Shirley Chisholm is widely known for her history-making turn in 1972 when she became the first African American from a major political party to run for president and the first Democratic woman of any race to do so. But Chisholm’s presidential bid was far from Chisholm's only accomplishment throughout her 80-year life.
Born Shirley Anita St. Hill to a Guyanese American father and a Barbadian American mother in Brooklyn, New York, on November 30, 1924, Chisholm excelled first in school and then in her political career.
Chisholm Came From a Low-Income NYC Neighborhood
At a young age, Chisholm demonstrated that she had an aptitude for academics and activism alike. “She came from one of the poorest communities in New York City,” says Julie Gallagher, associate professor of history and American studies at Penn State Brandywine and author of Black Women and Politics in New York City. “Her parents struggled in the economic crisis, and they faced discrimination, but she had incredible intellect, and that was recognized.”
Chisholm spent part of her childhood in Barbados with her grandmother and then attended the prestigious Girls’ High School in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Chisholm went on to Brooklyn College, where she received awards for her skills as a debater, joined the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Harriet Tubman Society. While a student, Chisholm advocated for an African American history curriculum and for more women to be student government leaders, among other causes.
She Earned a Masters in Elementary Education
Chisholm graduated from Brooklyn College in 1946 and earned her master’s degree in elementary education from Columbia University’s Teachers College five years later. Her studies and work experience in preschools later helped her advocate for early childhood education and working mothers. In 1954, Chisholm became director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center, and later she consulted for the New York City Bureau of Child Welfare.
She Campaigned for Brooklyn's First Black Judge
Chisholm kicked off her political career in 1953 when she campaigned for Lewis Flagg Jr. to become Brooklyn’s first Black judge, which led to her involvement in the Belford-Stuyvesant Political League, a group that fought for economic empowerment and civil rights. From there, she took part in other political groups, including the League of Women Voters, the Brooklyn Democratic Clubs, and the Unity Democratic Club.
She Served in the NY State Assembly
Chisholm drew upon her experiences in Brooklyn’s political scene to successfully run for the New York State Assembly in 1964. She served in the role from 1965 to 1968, and her major achievements included granting domestic workers unemployment benefits and a program that gave underprivileged students the opportunity to attend college while taking remedial education classes. New York’s youth continue to benefit from these programs today.
“Her ascension to the New York State Assembly allowed her to do bold steps around the issues important to working New Yorkers,” says Glynda Carr, president and CEO of Higher Heights for America, an advocacy group focused on increasing Black women’s political representation. “When you look at the legislation and the issues that she championed, it comes from her immigrant background.”
She Was the First Black Woman Elected to Congress
Using the motto “unbought and unbossed,” which she would also name her 1970 autobiography, Chisholm ran for the seat in New York’s 12th congressional district in 1968 and won, becoming the first African American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Chisholm was an active House member during her tenure, which spanned from 1969 to 1983. She served on various committees, including the House Agriculture Committee, the Veterans' Affairs Committee, and the Education and Labor Committee. She later joined the Rules Committee, which she said gave her more clout than her previous committees; she was the first Black woman to serve in that capacity.
Her Presidential Bid Brought Racial and Gender Equity to the National Stage
It was during her term as a congresswoman that Chisholm launched her 1972 bid for president. She became the first Black person to seek the presidential nomination from one of the two major parties (the first woman was Margaret Chase Smith, who sought the Republican nomination in 1964).
During her run, Chisholm pushed a platform focused on racial and gender equity, elevating those issues to the national stage. (She also adopted yellow and purple as her campaign’s colors—possibly inspiring future politicians, including Vice President Kamala Harris, to wear purple in her honor.)
She Advocated for Reproductive Rights
While in Congress, Chisholm was named the honorary co-president of National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) in 1969 and became co-founder the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1970.
“Here's a woman who fought for reproductive rights for her community at a time when that was not necessarily the hot-button issue,” Carr says. “She knew economically-thriving and safe communities were tied to education and health care, and health care included women's reproductive rights.”
She Fought to Broaden Food Stamp Programs and Increase Minimum Wage
In 1971, Chisholm became a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women's Political Caucus. Her efforts to broaden the food stamp program and to establish the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children are among Chisholm’s lasting contributions as a congresswoman. During this time, Chisholm also wrote her second book, The Good Fight, published in 1973.
In 1974, one of Chisholm’s most important pieces of legislation—the 1974 minimum wage law—passed through Congress. That bill expanded minimum wage standards to apply to domestic workers, as well as to more state and local government employees. “That was absolutely another one of her significant achievements,” says Gallagher.
Chisholm served in a congressional leadership role, Secretary of the House Democratic Caucus, from 1977 to 1981. After her second husband, former New York State Assemblyman Arthur Hardwick Jr., sustained serious injuries during a car accident, Chisholm announced in 1982 that she was leaving politics to nurse him back to health.
She Co-Founded the National Congress of Black Women
After she retired from Congress, Chisholm was appointed Purington Chair at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
In 1984, she and C. Delores Tucker co-founded the National Congress of Black Women, and, in 1990, she co-founded African American Women for Reproductive Freedom.
She Was Tapped to Serve as Ambassador to Jamaica
While President Bill Clinton nominated her to serve as United States Ambassador to Jamaica in 1993, Chisholm’s failing health prevented her from accepting the honor. She died 12 years later in Ormond Beach, Florida, but the politician, an inductee in the National Women's Hall of Fame, continued to earn accolades posthumously.
Of her legacy, Chisholm once said, “I want to be remembered as a woman … who dared to be a catalyst of change.”