“I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement in this country, although I am a woman, and equally proud of that... I am the candidate of the people of America.”
Those were the words the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, Shirley Chisholm, uttered in her 1972 announcement that she was running for president, using the campaign slogan “Unbought and Unbossed.” The move was highly unusual and unlikely to succeed. But Chisholm was unusual, and her bid for the presidency is cited by many women of color who enter politics as inspiration for their own careers.
In announcing her presidential run last year, California Senator Kamala Harris included nods to Chisholm’s leadership, using the slogan “For the People” and a red-and-yellow color scheme that echoed some of Chisholm’s campaign materials. Harris is now presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s running mate.
Paving the way
Glynda Carr, president and CEO of Higher Heights for America, a political action committee dedicated to promoting Black women in politics, said Thursday in a statement that Harris “stands on the shoulders of the late great Shirley Chisholm and her 'unbought and unbossed leadership.' Congresswoman Chisholm and many other Black women political leaders have paved the way for this moment and for Black women to step into their power and take democracy into their own hands.”
Carr went on to praise Harris for being a trailblazer and breaking “a major barrier, much like Shirley Chisholm did 48 years ago.”
Born in 1924, Chisholm spent her early years living in Barbados with her grandmother. She was extremely bright, and it was clear early on that she had things to say. The New York Times quoted her as saying, "Mother always said that even when I was 3, I used to get the 6- and 7-year-old kids on the block and punch them and say, 'Listen to me."'
When she attended Brooklyn College, she excelled at debate. Some of her instructors suggested she consider politics.
But Chisholm first went into education, as a teacher and then as an educational consultant for New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare. But in the 1950s she began joining political clubs, where she pushed for more involvement by women and people of color in the nation’s discourse. She is known as a fighter both for both civil rights and the feminist movement.
Fighting sexism and racism
She won a seat in the New York state legislature in 1965 and served three years. Then, with the lines of her local congressional district redrawn to ensure more representation of her neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Chisholm secured a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first black woman to do so. In winning her seat, she beat out a male rival who had once mocked her as being only a “little schoolteacher.”
In Congress, Chisholm fought sexism and racism. In a 2004 documentary on her life, “Chisholm '72 - Unbought & Unbossed,” Chisholm describes being taunted by a white male member of Congress who could not accept the fact that she made the same salary as he. Chisholm was characteristically unapologetic, recounting the incident with a touch of glee.
Reelected six times, she used her seven terms in Congress to help found the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus, strengthen the nation’s food program for the poor, and speak out with blunt honestly about what she felt were the ills of the American political system.
When assigned to the Agriculture Committee during her first term in office, she complained, saying the focus of the committee had nothing to do with her urban constituents. Her obituary in The New York Times quotes her as saying at the time, “Only nine black people have been elected to Congress, and those nine should be used as effectively as possible."
When Chisholm announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination in 1972, she knew she probably wouldn’t get the nomination. But Chisholm campaign worker Jo Freeman said, in her written history of the campaign, that Chisholm ran "to give a voice to the people the major candidates were ignoring."
Chisholm also spoke of her candidacy as a means of paving the way for future candidates. “If they don’t give you a seat at the table,” she advised her followers, “bring in a folding chair.”
Presidential Medal of Freedom
Chisholm won no national primaries, and the Democrats lost the election to Republican Richard Nixon, who resigned two years later in a political scandal. But Chisholm cemented her name in history as the woman whose campaign opened minds and doors for other women of color in politics.
Chisholm died in 2005. Ten years later, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
To date, 47 Black women have served in the U.S. House of Representatives. Only two, including Kamala Harris, have served in the U.S. Senate.
Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics says in 2019, women of color made up 8.8 percent of all members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 4 percent of the Senate.
Among the nation’s 7,383 state legislators, 7.3 percent are women of color.
And in the nation’s 100 largest cities, 10 women of color serve as mayors, including in the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.