Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was the first black woman to serve in the United States Congress. She became the first black woman to actively run for the presidency of the United States, she won ten percent of the votes at the Democratic National Convention.
Shirley Anita St. Hill was born November 20,1924, in Brooklyn, New York. She was the oldest of four sisters and daughter of Charles and Ruby St. Hill. Described as a "proud black man" who was a voracious reader, Charles St. Hill worked as a baker's helper and eventually secured a job in a factory. He became a staunch union man and a follower of the black independence principles of Marcus Garvey, instilling in his daughters a strong work ethic and pride in their race. Her mother, Ruby Seale, when not at her sewing machine, would assist neighborhood women many first-generation Jews from central and eastern Europe."Because she was English-speaking and could give advice about bills and other legal pitfalls of city life, she became a kind of neighborhood oracle and leader".
A believer in the importance of self-reliance and education Chisholm's mother found it very difficult to raise a family and make a living. In 1928, she went back to Barbados, taking Shirley, Odessa, and Muriel in tow with the intention of leaving them in the care of her mother until finances improved. For the next seven years Chisholm and her sisters lived with grandmother Emmeline Seale, "a tall, gaunt, erect, Indian-looking womans with her hair knotted on her neck" a strict disciplinarian and "one of the few persons whose authority I would never dare to defy, or even question". By the time Chisholm was four years old, her grandmother had enrolled her in the village school, where the discipline was just as strict as it was at home. She was expected to study hard and complete her chores on the farm every day after school.
At the end of 1933, now the mother of a forth daughter, whom she named Selma, and unsuccessful in regaining a financial foothold on the family's life, Ruby returned to Barbados to pick up her daughters and reunite the family in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, New York. Nine-year-old Chisholm was not only shocked by the cold weather and the unfamiliarity of urban living, but she was placed below her appropriate grade level because she was unacquainted with American history and geography even though her reading and writing ability were above grade level. In no time, Chisholm achieved the required knowledge and completed her elementary and secondary education in New York City public schools.
In 1942, after having held the office of vice president of the honor society and with scholarship offers to Vassar and Oberlin Colleges, Chisholm graduated from the prestigious Girls' High School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, where the family had moved to in 1936. However, unable to afford out-of-state room and board, in the fall of 1942 she enrolled in Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. The racism of tire time excluded blacks from entering social work professions, medicine, science, and law, so Chisholm decided on a career as an early childhood teacher majoring in sociology and Spanish. She graduated cum laude in 1946. A fluent bilingual, she speaks and writes Spanish.
She began her career as a teacher of the Mt. Calvary Child Care Center in Harlem, where her experiences with underprivileged children reinforced her com-mitment to fight against ignorance and poverty and led to her becoming an ac-tivist in local Democratic politics, the League of Women Voters, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Throughout this period she also attended graduate school at Columbia University, where she com-pleted a master's degree in early childhood education. It was during graduate school that she met and married another graduate student, Conrad Chisholm. As her interest and participation in Brooklyn politics continued to grow, so did her realization that blacks, particularly women, were treated like second-class citizens. This led her to help form the Unity Democratic Club, whose membership included black men and women interested in politics, and where she realized that sexism was just as prevalent as it was among the white male establishment.
By 1959 she began to work for the New York City Division of Day Care, supervising ten centers while serving in the executive committee of the Unity Democratic Club. By 1964, after the Unity Club ousted the white Democratic establishment from Bedford-Stuyvesant and with the reluctance of some male members Chisholm was endorsed as candidate for the New York State Assembly. She beat her two male opponents by more than 17,000 votes. Her most important accomplishments as a New York assemblywoman include the bill that created the SEEK program, making college a possibility to students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. She was also responsible for the bill that set up New York's first unemployment insurance coverage for domestic employees. In addition, she sponsored a bill that allowed schoolteachers who were on maternity leave the right to return without losing their tenured status.
Chisholm's coalition-building skills played an important role when she ran for president. In 1972 she encouraged record numbers of blacks to register and vote, many for the first time in their lives. As a result she entered 11 primaries and re-ceived strong support from the south and southwest part of the country. Even though she lost the race, she received 151 votes in the Democratic convention and demonstrated that others, in addition to white males, could aspire the presidency of the United States. She documented this historical event in her 1972 book The Good Fight.
By the early 1980s Chisholm had been re-elected by large majorities and her seat in Congress was considered secure. She had led the fight for federal support of women's athletic programs and ended the control of white males in the House Democratic Caucus when she became its secretary. On many occasions she was at odds with her black colleagues' personal goals and publics stands. She was a supporter of black colleges, junior colleges, and community colleges, making sure they received a fair share of federal funding during the reorganization of the Higher Education Act in 1980. However, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 brought with it an increasingly conservative political climate and she retired at the end of 1982 in order to spend more time with her second husband, Arthur Chadwick Jr. the first black elected to the New York state Legislature who had been seriously hurt in a car accident that year.
Her political career was characterized by her struggle to bring equality in pay and education to the disenfranchised. Among the landmark legislation sponsored by Chisholm was expanding the minimum wage to include domestic workers and the establishment of Title I of the Education Act, which provides federal grants to school districts for the purpose of helping low-achieving students succeed in school. Her views created critics as well as loyalists, but she never deviated from her opinions. Described by former House Speaker Tip O'Neill in 1972 as one of "the most eloquent woman orators we have had," Chisholm attributes her success to the example set by her family and her Quaker faith.
The redistricting efforts of the late 1960s created the Twelfth Congressional District of Brooklyn the community where she grew up where in 1968 "Fighting Shirley Chisholm Unbought and Unbossed" (Chisholm 1970, 69) was elected the first black congresswoman in American history. She immediately challenged on the floor of the house her assignment to the Agriculture Committee, which in her view seemed inappropriate for someone who represented an urban district in one of the largest cities in the nation. Her strategy was successful, resulting in an assignment to the Veteran's Committee. In a move that was different from anything seen in Washington politics, she assembled a staff of mostly educated and outstanding women and became an outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam and a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. She also made history by sponsoring a bill to pay for a memorial to Mary McLeod, the first time federal funds were used to honor an African American. Even though she was at the forefront in her support of women's rights, she was also quick to point out the racial issues and the lack of black women in the mostly white feminist movement. Eventually she was appointed to the Education and Labor Committee, became the senior Democratic woman in the House of Representatives, and the first black to sit on the House Rules Committee. Her rise to power was documented in her 1970 autobiography Unbought and Unbossed, where she reflected on her political life.