July 12th in (Feminist) History

800px-shirley_chisholmOn this day in 1972, Shirley Chisholm received 152 votes in the Democratic National Convention’s first ballot, making her the first black candidate for president (from a major political party) and the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. She was born Shirley St. Hill in 1924 in a predominantly black neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY, but due to her parents troubles finding work, she and her sisters spent about five years in Barbados with their grandmother; as a result, Shirley spoke with a West Indian accent for the rest of her life. Thanks to that time in Barbados, she also got to attend a British-style school that took education very seriously, a fact which she later stated was an “important gift” form her parents, as it meant she could speak and write easily. After attending the Girls’ High School in Brooklyn (an integrated, well-regarded school), she went on to graduate Brooklyn College in 1946, and then began teaching and later earned her MA in elementary education at Columbia University.

She worked in aspects of child care for numerous years, including as the director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center (1953-1959), and then as an educational consultant for the NYC Bureau of Child Welfare (1959-1964). In 1968, she became the first African-American congresswoman in the U.S.,  as a Democratic member of the New York State Assembly. She ran for New York’s 12th congressional district, which had recently been re-drawn (as part of a court-mandated reapportionment plan) to allow more focus on Bedford-Stuyvesant, a predominantly black area. Her campaign slogan was “Unbought and unbossed”.

Shirley was first assigned to the House Agricultural Committee, which she thought was pointless considering her constituents were in urban Brooklyn. At the advice of a friend (a Rabbi), she used the position to expand the food stamp program, eventually leading to the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). Eventually she asked to be reassigned, and she was moved to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and later (after helping get Hale Boggs elected as House Majority Leader) to the Education and Labor Committee.

Every single staff member that Shirley hired for her office were women, and half of them were African-American. In 1969 she was one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and in the same year she also became a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus. She was known for her support of minority employment opportunities and education, and as an opponent to the military draft. It was in 1972 that she ran for the Democratic nomination; though her campaign was underfunded from the beginning and she received very little support from her colleagues, especially her black male colleagues. Her husband supported her, however, and even provided support as a bodyguard (she had numerous threats to her life) before Secret Service protection was given to her.

Unfortunately, Shirley didn’t win the nomination, though she received the aforementioned 152 votes. The winner, George McGovern, got 1,728 delegates. She continued in Congress, however, and during her time following she worked on a bill to get minimum wage to domestic workers; it passed to the House with the help of her conservative opponent in the presidential election, who she had visited in the hospital after his shooting during the campaign. Her first marriage ended in divorce in 1977 and she remarried a NY State Assemblyman. When he was injured in a car accident, Shirley– who was also disillusioned with liberal politics following the Reagan Revolution– retired from Congress in 1983 . She eventually went on to teach at Mount Holyoke College, covering politics involving women and race, and also gave numerous speeches at colleges across the country.

She died in 2005 at the age of 80, and was posthumously given the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. Her campaign was later credited as paving the way for the paths of two Democrats in the 2008 Presidential Election– both Hillary Clinton, as a woman, and Barack Obama, as a black man.


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