Maximum Jane Hero: Shirley Chisholm

A Catalyst for Change

“I ran because somebody had to do it first. … I ran because most people think the country is not ready for a Black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate. Someday… ” 

Early Life

Shirley St. Hill was born in Brooklyn, New York on November 30, 1924. Her mother from Barbados and her father from Guyana were working class. The Great Depression trudged on; she was three years old when she went to Barbados to get an education and work on grandma’s farm. The education system was based on an English schooling system, strict and rigorous in reading, writing, and arithmetic and focused on the girls’ education. At the age of ten, she went back to New York with a solid educational foundation and a slight English accent which stayed with her, her whole life.

Graduating from Brooklyn’s Girls’ High in 1942, she was offered scholarships to Vassar and Oberlin colleges. Yet, her parents could not afford the out-of-state room and board fees. Reluctantly, she applied and was accepted to Brooklyn College where tuition was free. By living at home, she could afford her education and in 1946 graduated with a BA in Sociology Cum Laude.

Searching for work was quite a challenge as jobs were scarce. She eventually found a nursery school teacher position at Mount Calvary Child Care Center in Harlem. Fortunately, the job came with opportunities to become politically active, and she soon joined the groups including League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the 17th Assembly District Democratic Club, and the Unity Democratic Club, which she helped create. Soon afterward, in 1949, she met and married another grassroots activist, Conrad Chisholm, a Jamaican immigrant.

With the decision “to spend her life in the service of education,” Shirley enrolled in a Master’s program in early childhood education at Columbia University. Graduating in 1952, she was hired in 1953 as the director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center. There she acquired a reputation as a childhood education expert. She was the director until 1959, then was hired on as New York City’s Division of Day Care educational consultant.


Political Beginnings

Shirley maintained her interest in politics. The Democratic Party club in Bedford-Stuyvesant was a poor central Brooklyn community, Shirley’s neighborhood, made up of a two-thirds black population but still represented by white politicians. The organization was black-led, and her involvement with it increased.

Chisholm became ever more aware of the intense gender discrimination. Within the group, she noticed the split gender roles. Men held the leadership roles, and the women helped with organizing socials, holding raffles and fundraising events. Chisholm made her opinions known and got elected to the club’s board of directors. She immediately pushed for more black candidates to pursue public office, everything from judgeships to the State Assembly.

Before long, Chisholm informed the Democrats that she intended to run for the state Assembly in 1964. Initially shocked, the club’s male members eventually endorsed her. Even though sexism was non-stop, Chisholm had done her research and was confident of a win. She knew that there were more Democratic women in the 17th Assembly District than there were Democratic men, by a count of 5,000. As a good orator, she appealed to “the sisterhood” of female voters and won.

Although not the first black woman elected to state office, in 1964, she was elected to the New York State Legislature. Shirley Chisholm was only the second black woman to serve in Albany. She fought for people in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood where she grew up, a poor central Brooklyn community, two-thirds black but represented only by white politicians.

She lobbied for further aid to students of low-income families so that they could attend college. She also lobbied for maternity leave protections for teachers and domestic worker unemployment benefits. She realized that a vast majo

rity of women from New York ended up being maids, nannies, and teachers, so she fought to protect them.

Marked by progressive ideals, Shirley’s was unwilling to follow the status quo. She would not stand by and let senior members run things as they always had. She came to office with strength and readiness to fight for the people, no matter who she upset in the process.

When a Congressional seat opened up, Shirley remained determined to fight. Fortunately, the outcome of the lawsuit Westberry vs. Sanders stated that congressional districts must be of roughly equal populations, so the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood became the 12th Congressional District. Shirley returned to her childhood neighborhood in a sound truck declaring “Fighting Shirley Chisholm” was ready to fight for them in Washington.

At this time in America, many candidates were merely puppets of the political machine, so running as “Unbought and Unbossed” was a resonant slogan and her track record proved it. Shirley easily communicated with her constituents because she came from a similar struggle. She spoke fluently to the growing Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican communities.

With an 800 vote lead, she won the primary in the mid-June election. The competition in the general election put her up against fairly liberal James Farmer, renowned for his Civil Rights work. He co-founded the Congress of Racial Equality and helped organize the Freedom Rides.

They held comparable positions on issues of education, housing, employment, and both were against the Vietnam War. Shirley needed a way to distinguish herself. She did not have to look hard, as Farmer spoke of Shirley as a “little schoolteacher” and emphasized the need for a man’s voice in Washington. Shirley was able to point out this discrimination and show how men had failed to help the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. As a skilled orator, Shirley characterized Farmer as an outsider from Manhattan who could not fully understand or fight for the needs of the community. She won with 67% of the vote.

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