“Rhetoric never won a revolution yet.”
Chisholm was born Shirley Anita St. Hill in Brooklyn, New York to immigrant parents. Part of her childhood she spent growing up in her mother’s native Barbados. She earned an B.A. in sociology from Brooklyn College in 1946 and an M.A. in early childhood education from Columbia University in 1952. She worked as a nursery school teacher, a day care director, and as an educational consultant for New York City’s Division of Day Care before being elected to New York’s state legislature in 1964. She was active in the NAACP and the founded the Unity Democratic Club in 1960. She was also a founding member of the National Organization for Women.
Chisholm ran for U.S. Congress after redistricting created a new congressional district in her Brooklyn neighborhood. Running on the slogan “unbought and unbossed,” she became the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Congress.
Chisholm quickly established herself as an outspoken liberal. “My greatest political asset,” she said, “which professional politicians fear, is my mouth, out of which comes all kinds of things one shouldn't always discuss for reasons of political expediency.” She opposed the war in Vietnam and weapons development and championed the “have-nots.” She supported federal funding for day cares, federal assistance for education, school lunch programs, the Equal Rights Amendment, and legalization of abortion. She was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which formed in 1969, and a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus, which formed in 1971.
In 1972 she ran as a Democrat for president in a largely symbolic gesture designed to bring race and gender issues to the fore. She withdrew her candidacy, but had succeeded in winning 152 delegates. She was the first African American and the first woman of any race to run for president on a major ticket.
After serving seven terms, Chisholm declined to run again. She lectured, taught, and helped establish the National Political Congress of Black Women (1984). She turned down an appointment as ambassador to Jamaica in the Clinton administration because of poor health. She died in 2005. This is how she wanted to be remembered:
…not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself.
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