Shirley Chisholm was sworn in as the first African-American congresswoman in 1969. However, she was not warmly welcomed and was often ignored as a symbolic political figure. Plus, she continually bucked the system usually by refusing to continue the outdated Congressional traditions. She took progressive positions, voting “no” on all military appropriations bills, helping raise money for the Black Panther Party, and supporting strikes. She was pro-choice, spoke out against the draft, and used her political position to point out many discriminations including sexual, racial, and class. She continued to speak all across the country on women in politics, encouraging black women to break the stereotypical mold. She fiercely defended her constituents.
Her congressional committee assignment was to the Agriculture Committee and a Forestry subcommittee instead of in her area of expertise. This was just another way for some of her colleagues to take her less seriously. Shirley took her request for reassignment above the one who gave it to her, straight to the House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts who said to be a “good soldier” and serve the committee assigned to her.
Unsatisfied, she went to the House floor with the reassignment request. She argued that her district had no forests or farms in it, that the assignment was ludicrous. Her presentation worked, and after shocking Capitol Hill, she was eventually re-assigned to Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which proved a much more suitable match her background and the needs of her constituency.
Then, in 1972, Shirley Chisholm announced her plan to run as the first African-American woman in a major party to seek the Presidency. Several women before her had run under minor-party nominations including a black woman. She accepted the unlikelihood of winning but decided to run because someone had to be the first. She asserted that anyone, a woman and a black woman at that, has just as much of a right to run for POTUS as any white man.
She used her original campaign slogan of “Unbought and Unbossed” and ran her entire campaign on only $300,000, a sum equivalent to $1.7 million today.
She received a myriad of reactions, from supportive to bigoted and hateful. She received written and verbal threats and was attacked on three separate incidents on the campaign trail, once with a 10-inch blade.
She saw first-hand just how much sexism pervaded the political arena even amongst the black politicians. The National Black Political Convention refused their support of her candidacy and the Congressional Black Caucus, the organization that she helped to create, was split in their decision to support her. Both of these organizations had been asking for a black candidate for years, but when it can down to it, they were looking for a black male candidate.
Even though she fought for their agenda, they withheld support. Black politicians sought more leverage with a white candidate rather than supporting their own. Shirley lost substantial feminist votes also due to this viewpoint. Further loosing those who did not agree with her Black Panther endorsement.
Shirley was derided as taking votes away from more serious candidates. She responded clearly, that her wish for the future would be that black and female candidates would be taken more seriously.
Out of twelve candidates, Shirley was ranked fourth. Yet, she was excluded from the televised debate of front-running candidates. Shirley filed a suit against the Federal Communications Commission and won. She participated in the debates; unfortunately, the moderator did not take her very seriously.
Shirley’s name made it onto a handful of ballots, and she won 67% of the vote in the New Jersey primary. She spoke at the Democratic National Convention and Herbert Humphrey even released his black delegates to vote for her, as soon as he realized that he would not win the nomination. She received a total of 152 delegates but eventually released them to vote for George McGovern, who lost to incumbent Richard Nixon. Shirley returned to her seat in the House after the convention, to carry on work. She was listed as one of the top ten most admired women in the nation by a Gallup poll in 1974.
She continued to challenge the standard; she brought up the issues around sexual discrimination in the government as well as pointed out to the predominantly white feminists, the need to include their sisters in the fight. Criticizing Democrats and Republicans alike, she was always willing to work with whomever to get legislation passed. In 1974 Shirley reached out to segregationist George Wallace, who had taken a liking to Shirley, considering his views, and called on his fellow Southern congressmen to get a bill granting minimum wage to domestic workers.
Shirley Chisholm always fought hard for the have-nots. Her staff was mostly women, and during her time in office, she introduced more than fifty pieces of legislation. She sought noble causes such as increased funding for extending daycare facility hours, expanded the food stamp program to be available in every state, supported the school lunch bill and led the fight against President Ford’s veto of the same bill. She fought hard for immigrants’ rights, domestic workers’ rights as well as helped to establish the National Commission on Consumer Protection and Product Safety. Shirley worked her way up serving on Congressional committees, serving the 12th District of New York for seven terms. She helped found the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) in 1971 and had a seat on the Education and Labor Committee.