Magazine

Before Hillary Clinton, there was Shirley Chisholm

  • 26 January 2016
  • From the section Magazine
Shirley Chisholm at the Democratic National Convention in 1972 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Shirley Chisholm at the Democratic National Convention in 1972

Decades before Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, there was Shirley Chisholm. As the first black woman to run for president for a major political party she was years ahead of her time. So why don't more people know about her?

Forty-four years ago this week, Shirley Chisholm made history as she announced her candidacy for the White House. Her bid for the top job was short lived, but the symbolism is as powerful today as it was then.

She was a pioneer for her generation, a woman of many firsts - the first African American congresswoman. The first African American to run for president. The first woman to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

"She paved the way for me to be able to set foot on Capitol Hill," says 22 year-old Kimaya Davis, who works for a congressional committee.

Media captionArchive: Shirley Chisholm tells the BBC why she is running for president

Davis is black and secured her job after an internship with the Congressional Black Caucus. Founded by Shirley Chisholm, the Caucus represents black members of Congress.

"It's because of her that I was able to get that internship - it helps young black students. A lot of kids like me, we don't have family connections and privilege."

Image caption Kimaya Davis says she's inspired by Shirley Chisholm

To those who know about her, Shirley Chisholm is more than a role model, she's an icon and a trailblazer who deserves greater credit and attention than history afforded her.

Despite her many achievements Chisholm is not a household name in the US.

"She was well known in the late 1960s and 1970s, but if you don't come from that era, it's easy to be forgotten," said Ky Ekinci, a social entrepreneur from Florida's Palm Coast.

A few months ago, Ekinci organised the inaugural Shirley Chisholm Day. Around 50 people in the area met to celebrate her life.

His goal was to get many of the younger people in the Palm Coast area, where Chisholm retired and spent her final years, to learn about her.

He created a hashtag, #IKnowNow, to spread the word further afield, tweeting out bite-size facts about Chisholm.

Born in 1924 in Brooklyn, New York, Shirley Chisholm, spent some of her childhood years living with her grandmother in Barbados, before returning to her parents in New York to complete her education.

After qualifying as a teacher she worked in childcare, where she developed an interest in politics. She served in the New York state assembly, then made history in 1968, becoming the first African American woman elected to the US Congress.


Image caption Chisholm on the BBC in 1970

Shirley Chisholm wisdom

"If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."

"Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt."

"The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, 'It's a girl'."

"My God, what do we want? What does any human being want? Take away an accident of pigmentation of a thin layer of our outer skin and there is no difference between me and anyone else."

"In the end, anti-black, anti-female, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing - anti-humanism."

Charles Rangel speaks to Witness about Shirley Chisholm


"I have no intention of just sitting quietly and observing. I intend to speak out immediately in order to focus on the nation's problems," Chisholm said of her new role.

Her victory, against the backdrop of the civil rights era, was a huge milestone, but with it came challenges.

"Can you imagine being a woman, and black in congress then?" says Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who represents the 13th District of California and is one of 35 African-American women who has served in Congress to date.

The first black woman, and the second ever female on the influential rules committee in Congress, she shattered a lot of glass ceilings, says Lee.

"Some of the men in Congress did not respect her, she just stood out and they didn't get her. But she wouldn't back down. She didn't go along to get along, she went to change things."

Media captionShirley Chisholm announces her presidential run in 1972 (Courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives)

This was demonstrated in the sort of legislation Ms Chisholm worked on as a congresswoman, fighting for the underprivileged and minority groups.

She championed a bill to ensure domestic workers received benefits, was an advocate for improved access to education, and fought for the rights of immigrants. She sponsored a bill to expand childcare for women, supported the national school lunch bill and helped establish the national commission on consumer protection and product safety.

Shirley Chisholm also worked tirelessly to expand the government-funded food stamps programme so it was available in every state, and was instrumental in setting up an additional scheme, The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (Wic), which provided support for pregnant women.

Image caption A mural of Shirley Chisholm in Brooklyn, New York, where she grew up.

In politics, Chisholm found her gender a particular setback, "I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black. Men are men," she once said.

"She had guts, and she made people believe that they too can be someone, that we are equal, that gender doesn't mean you can't achieve the highest office of government," her goddaughter Marya Boseley says.

That desire to break boundaries was what drove Shirley Chisholm to make a run for president in 1972, seeking the Democratic nomination a mere three years after she became a congresswoman.

"I ran because most people thought the country was not ready for a black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate. Someday, it was time in 1972 to make that someday come," she told an interviewer at the time.

Image copyright Library of Congress

Ms Chisholm, whose slogan was "Unbought and Unbossed," said she never expected to win but hoped her candidacy would "change the face and future of American politics".

"I stand before you today, to repudiate the ridiculous notion that the American people will not vote for qualified candidates, simply because he is not white or because she is not a male," she told supporters as she launched her campaign.

"I do not believe that in 1972, the great majority of Americans will continue to harbour such narrow and petty prejudice."

Congresswoman Lee first met Shirley Chisholm during her presidential race, and ended up volunteering for her. "She spoke to us in Spanish," she recalls.

"Then when I said I wanted to work for her she took me to task and made me register to vote first. She told me if I wanted to shake things up, I better get involved in politics."

Image copyright Congresswoman Barbara Lee
Image caption Congresswoman Barbara Lee (right) became close to Shirley Chisholm after volunteering for her campaign

The campaign wasn't easy - Shirley Chisholm survived several assassination attempts and sued to ensure she was included in the televised debates. She made it as far as the Democratic convention, losing out on the nomination to George McGovern, but leaving a lasting impression.

She served seven terms in Congress, retiring in 1982, after which she returned to teaching.

She died in 2005, at the age of 80.

Despite her many achievements, those close to her say she never received the place in history she deserved.

"People are ignorant to history," says Bosely who is 47. "When I was growing up black history was prevalent in schools and now it's not."

Image caption A poster in New Orleans in January 2016 is part of a campaign to introduce people to black role models.

Congresswoman Lee agrees education around her legacy is lacking, "especially as we are still dealing with many issues as it relates to the inclusion of African Americans in society."

Lee successfully lobbied for a painting of Shirley Chisholm to be hung in Congress, and for a stamp to be released in her honour.

And, in November of last year, Chisholm was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

"There are people in our country's history who don't look left or right - they just look straight ahead. Shirley Chisholm was one of those people," President Obama told the gathered audience at the White House as he presented her award posthumously.

"Shirley Chisholm's example transcends her life. And when asked how she'd like to be remembered, she had an answer: 'I'd like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts.' And I'm proud to say it: Shirley Chisholm had guts."

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