Shirley Chisholm: A Catalyst for Political Change

“Unbought and Unbossed.” With these two words as her motto, Shirley Chisholm etched her name into the nation’s political history when she became the first African American woman elected to Congress, winning a seat in the House of Representatives on November 5, 1968 (“Chisholm, Shirley Anita”). As a congresswoman, Chisholm embodied the culmination of revolutionary ideas promoted throughout the watershed year; not only was she a supporter of both the Civil Rights Movement and Women’s Liberation Movement, she was also vehemently against the Vietnam War. Chisholm’s victory in the winter of 1968 marked a shift in the American political culture, as her determination and yearning to change the nation highlighted the idea that minority groups would henceforth not only rally for their rights, but also craft legislation to preserve them. In this sense, Chisholm herself is a reflection and combination of the major movements flourishing in 1968, as well as a catalyst for future political change.

Chisholm as a young woman. (Retrieved from National Visionary Leadership Project)

Chisholm, the daughter of two immigrants, was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1924, and was initially interested in education, acquiring a master’s degree in childhood education from Columbia University in 1951 (Michals). She became a consultant for the New York City Division of Daycare in the early 1960s, but yearned to alleviate the plights of women and minority races, leading to increased political involvement. She was elected to the NY State Legislature in 1964, and, after a new congressional district was created in Brooklyn through court mandate in 1968, she decided to run for national office. Chisholm’s opponents attempted to undermine her authority by attacking her for being a woman, and therefore inherently meek; however, her fiery nature and outspokenness captivated constituents, and her ideas resonated with the overwhelmingly liberal district. She defeated Republican James Farmer with sixty-seven percent of the vote, securing her seat in the House and cementing her place in history (“Chisholm, Shirley Anita”).

Listen to part of a speech she gave at Howard University in 1969 after her election here.

Chisholm in 1968, holding up two fingers as a “V” to signify her congressional victory. (Retrieved from Huffington Post)

Although she was forced to endure overt prejudice because of her race and gender as a Representative, “Fighting Shirley” still managed to help craft and introduce over “fifty pieces of legislation… [becoming a champion] for racial and gender equality, the plight of the poor, and ending the Vietnam War” (Michals). In this sense, Chisholm exemplified the spirit of 1968, rejecting the accepted status quo and fighting for what she believed in. When asked about her role in Congress in 1968, she replied, “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” (Vaidyanathan). Chisholm’s refusal to be silent in the face of injustice highlighted her distinct connection to the prolific movements blossoming during the year. Groups like the Civil Rights Movement, Anti-War Movement, or Women’s Liberations Movement sought to undermine the oppression they felt and enact meaningful change; by becoming a congressional member, Chisholm helped to campaign for their causes on Capitol Hill and preserve their ideas using legislation.

Chisholm’s presidential campaign poster from 1972 utilized the same tagline as her 1968 congressional campaign: “Unbought and Unbossed.” (Retrieved from Hammer Museum)

Chisholm herself continued to further the theme of revolutionary change for women and minorities exemplified in 1968 by continuing to shatter glass ceilings in the political realm. In 1971, she helped to establish the National Women’s Political Caucus, a group devoted to increasing the political participation of women nationwide that is still prominent today (Michals). What’s more, Chisholm decided to run for the Democratic presidential bid in 1972, becoming the first black woman to seek office as a member of a major political party, in an attempt to “repudiate the notion that the American people will not vote for qualified candidates, simply because he is not white or because she is not a male” (Lewis). Despite discriminatory acts against her and an underfunded campaign, she still managed to acquire ten percent of the Democratic delegates votes, proving the potency and relevance of her ideas (Michals). By continually breaking through the political mold, Chisholm exhibited the radical spirit of 1968, creating meaningful change by fighting for what she believed in. Her career highlighted the quest for racial and gender equality that was gaining prevalence when she was elected, and her actions helped to open the political sphere to future pivotal leaders, such as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

However, despite all the meaningful work Chisholm accomplished during her lifetime, the memory of her political achievements has become fairly distanciated in the eyes of today’s public. The memory of Chisholm’s radical election has been forgotten in the modern context; her story is not taught in the public school curriculum, and “despite her achievements, Chisholm is not a household name in the US” (Vaidyanathan). Additionally, many of the revolutionary ideas she fought for have still not been achieved; while the country made strides toward equality by electing an African American to the presidency in 2008, the office has yet to be filled by a woman. Additionally, although the demographics have been changing, the political world is still dominated by white men, exemplified by Congress and the current Presidential administration. Clearly, the emotional intensity attached to such a prolific moment in a country with a turbulent racial and male-dominated history has diminished considerably. Chisholm’s political pursuits represented a major change in the political sphere, yet her achievements no longer resonate as sharply with the American public as they did in 1968.

