Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm
November 30, 1924 – January 1, 2005
Shirley Anita St. Hill was the first of Charles St. Hill’s and Ruby Seale St. Hill’s four daughters to be born in Brooklyn, New York. Charles who emigrated from Guyana earned a living as a factory worker while Ruby was from Barbados and worked as a seamstress.
During the Great Depression, her parents experienced employment instability which made it difficult for them to also raise their children. As a result, St. Hill was sent to live with her maternal grandparents in Barbados during which time she was educated under the British system. Returning to Brooklyn around the age of ten, St. Hill would go on to graduate from Brooklyn Girls’ High in 1942 and Brooklyn College in 1946.
While attending Brooklyn College, St. Hill performed well as a member of the debate team and was encouraged to pursue a career in politics. But, St. Hill demurred as she felt being both Black AND female might be a hindrance. Instead, following graduation St. Hill pursued a career in education and over the next seven years worked as a nursery school teacher and daycare director.
In 1949, St. Hill married Conrad Q. Chisholm, a private investigator from Jamaica and became Shirley Chisholm. A few years later Chisholm received a master’s degree in early childhood education from Columbia University. With her new qualifications, Chisholm became a consultant to New York City’s Division of Day Care from 1959 to 1964.
During all of this activity, Chisholm was also an active member of various political and social justice organizations. In 1964, she became the second Black woman to serve in Albany following her election to the New York state legislature. While serving in the legislature, a court-ordered mandate created a new district that consisted of Bedford–Stuyvesant, Chisholm’s neighborhood. The new district was predominantly Black and Democratic which played a role in Chisholm deciding to run for Congress.
Chisholm ran against three Black competitors in the Democratic primary, two men and one woman. To promote her campaign, she used a sound truck to blast her voice and the promises of “Fighting Shirley” to the people in the neighborhood. After winning the Democratic nomination, Chisholm faced the general election where she had to contend with James Farmer, a prominent activist in the Civil Rights Movement.
Despite Farmer being a Republican, he shared many of Chisholm’s views on political and social issues and they were both against the Vietnam War. But, their views on the major political parties and gender roles differed and would prove to be key factors in the election.
Farmer believed that the Democratic Party did not value Black voters and thus underappreciated their votes. He also promoted the idea that Black women had dominated the Black community for too long and the time had come for a Black man to serve the community in Washington.
Chisholm responded by using Farmer’s words as examples of the sexism and gender bias that existed in the community and society in general. She also pointed out that Black men had previously served in office but were unable to deliver on campaign promises. She explained that she was running because as “Fighting Shirley” she’d been called upon by the people of the community. Her campaign proved victorious capturing 67% of the vote primarily due to the district being 80% Democrat.
No shrinking violet, Fighting Shirley flouted the usual conventions observed by new incoming members of Congress. During her first speech, she spoke out against the Vietnam War. After being assigned to the Committee on Agriculture she bypassed the person who oversaw Democratic committee appointments and brought her demands to the floor when her appeal to the Speaker of the House was unsuccessful.
Serving for seven terms in the House of Representatives, Chisholm was a member of several committees most of which focused on education, labor, or committee rules and reform. She was also a founding member of both the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) and the Congressional Women’s Caucus. Chisholm supported initiatives for equal rights and legal abortions but much of her attention focused on education in the form of backing federal funding and bills related to daycare, education, and school lunch. During her time in Congress Chisholm somehow managed to also write two books Unbought and Unbossed (1970) and The Good Fight (1973).
In 1972, Chisholm announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President. She became the first Black woman and only the second woman of any race to campaign for the presidency with a major party. The campaign boosted her national profile but also led to feelings of resentment from some members of the CBC. Some Black representatives and other politicians felt that Chisholm acted too independently and worked too closely with representatives outside of the CBC and the wider Black community. Chisholm’s campaign was unable to raise sufficient funds to sustain itself but she managed to be listed on 12 primary ballots and received 10% of delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention.
Chisholm continued to serve for another ten years before leaving Congress in 1983. She began touring the lecture circuit and returned to teaching before moving to Florida in 1991. Shirley Chisholm died from a stroke at the age of 80 in Ormond Beach, Florida.
- “CHISHOLM, Shirley Anita.” n.d. US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives. Accessed March 16, 2020. https://history.house.gov/People/Listing/C/CHISHOLM,-Shirley-Anita-(C000371)/.
- Michals, Debra. 2015. “Shirley Chisholm.” National Women’s History Museum. 2015. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/shirley-chisholm.
- “Shirley Chisholm.” 2018. History.com. A&E Television Networks. December 4, 2018. https://www.history.com/topics/us-politics/shirley-chisholm.
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