Shirley Chisholm is the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress and the first to campaign for the Presidency. She was an outspoken advocate for women and minorities during the seven terms she served in the House. Her legacy of political and social activism laid the foundation for the rise of women and Blacks in American politics.
Born Shirley Anita St. Hill on November 30, 1924, she was the oldest of four girls of Charles and Ruby St. Hill. Her father was from Guyana (then British Guiana) and her mother from Barbados. Chisholm spent part of her childhood in Barbados with her grandmother and graduated from Brooklyn College in 1946. At Brooklyn College, she majored in sociology and joined the debating society, an experience that would influence her cut-and-thrust oratory style.
Shirley began her career as a teacher and earned a Master’s degree in elementary education from Columbia University. She served as director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center from 1953 to 1959 as an educational consultant to New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare from 1959 to 1964. She also served as a volunteer in the Brooklyn chapter of the National Urban League and in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), where she debated minority rights.
Shirley was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1964 and in 1968 she won a seat to the House of Representatives and became the first African American woman elected to Congress. In 1969, she became the first black congresswoman and began the first of seven terms. After initially being assigned to the House Forestry Committee, she shocked many by demanding reassignment. She was placed on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, eventually graduating to the Education and Labor Committee. She became one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969.
In 1972, Shirley also ran a campaign to be president of the United States and said she was, “a candidate for the people.” She didn’t get her party’s nomination, but she is still famous for being the first black woman to seek the nation’s highest office. She was also a vocal opponent of the draft. During the 1980s was a critical asset to Jesse Jackson’s campaigns for the Presidency.
After leaving Congress in 1983, Shirley remained active as a political figure, an educator, and a spokesperson for women’s rights. She taught at Mount Holyoke College and was popular on the lecture circuit. Shirley was married to Conrad Chisholm from 1949 to 1977. She wed Arthur Hardwick, Jr. in 1986. She authored two books, Unbought and Unbossed (1970) and The Good Fight (1973).
Throughout her political career Chisholm fought for education opportunities and social justice. She died in 2005.