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Shirley Chisholm: Trailblazer in American Politics

Before there was Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, there was Shirley Chisholm.

February 1, 2017

The year was 1972. U.S. presidential election campaigns were in full swing, with President Richard Nixon seeking a second term. Against the backdrop of domestic unrest after eight years of the Vietnam War, the Black Power movement, and second-wave feminism, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm was making history for the second time. Determined, despite unlikely odds, Chisholm entered the presidential race seeking the democratic nomination, facing off against rivals George McGovern and George C. Wallace. 

“I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud,” said Chisholm in a speech announcing her candidacy on Jan. 25 at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I am equally proud of that.” America’s first African-American woman presidential candidate declared, “I am the candidate of the people of America.”

She campaigned hard, ardently opposing the Vietnam War and calling to bring the troops back home. “Use those monies to revitalize and rebuild our cities,” she urged.

She called for expanding health benefits to domestic workers, ending job and pay discrimination for women and minorities, and providing greater services to the poor. While she said that busing to achieve a racial balance in public schools was better than doing nothing, she called it an “artificial solution.” The real solution, according the Chisholm, was to address the inequities in the housing market as a means of achieving racially diverse neighborhoods and schools. 

Shirley Chisholm campaign poster, 1972

Shirley Chisholm campaign poster, 1972

“Her campaign, from the beginning, [was] very significant in what it revealed about the political process and also about her,” says historian Ellen Fitzpatrick, author of The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency. Given the ridicule to which Chisholm was subjected throughout her campaign, says Fitzpatrick, “she showed a great deal of courage.”

Even Wallace — her rival on the campaign trail but also ideologically — told the crowd at one of his own campaign stops: “[Chisholm] says the same thing in Chicago that she says in Florida. I respect people, whether I agree with them or not, who say the same thing and don’t talk out of both sides of their mouths.” 

While refusing to be pigeonholed to a subcategory based on her race or gender, Chisholm understood well the barriers she faced precisely because of these factors.

I have certainly met much more discrimination in terms of being a woman than being black, in the field of politics.

“Being black is definitely a handicap in the United States because racism has been very inherent in [our] institutions,” she said in a 1972 interview with the BBC. African-Americans, she said, were tired of tokenism and ‘look how far you’ve come’ appeasements. African-Americans, she said, “want their just share of this ‘American Dream’ that everybody speaks about.” 

Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm ran for president in 1972.

Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm ran for president in 1972.

Speaking to her experience, she said, “I have certainly met much more discrimination in terms of being a woman than being black, in the field of politics.”

Chisholm repeatedly stressed the need for diversity at the highest levels of government.

“Our government, if [it] indeed is a democratic form of government, must be representative of the different segments of the American society,” she said. “I feel that the cabinet and the department head of this country must have women, must have blacks, must have Indians, must have younger people, and not be completely and totally controlled constantly by white males.”

While repeatedly questioned for believing that she could be president, Chisholm commanded a certain following among women, college students and minorities. She had already made a name for herself in the American political scene.

Just four years prior to her presidential run, Chisholm had become the first African-American woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress as a member of the House of Representatives. When she was assigned to the less-visible Committee on Agriculture, she protested, arguing that she could be more useful tackling the issues relevant to the constituents in her urban district. “Only nine black people have been elected to Congress and those nine should be used as effectively as possible.”  She was reassigned to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and later to the Committee on Education and Labor and the Rules Committee. She served in Congress for 14 years.

Her presidential run was widely described as merely symbolic, and her name has since largely been relegated to a footnote in the pages of history.

“These comments about it being symbolic [were] part of that process of dismissing her,” says Fitzpatrick. The dismissal, according to Fitzpatrick, was due to societal perception at the time, arguably prevalent even today, that her campaign could only be symbolic because Americans would not elect an African-American woman to our nation’s highest office.  

Chisholm didn’t see herself as merely a symbol. “She didn’t say, ‘I’m running for president because I want to be a symbol,’” says Fitzpatrick. “She said, ‘I’m running for president because I want to win.  And I want to govern. And I want to change the direction of this country.’”

Chisholm was born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents. Her mother was from Barbados and her father was from Guyana. Before going into politics, she worked as a nursery school teacher and daycare director. She earned an M.A. from Columbia University. In 1964, she was elected to the New York State Assembly, where she served for four years until departing to join Congress in 1968. 

Blacks want their just share of this ‘American Dream’ that everybody speaks about.

She joined her rivals in the primaries at the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, Fla. from July 10–13. She received a total of 152 delegates — not nearly enough to secure the nomination — and her presidential bid was brought to an end. As predicted, Senator McGovern secured the Democratic nomination to run against President Nixon, who went on to win re-election.

Margaret Chase Smith ran for president, seeking the Republican nomination in 1964.

Margaret Chase Smith ran for president, seeking the Republican nomination in 1964.

Chisholm was not the first woman to run for president in the United States. There had been others, most notably Margaret Chase Smith in 1964 and as far back as Victoria Woodhull in1872. Chisholm, like Smith, mounted a significant campaign, competing in the primaries.  Chisholm had her name on primary ballots in 12 states. “She received more delegate votes than any woman prior to Hillary Clinton in 2008,” says Fitzpatrick. “So, in that sense she really was a forerunner; not enough [to be nominated] or anywhere near that, but she put up a pretty spirited fight.”

After retiring from Congress, Chisholm taught at Mount Holyoke College. In 2005, at age 80, she passed away at her home in Ormond Beach, Fla. In 2015, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian award, by President Barack Obama.

Learn more about the presidential campaigns of Shirley Chisholm (1972), Margaret Chase Smith (1964), and Victoria Woodhull (1872) in Ellen Fitzpatrick's book The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency.

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Laila Kazmi

@Lailakaz — Laila Kazmi is a Northwest Emmy award-winning senior producer and writer at KCTS 9. Her first love is discovering and telling stories of diverse people, places and history. She has lived in Karachi, Bahrain, Chicago, and Seattle. At KCTS 9, Laila produces the series Borders & Heritage, featuring stories of immigrant and refugee experiences in the Pacific Northwest and has produced Reel NW, featuring independent films from and about the Pacific Northwest. Her video-stories have appeared on KCTS 9PBS NewsHour Art Beat, World Channel at WGBH, and KPBS in San Diego. Her articles have been published in PBS NewsHour Art BeatThe Seattle Times, Seattle PI, COLORLINES and Pakistan’s daily Dawn. Laila has a Master of Communication from the University of Washington.

More stories by Laila Kazmi

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