On Jan. 3, the United States Congress opened its halls to 535 Americans eager for public service. Women held only 149 seats in the 118th Congress, so gender equality fell short.
A key turning point in history for women in U.S. politics came on a hot and humid night in Miami, Florida. On July 12, 1972, at the Democratic National Convention, Shirley Chisholm became the first Black person and first woman nominated for President of the United States by a major political party.
But historians have ignored Chisholm’s life story. The only written accounts of her life are in her memoirs, Unbought and Unbossed and The Good Fight.
For that reason, Anastasia C. Curwood, University of Kentucky associate professor of history, spent 15 years investigating and researching the life of the Black feminist whose signature slogan, “Unbought and Unbossed,” implies she’s an “independent, principled, fearless warrior.”
“I first encountered Shirley Chisholm as a child in my own family’s collection of photos. There, in black-and-white with younger versions of my parents, was an elegant, dark-skinned woman with an infectiously broad smile. Mistaking her for my father’s sister, he corrected me: ‘That’s Shirley Chisholm. She ran for president, and when you grow up you can, too,’” Curwood wrote in Shirley Chisholm: Champion of Black Feminist Power Politics (2023).
Shirley Chisholm chronicles how a daughter of immigrant parents developed into a Black feminist who refused to give in to the male dominated status quo. Her grit and passion resulted in her election as the first Black woman to take a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Chisholm’s politics centered on uplifting the most marginalized. She fought tirelessly for increased funding for healthcare, education, housing and higher wages for working class people.
Early in life, she learned the power of building coalitions with diverse communities and religions.
While growing up in Brooklyn, she sat with her mother and Jewish neighbors in parks, “sometimes laughing over shared jokes.” As she rose in politics, being fluent in Spanish gave her the ability to connect with Latinx communities.
In high school, being a member of the Harriet Tubman Society taught her about race and politics.
As she navigated life, she realized that “racism is so universal in this country, so widespread and deep-seated, that it is invisible because it is so normal.”
As the first woman in the Congressional Black Caucus, Chisholm received a lukewarm welcome. However, Parren Mitchell, Ron Dellums, and at times, John Conyers warmed up to her. Curwood’s research shows that Dellums did his best to get other congress members to understand what was at stake. Chisholm, however, found that patrimony interfered with all her efforts, noting that Dellums’ support made little difference.
“It’s something I’ll never forget as long as I live: how this question of being a woman got in the way of everything. They used so many strategies to stop me but nothing stopped me,” Chisholm would later say.
Today’s women in politics benefit from Chisholm’s audacity, as seen by the progressive nature of “The Squad.”
Ayanna Pressley, a Boston city council member who won her seat by beating the Democratic incumbent, Ilhan Omar, from Minneapolis, emigrated from Somalia as a child; Rashida Tlaib won John Conyers’s Detroit seat after his retirement in 2017 due to allegations of sexual misconduct; and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won an upset victory over the incumbent in the Bronx.
The Squad’s legislative ideas match Chisholm’s goals, e.g., increased funding for working class people’s healthcare, education, housing and higher wages for working class people.
The importance of Chisholm’s boldness is emphasized in two quotes: “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” which she took from Frederick Douglass’ writings. She’s also credited for saying, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”