Nearly 50 years after she became the first African-American woman elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm should be remembered as an agent of change.
Dedicated to uplifting marginalized and underrepresented communities, she transformed the Democratic Party to include a more diverse coalition of members. She pushed for the inclusion of women in office and the well-being of women no matter where they stood. And she ran as a progressive candidate long before it was popular — in 1972, as the first African American and the first woman to be a major party candidate for U.S. president.
“Shirley was part of a revolution in the Democratic Party that moved it away from the domination by white men,” said Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire and author of The Highest Glass Ceiling: Women’s Quest for the American Presidency.
Born in Brooklyn and of Caribbean descent, Chisholm became involved in local politics during her college days. She graduated from Brooklyn College in 1946 and worked herself up from teaching to directing daycare centers. She got her master’s degree in early childhood education from Columbia University in 1951. After getting involved in New York’s political clubhouses, Chisholm learned from experience that these clubs exploited the work of women.
Tired of men reaping all the benefits, Chisholm ran for office when the opportunity arrived in 1964. She became the second black woman in the New York State Legislature. “If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair," Chisholm was known for saying.
“One of her legacies was in showing the importance of grassroots organizing, voter registration, having the energy and enthusiasm of people of color,” said Fitzpatrick. “And not simply expecting they’re going to vote for you because you're better than the evil alternative."
Chisholm famously described herself by the title of her biography: Unbought and Unbossed. She felt her only obligation was to her constituents, not the political elite or their donors, so she didn't care about playing by the rules. She died in 2005.
“There’s a certain liberty that comes with being unbossed and unbought,” said Rep. Yvette Clark, D-N.Y., who represents areas of New York City that Chisholm once did and who introduced a resolution in January that would place a statue of Chisholm in the U.S. Capitol. “The ability to put the interests of the people who we represent first and foremost without fear of retribution from other political entities or interests is quite liberating.”
But beyond that freedom there were other trials. Chisholm understood that racism and sexism were intertwined weapons that were used to limit her ambition and career.
"She had no qualms about saying that her greatest challenge was dealing with people on the basis that she was a woman rather than as being a black person,” said E. Faye Williams, president of the National Congress of Black Women, an organization that Chisholm co-founded.
Chisholm was especially disappointed by the lack of support she received from Gloria Steinem and other prominent members of the women’s movement as well as from black male political leadership.
Despite this, Chisholm amassed a broad coalition of groups who advocated for her, a technique that former president Barack Obama would later duplicate in his historic 2008 presidential campaign.
“She is the first, at the time, really trying to create a coalition of young people when she’s running for the presidency, a coalition of people of color, people of indigenous descent, African-Americans,” said Zinga A. Fraser, Ph.D, and director of the Shirley Chisholm Project on Brooklyn Women's Activism. “She understood that one group alone could not elect a president.”
It's not just Chisholm herself who has been overlooked. The groundwork that Chisholm laid for others has been overlooked, as well. Chisholm helped to found both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Organization for Women.
“She has been an amazing role model and hasn’t gotten the full credit for the genius that was her ability to bring people together,” said Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., who is the first black woman to serve in the Alabama Congressional delegation.
“I am deeply in awe of the fact that women in my mother’s generation and in Shirley Chisholm’s generation took nothing and made something. And took with them as they climbed their whole community, their whole families,” Sewell said. “That sense of purpose, that sense of responsibility is something that is not lost on me or is not something I take lightly."
While African-American women were critical to Chisholm’s grassroots campaigns, they also remain loyal members of the modern-day Democratic party. As Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said after Alabama's special election that led to Democrat Doug Jones' victory last year, “Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted. Period.” CNN exit polls showed 98% of black women voters supported Jones.
During Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign, Clinton won between 84% and 93% of black women’s votes in the states where race/gender exit poll findings were released, according to Presidential Gender Watch, a nonprofit project of the Center for American Women and Politics and the Barbara Lee Family Foundation.
Still, for all their ballot-box clout, African-American women remain underrepresented in office. According to a study released by Higher Heights and the Center for American Women and Politics, in 2016 only four black women were candidates for statewide elected office. And the U.S. has never had a black woman elected governor.
The need to create space for black women is not lost on California Sen. Kamala Harris, who in 2016 became the nation’s second African-American woman elected to the Senate (following Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill., who served from 1992 to 1998).
“My mother gave me advice, she would say often, ‘Kamala, you may be the first to do many things but make sure you’re not the last,’" said Harris. "And I have tried to live that advice in terms of mentoring and hopefully lifting folks up and making sure that we recreate a path for others to follow. Shirley Chisholm created that path for me and for so many others.”
Other black women in Congress echoed this thinking.
“There is still a need for black women to run for office at every level of government," said Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., “We have made some progress but we still have a long way to go.”
Shirley "was about outreaching and making sure that she tapped into talent," Waters said. “She wanted to help develop other black women so that they could take their rightful place in legislative bodies.”
“I would make the point that we are still in the struggle for women’s complete and full rights," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. "Shirley Chisholm was bold in her fight for women’s rights but the rights of all people.”
Yet, increasing the numbers of black women will take time, effort and considerable financial support.
“We have to be intentional in seeking out women to run for seats. That’s the only way that we will be in office and will be represented in governance across this nation is by developing a practice that reaches out to women to really ask them to serve,” Clark said. “Shirley Chisholm set the bar and we’ve got to maintain her legacy while building our own because the people of our constituency deserve nothing less.”