ensure that women and children were provided with adequate nutrition. When she eventually advanced into the Education and Labor Committee, Shirley worked to elevate women in politics. All of the staff she hired were female, half of which were African American. Shirley helped push for minimum wage laws, opposed American involvement in Vietnam and supported furthering education, health care and social services.
When she ran for President she was faced with rampant sexism and racism. Many people saw her as a political symbol rather than a serious candidate. Others ignored her and she faced several death threats. With an underfunded campaign that was not well organized, Shirley had a difficult time competing with the wealthier candidates.
After she retired from Congress she worked several more years in education. She was nominated to be the United States Ambassador to Jamaica, but was unable to accept the position due to poor health. She was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
Shirley passed in 2005. She was post-humously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
If you would like to learn more about Shirley, you can check out her autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed https://www.amazon.ca/Unbought-Unbossed-Expanded-40th-Anniversary/dp/098005902X
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