Chisholm was honored in 2014 by the U.S. Postal Service for her achievements. (Retrieved from Equality Archive)

Interestingly, however, the memory of Chisholm’s election is also processual, as it continues to change and become relevant as the political sphere becomes more inclusive. Her achievements resurfaced during the 2008 Presidential election, as both a woman (Hillary Clinton) and an African American (Barack Obama) vied for the Democratic nomination, and recent attempts in the 2000s and 2010s have been made to promote the memory of Chisholm, especially in places where she lived. In 2015, an event was organized to celebrate her life in Palm Coast, Florida where she retired, and a modest number of individuals showed up (Vaidyanathan). Her life was also designated a year later by a plaque on a rock in Brower Park outside Brooklyn, describing her many roles in the community and at large (pictured below). Significantly, efforts have also been taken to promote recognition of “women’s grassroots social activism” in her honor, such as the Shirley Chisholm Project created by Brooklyn College—her undergraduate alma mater (“Mission: Shirley Chisholm Project). However, it is also fair to say that the memory of her life and accomplishments are not as recognized on a national scale as the probably  should be. Chisholm’s landmark victory in 1968 represented a major victory for many of the movements becoming prominent during the year, as well as a revolutionary restructuring of the white male-dominated political sphere; the memory of her momentous achievement should be preserved and promoted, but it will take much more work for this to be accomplished.

The plaque in Brower Park designated to Chisholm, promoting her memory and her achievements. (Retrieved from NYC Parks and Recreation Department)

To visit another post to learn about a similarly important African American political figure from 1968, Edward Brooke, click here.

By Jacob Koehler

Works Cited

“Chisholm, Shirley Anita.” US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives, US House of Representatitves. http://history.house.gov/People/Listing/C/CHISHOLM,-Shirley-Anita-(C000371)/

Lewis, Danny. “44 Years Ago, Shirley Chisholm Became the First Black Woman to Run for President.” The Smithsonian Magazine. January 29, 2016. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/44-years-ago-shirley-chisholm-became-the-first-black-woman-to-run-for-president-180957975/

Michals, Debra.  “Shirley Chisholm.”  National Women’s History Museum.  National Women’s History Museum, 2015. http://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/shirley-chisholm

“Mission: Shirley Chisholm Project.” Women and Gender Studies Department, CUNY Brooklyn College. 2018. http://www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/web/academics/schools/socialsciences/interdisciplinary/undergraduate/womens/chisholmproject.php

Vaidyanathan, Rajini. “Before Hillary Clinton, there was Shirley Chisholm.” BBC News. January 26, 2016. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-35057641

3 thoughts on “Shirley Chisholm: A Catalyst for Political Change”

  1. Nice job on this! Your use of audio, video, and photos complements the text well. My only suggestion would be, have you considered subheadings at all? Many posts have incorporated those, and it seems like a good way to break up the continuous text. However, it is still strong without it.

    Also, I have recently been seeing Shirley Chisholm’s image on stationery and paper goods in boutique paper shops around the Triangle. They are carrying the work of Blackbird Letterpress (in Louisiana), which features her on greeting cards, notebooks, coasters, etc. as part of their “inspiring women” series. Her image and a quote, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” is being used to set the tone for a message of encouragement, inspiration, or support on a greeting card or notebook. I thought you might find that interesting!

    http://www.blackbirdletterpress.com/inspiring-women/
    https://www.etsy.com/shop/blackbirdletterpress

    1. In continuing this thought from an earlier comment to completely connect the dots: your site mentions the way Chisholm is remembered today, and how her memory is beginning to resurface, though mostly larger scale and through official means. I thought it was interesting to see how her memory has become usable in a more vernacular way in every day life and as a means of empowering other women through paper goods. In this particular instance, it is also unpredictable, in that it would have been nearly impossible to predict that the modern feminist movement and hipsters would be using Chisholm’s image as a way of empowering one another through stationery.

  2. I really enjoyed the presentation/ style of this post, and I love the inclusion of Chisholm’s audio piece from her Howard University speech. I think that the reflections made throughout this post are very insightful. At her time, and I’m sure she would still be consider today, Shirley Chisholm was a bold, African-American woman who was striving to make a change for those whose appearances resembled her own. This article did a very good job in helping me understand the significance that Shirley Chisholm’s presence played in inspiring generations and generations of both African-American and female leaders. Because of this article, the weight and importance of Chisholm’s accomplishments on today’s African-American woman lifestyle is very evident.

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