Shirley Chisholm: Unbought and Unbossed

Before Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) took on President Donald Trump or Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) grilled Judge Brett Kavanaugh during a contentious Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing for the U.S. Supreme Court, there was Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm. Chisholm broke race and gender barriers as the first Black woman elected to Congress in 1968. Her political career began with a simple truth: “I ran because someone had to go first.” Her courageous willingness to lead cleared the path for representatives of marginalized groups to follow her into the halls of Congress and eventually into the White House with the election of Barack Obama as president.

At the height of the Civil Rights, Black Power and Women’s Movements, Chisholm entered national politics ushering in a new era in American politics that demanded greater inclusion. Her very presence helped to change Congress from a “White Men Only” space and opened possibilities for more women and Black politicians to claim a seat at the table. She challenged the Democratic Party to become more inclusive well before the party established itself as welcoming to women, racial minorities and other marginalized groups. Chisholm disrupted the masculine norms of Black political leadership, which understood itself as solely the purview of men, particularly Black charismatic male clergy. Chisholm gave voice to Black women’s unique perspectives in politics. Today’s recognition of the pivotal role Black women as voters who swing elections with the veracity of their voter-turnout power and as breakthrough candidates for public office is in many ways attributable to Chisholm’s determination to be first, but not the last, Black woman in politics.

Chisholm cut her political teeth as a New York assemblywoman. When elected to Congress, she arrived making clear that she was there to represent her constituents, which meant having a voice on the issues of importance in their lives. Chisholm rejected an assignment to the House Committee on Agriculture, which she surmised had the least impact on her urban, mostly Black and Puerto Rican constituents of Brooklyn. She became known as a “political firebrand” willing to fight for those who elected her. Chisholm also proved herself as an institution builder, helping to found the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues.

Chisholm was an unapologetically complex Black woman informed by the political era. She embraced and verbalized the militancy while at the same time cloaked in a lady-like demure package — sporting skirted suits, fur jackets and perfectly coiffed hair — all seemingly signaling adherence to traditional politics grounded in respectability. Her direct, straightforward style eschewed feminine, genteel stereotypes, which won her as many supporters as it lost. Black male leaders found her style abrasive and brash, and often responded by attempting to exclude her. According to Chisholm, her Black male counterparts found her “hard to handle.”

In 1972, Chisholm ran for president, becoming the first Black woman to run from a major political party. Her willingness to speak up against the system gave life to the idea that an extreme outsider could change the system itself. Her campaign mobilized disaffected nonvoters, generated excitement and inspired political agency in everyday people. We see the evidence of Chisholm’s legacy in many of today’s high-profile Black women political leaders like Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Georgia’s Stacey Abrams.

Shirley Chisholm always vehemently opposed characterizations of her political career, especially her presidential run, as largely symbolic. History however proves that she remains a catalyzing symbol of what is possible for Black women who break barriers. She is a hallmark symbol of what it means to be the first, but her determination not to be the only or the last transformed American politics.

— Wendy Smooth, Ph.D., is Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer for the College of Arts and Sciences at The Ohio State University.

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