Shirley Chisholm’s motto and title for her autobiography “Unbought and Unbossed” summarizes the author’s trailblazing political career in which she became the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first in any major party to run for a presidential nomination.
Born to immigrant parents from Guyana and Barbados, the former teacher broke ground for women, serving seven terms in Congress where she championed anti-poverty programs, employment opportunities, and educational reform.
Chisholm’s public life began in the lowest ranks of politics. After earning a master’s at Columbia Teachers College and becoming a consultant for the Division of Day Care in New York Office of Children and Family Services, she spent years as a Democratic “party worker,” stuffing envelopes, organizing rallies, writing speeches, and answering phones.
In 1964, rebuking white politicians for dictating policies that affected the lives of majority-Black neighborhoods, Brooklyn College’s prize-winning debater became the second Black member of the New York State Legislature.
“Fighting Shirley,” as she came to be known, carried that bold attitude to Congress in 1968 after winning a newly reapportioned district. Initially assigned to the House Forestry Committee, she shocked many of her colleagues by demanding reassignment.
“I have no intention of just sitting quietly and observing,” she said. “I intend to focus attention on the nation’s problems.”
Her insistence earned her a seat on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee and later the Education and Labor Committee, as well as the House Rules Committee.
Chisholm introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation during her tenure in the House of Representatives, many of them focused on helping the poor, ending the Vietnam War, and advancing racial and gender equality. She fought for the Equal Rights Amendment, enlistment of women into public service, publicly funded daycare, parental leave, civil rights for Black people, voting rights for all, and women’s reproductive freedom.
The discrimination she faced over her race and gender was evident in her quest for the 1972 Democratic Party presidential nomination. Chisholm was blocked from participating in televised primary debates, and after taking legal action, was permitted to make just one speech. Still, she entered 12 primaries and garnered 152 of the delegates’ votes — 10 percent of the total.
Her presidential bid and outspoken personality made her one of the top 10 most-admired women in America in a 1974 Gallup Poll.
After retiring from Congress in 1983, Chisholm taught at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She also co-founded the National Political Congress of Black Women to address social, economic, educational, and political issues that have an impact on Black women.
Her distinguished career and the paths she created to increase participation by groups historically excluded from politics, such as Blacks and women, earned her a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015.
“I want to be remembered as a woman…who dared to be a catalyst of change,” Chisholm said.