Shirley Chisholm: Unbought and Unbossed

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s swearing-in as the first African American woman in Congress. To commemorate the historic event, the National Archives is having a special document exhibit in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, through April 3, 2019. Today’s post comes from Michael J. Hancock inf the National History Office.

The 2008 Democratic Presidential run was a watershed moment in American politics. For the first time, a woman and an African American man were the front-runners of a major political party for this nation’s highest office. Either candidate’s election would have disrupted the historical succession of white male Presidents. This was not the first time that a glass ceiling had been shattered in the political arena—long before 2008 there was a remarkable African American woman who attempted to buck the system and run a grassroots campaign for the Presidency. Her name was Shirley Chisholm.

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Shirley Chisholm shortly after her election to Congress in 1968. (National Archives Identifier 7452354)

Chisholm’s path eventually leading to her Presidential campaign began in Brooklyn, New York. She became increasingly involved with local Democratic politics in her Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood and was recruited to run as a candidate for the state assembly, where she served from 1964 to 1968. She was elected to Congress in 1968 from New York’s 12th Congressional District.

The new district was part of a court-mandated reapportionment plan that was considerably redrawn to highlight Bedford-Stuyvesant. Because of this, it was widely expected that Brooklyn would elect its first black member of Congress. In the Democratic primary, Chisholm defeated two other African American opponents, and in the general election she scored an upset victory over Liberal Party candidate and former director of the Congress of Racial Equality, James L. Farmer.

Her success was decisive: she won by an estimated two-to-one margin. As the first African American woman to ever serve, her rise to office was propelled by her campaign slogan: “Fighting Shirley Chisholm—Unbought and Unbossed.”

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Shirley Chisholm’s Oath of Office, 1/29/1961. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives)

Chisholm pushed back against her first assignment as a member of the House Agriculture Committee, arguing that it made little sense considering she represented an urban district. Her persistence paid off, and she was subsequently reassigned to the Education and Labor Committee.

Her new appointment was logical considering her earlier career as a teacher, and her new position suited her well—she eventually became the committee’s third highest-ranking member. During her time in Congress, she also coauthored and promoted a progressive childcare bill that would have become law if President Richard Nixon had not vetoed it.

Long before scholars coined the term “intersectionality,” Chisholm’s focus on the correlation between race, gender, and class demonstrated her keen ability to understand the political capital associated with its meaning. She worked toward constructing a coalition among those who had been traditionally kept outside of the political process and demonstrated her commitment to her principles by founding both the Congressional Black Caucus (1971) and the National Women’s Political Caucus (1972).

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President Richard Nixon meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, March 25, 1971. (National Archives Identifier 7822054)

Because of her experience in politics, Chisholm also understood, more than anyone, the obstacles to an authentic and respected career for her in Washington:

As a black person, I am no stranger to race prejudice. But the truth is that in the political world I have been far oftener discriminated against because I am a woman than because I am black.

Chisholm’s Presidential campaign was stifled by inadequate funding and poor organization. With the war in Vietnam dividing the nation, she soon discovered that her most likely supporters would wind up rallying around antiwar candidate George McGovern. She continued on despite repeated death threats, but in collecting just 152 delegate votes at the Democratic National Convention, she came well short of sustaining her candidacy. Despite her disappointment, Chisholm was able to retain her seat in Congress and remained there until her retirement in 1982.

Shirley Chisholm’s Presidential aspirations signaled the beginning of a political awakening. She voiced support for lesbian and gay rights, and she used her platform to challenge voters across the country to abandon the notion that citizens’ support should only be entrusted to “winnable” candidates (white males). Chisholm inspired people, particularly minorities, to frame their own narrative—to consider what changes were needed in our country and to recognize their own significance in the democratic process. 

Watch the National Archives clip from Accomplished Women: Shirley Chisholm:

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