Before Obama, there was Chisholm

“I want to be remembered as a woman … who dared to be a catalyst of change.”

Shirley Chisholm

As we are nearing the end of Black History Month, I wanted to write an article about someone who inspired many and fought for change. Recently, I watched a National Geographic documentary about the Los Angeles riots in 1992 – called ‘LA 92’ – and I highly recommend that you check it out. What resonated most with me was realising that still 28 years on from these riots, America’s justice system is pretty much the same. Looking at both the US and the UK, with leaders such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, it is disheartening to see the small progress that has really been made on the bigger scale of things. Racism and sexism are still very much ingrained in our society and on that note, I did some research on women of colour in politics. Coming across the name ‘Shirley Chisholm’ was unfamiliar to me, but after a few quick clicks, I was surprised that this was the first time I was hearing about this woman! I thought that what better time than now to share her story. Because before there was Obama and Hillary Clinton, there was…

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)

Shirley Chisholm was the first African American woman in Congress, representing New York’s 12th congressional district for seven terms. She was also an educator, as well as an author – most known for her autobiography, Unbossed and Unbought, which was her campaign slogan during her political and educational career.

Coming into politics as a woman already has its setbacks – even today. But back in the 70s, being a woman of colour in politics almost seemed impossible in America. Chisholm explained that she encountered a “double handicap” as both black and female. But due to to the redistricting of New York State in 1964, the district she lived in became predominantly Democratic – making way for winning herself a seat in Congress in 1968. During her time in Congress, she heavily advocated for racial and gender equality, the ending of the Vietnam War and immigrant rights. Chisholm was even successful in passing a bill which declared the individual, Marlene Holder, lawfully admitted to the United States for permanent residence, under the Immigration and Nationality Act. On top of this, Chisholm cofounded the Congressional Black Caucus. Being a child of West Indian Immigrant parents and a woman of colour, it was clear that these issues were a priority for her to tackle during her political career. She was given the nickname ‘Fighting Shirley’ due to the powerful force she brought to Washington D.C.

She didn’t stop there – in 1972, Chisholm made the move to run for the presidential nomination, although she did not have the intention winning. She wanted to prove that voters will vote for those who are qualified, rather than those who hold power. She stated in her campaign, “I stand before you today, to repudiate the ridiculous notion that the American people will not vote for qualified candidates, simply because he is not white or because she is not a male.” 

Finishing fourth in the nominations for candidacy still set a precedent, showing that those who can, will do – no matter gender or race. A nominee Chisholm was running against was George Wallace, a former Governor of Alabama and Democrat. Wallace is famously known for his speech during his Inaugural Address where he stated; “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!” Chisholm’s campaign stood for a lot of things that Wallace’s campaign stood against, making her campaign a representation of female empowerment and excellence.

After watching a few videos of Shirley being interviewed, I chose to include this one. You can really get a sense of her fiery and funny personality. Though she has experienced much discrimination for being exactly what the Western world overlooked at that time, she still was able to tell this story with a smile, grace and humour. This is what a strong woman looks like.

Chisholm retired as a politician in 1983 and went back to being an educator, teaching politics and sociology at an undergraduate level. She passed away in 2005, only three years before Obama’s presidency. Being so very forward and outspoken for her time, it is easy to say that Chisholm paved the way for politicians such as Obama and Hillary Clinton, as an African American, a woman, and a child of immigrant parents. She spoke up when other people stayed silent, and she stood up when other people stayed sitting. She was a woman of courage and I only wish I had known of her sooner.

“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, and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history.”

Shirley Chisholm

Even though it is important to recognise Shirley as the first black woman in Congress, she said “I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts… That’s how I’d like to be remembered.”

Being from the UK, I researched the diversity within the British parliament. As of the most recent election in 2019, there are 220 female MPs, of which, 63 are from an ethnic background. The Labour party accounts for having the most BAME members, going from 7 to 39 new members as of this past general election.

It is also worth knowing that the current Baby of the House is MP Nadia Whittome – a 23-year-old woman of colour and recent law graduate at the University of Nottingham. On her website, she writes that she is ‘a new kind of MP‘ and ‘from New York to right here in Nottingham – a new generation of progressive, radical politicians are taking centre stage. We are working class, we are women of colour, we know what it feels like to be oppressed and exploited and to be the victim of hate crime.’

Nadia Whittome is seen in the middle.

Although there is still a great need for more representation within the UK (and the US) government, this is definitely positive progress and these women are making historical change. I applaud each and every woman who is making a stand for the rights of those who have been denied or silenced. Women such as Shirley Chisholm and Nadia Whittome are the kind of women who give me hope for our future, and inspire me to keep on fighting and writing for equality and positive change. Although this specific month is dedicated to the recognition of black icons and history – it should not end here. The celebration of people such as Shirley Chisholm should be ongoing throughout the year. Enabling inspiring stories like hers to reach young women and to encourage their confidence as a woman, and of colour, in today’s society. Yes we have to take our wins when we can, but we shouldn’t be having to wait for them to be given to us. We’ve got to fight for them, and stories such as Shirley Chisholm’s is what keeps the fire alight. If Chisholm could do it in the seventies, we sure can do it now – and as women, we have to rise up together.

Upholding Shirley’s legacy: Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Talib (3/4 of the United States Congress ‘squad’) taking a picture with Shirley Chisholms portrait in the U.S. Capitol building.

‘I think Shirley Chisholm will go down in history as the one who really broke that barrier – that barrier that said to women, “Wait your turn.”‘

Donna Brazile




Works Cited:

  1. Featured image: https://www.history.com/topics/us-politics/shirley-chisholm
  2. Photo: Library of Congress
  3. Campaign poster: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gifted with pride from Ellen Brooks
  4. Photo: Don Hogan Charles/New York Times Co./Getty Images
  5. Photo: http://nadiawhittome.org/photo-gallery/

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