Chisholm had the audacity, and the political talent, to run for a newly drawn New York congressional seat in 1968 without the backing of the Brooklyn Democratic Party bosses. She described herself as “the people’s politician,” fighting for higher wages for working people and more money for public education and demanding respect for black Americans and women. When she got to Capitol Hill, she challenged institutional customs, pushing her way into spaces that had been the reserve of white men, making friends and enemies on both sides of the aisle by following her own political playbook.
I thought about Shirley Chisholm a few weeks ago when Oprah Winfrey’s speech at the Golden Globes, in which she praised the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements against sexual harassment and assault, incited speculation in the news media and on social media about whether she would run for president. (In an interview in the March issue of InStyle magazine, Winfrey said she is not interested in being on the ballot in 2020. “I don’t have the DNA for it,” she said.) Chisholm, again without anyone’s permission or support, ran for president in 1972, the first black American to seek a major party presidential nomination. Her candidacy generated nowhere near the excitement or sense of possibility that animated the debate about a Winfrey run for the White House, but Chisholm was undaunted, waging a passionate and earnest campaign promising to combat poverty and discrimination, protect the environment and unite a country fractured by urban unrest and the Vietnam War.
Fifty years after Chisholm was elected to Congress, the country is wrestling with some of the same social and political issues — racial tensions, women’s equality, disillusionment with Washington. And those stepping up to take on these challenges bear a striking resemblance to Chisholm — women, especially women of color, speaking up about sexual abuse, taking to the streets to protest President Trump’s views and policies and running for office in record numbers, most without the blessing or help of the political establishment.
Several women’s names have been mentioned as possible presidential candidates in 2020 and a record number of women could follow Chisholm’s example and become members of Congress after this year’s midterm elections. As of this month, 439 women have filed or expressed interest in running for Congress — nearly twice the number of women in the same position as two years ago, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics.
Chisholm’s persona — an independent, outspoken, advocate for marginalized groups and liberal causes — often put her at odds with an establishment that wasn’t used to interacting with black people and women as peers. One of Chisholm’s more notorious standoffs involved her protesting her assignment to the Agriculture Committee when she first arrived in Congress. The House Speaker at the time, Rep. John McCormack (D-Mass.) reminded her that as a freshman she should just be a “good soldier.” Chisholm instead raised her complaint on the House floor, and she was reassigned to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. She acknowledged her victory by noting, “There are a lot more veterans in my district than trees.”
She both embraced and pushed back against efforts to label her. In her speech announcing her presidential campaign she declared: “I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I am equally proud of that.”
“I am the candidate of the people of America,” she said.
Her forceful confrontation of those who would try to constrain her because of her race and gender is what has made her political identity a template for a new generation of black women running for office. “Unbought and unbossed” is the perfect mantra for the intersectional feminist.
Glynda Carr is co-founder of Higher Heights for America, an organization that recruits and trains black women to run for office and provides them with campaign support. Chisholm is the spiritual godmother of the organization; her image and quotes frequently appear on Higher Heights’ website and in its social media campaigns.
“What I love about her life and her legacy is she is the embodiment of the idea that every person, particularly every black woman, has a role to play,” Carr said. She cited another Chisholm quote, a call to action for people who are unhappy with what they see around them: “You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.”
Chisholm had been a nursery schoolteacher, day-care center operator and consultant to the city of New York before she ran for the New York Assembly in 1965, becoming only the second black woman elected to the body. Three years later, she went for the congressional seat. Carr said Chisholm is a role model because she demonstrates to black women that “not only can you run for office, but you can envision yourself in higher office. … She allows us to envision a black woman in the White House.”
When Chisholm was running for the highest office in the early 1970s, Barbara Lee — now a Democratic congresswoman from California — was a community worker with the Black Panther Party and a student at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. Back then, she was not a registered voter and defiantly declared that electoral politics was not the solution to issues affecting black communities.
She was so adamant in her view that she was prepared to flunk a political science class that required students to volunteer for a presidential campaign. No way, she declared, would she work for any of the men running for president that year.
“Give me an F,” she recalls telling her professor.
Lee, who was president of the black student union at Mills College, had invited Chisholm to speak about her historic role as the first black woman in Congress. She didn’t know about Chisholm’s presidential campaign, which hadn’t gotten much media coverage.
“I went up to her and talked to her and told her about this class that I was about to flunk. She said, ‘Little girl, are you registered to vote?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not going to,'” Lee recalled. “And she really let me have it about the importance of voting.”
Lee said she asked her professor to hold off on giving her that failing grade. Instead, she helped organize Chisholm’s Northern California campaign effort. She said she got an A in the class and went to that year’s Democratic National Convention in Miami as one of Chisholm’s 152 delegates.
“Shirley became a close friend and a mentor,” said Lee, who started her political career in 1990 in California State Assembly and was elected to Congress in 1998, representing parts of the Bay Area.
She said Chisholm “taught me a lot and I saw how she operated with those guys in D.C. and had to fight her way into everything and stood her ground.”
Only once did Lee find herself at odds with Chisholm. After George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor who also was running for the Democratic nomination, was shot and severely wounded in an attempted assassination, Chisholm went to visit him in the hospital. She explained it as a simple act of human decency, but Lee and others were incredulous.
“I was so angry. I said, ‘How could she do that?’ This man is a racist!’’
Lee would later get to know Wallace’s daughter, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, who said her father had been deeply touched by Chisholm’s kindness and it helped him come to understand that his segregationist views were wrong.
Chisholm, who was a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Women’s Caucus, served 14 years in the House. She died on Jan. 1, 2005, at the age of 80.
Numerous pieces were written about Chisholm in 2016, during Hillary Clinton’s historic candidacy as the first woman to head a major party’s presidential ticket. And in 2008, some writers and activists noted that Barack Obama achieved Chisholm’s goal of becoming the first black American to be elected president. She is credited with having paved the way for both political pioneers, as well as for The Rev. Jesse Jackson, whose presidential bids in 1984 and 1988 started a new era of black political activism.
And she still inspires, even for those starting near the bottom of the ladder.
Tamaya Dennard, 38, a first-time candidate who won a seat on the Cincinnati City Council last fall, used another of Chisholm’s famous quotes during her campaign: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”