The Lioness Project: Shirley Chisholm

This Lioness was the first black woman in Congress, and the first black woman to run for president.  She fought tirelessly to help women and people of color find a voice in American politics.

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
—Shirley Chisholm


Shirley Chisholm

Shirley Chisolm (née St. Hill) was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1924, to Caribbean immigrant parents. Struggling financially, they sent her and her sisters to their grandmother’s farm in Barbados when Shirley was five. She would later credit much of her success to the traditional British-style education she received there, and to her grandmother’s influence. “Granny gave me strength, dignity, and love. I learned from an early age that I was somebody. I didn’t need the black revolution to tell me that.”

Seven years later, Shirley returned to her parents in Brooklyn, and attended the acclaimed Girls’ High School in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Though she was awarded scholarships, her family could not afford to send her away for college, so she earned her B.A. at Brooklyn College, which was free, and where she became an award-winning debater. She graduated in 1946, and worked as a teacher’s aid while earning her master’s degree in education from Columbia University at night. During this time she met and married private investigator Conrad Chisholm, who, like her parents, had emigrated from the Caribbean.

After earning her master’s, she worked with NYC daycare organizations and became interested in politics. In 1953, she teamed up with activist Wesley McDonald Holder and successfully nominated and elected the first African-American municipal court judge in Brooklyn. They also formed the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League to help elect more African-Americans to public office. By the early 1960s, Shirley was director of the New York City Division of Day Care, and was considered an authority on early education and child welfare. She became involved with the Unity Democratic Club in 1960, was on the board by 1962. In 1964 she was elected to the New York State Assembly, where she got unemployment insurance coverage for domestic workers, provided tenure protection for teachers on maternity leave, and provided low-income students with the chance to pursue higher education.

After her term in the Assembly, Shirley decided, against all odds and advice, to run for the U.S. House of Representatives. The race was difficult, but she won, and became the first African-American woman in Congress.  She was first placed to her fury, on a Forestry and Agriculture subcommittee; she felt that this wasn’t a place where she could help her constituents. She confided her upset to Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who advised her to use the position to help the poor and hungry find access to surplus food. As a result, Shirley expanded the food stamp program and helped to create the WIC program, which provides food for women, infants and children in need. She was reelected in 1970, and was appointed to the Education and Labor Committee, and in 1971 she helped to found the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus.

In 1972, in a Baptist church in Brooklyn, Shirley Chisholm announced her presidential candidacy, becoming the first black presidential candidate for a major party. Though she knew that she couldn’t win—she ran “in spite of hopeless odds . . . to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo”—she managed to get her name on the Democratic Primary ballot and received 152 votes, and 4th place. The nomination went to George McGovern.

She retired from Congress in 1982, and resumed her educational career as a chair at Mount Holyoke College. She was was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, and died at the age of 80 in 2005. Ten years later, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

During, and after, her political career, Shirley Chisholm championed the rights of women and minorities, and worked tirelessly for the advancement of both.  It has been said that her presidential candidacy laid the groundwork for the candidacies of both Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton, and she continues to inspire.