The Forgotten Story of the First Black Woman to Run for President

Before Barack Obama, before Hillary Clinton, there was a fiery inner-city Black woman vying for the presidential nomination. In 1972, Shirley Chisholm made U.S. history by becoming the first Black woman to seek the nomination from a major party, managing to land herself on 12 ballots and obtaining 152 delegates at the Democratic National Convention. Sadly, her story has faded from the public memory, despite her huge contribution to politics and the groundwork she laid to break both race and gender barriers.

Political historians and the Black community are aiming to change that — in 2015, she was awarded a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom, while her face is popping up on posters in New Orleans. She might be pleased: During her career and later years, she stressed that she wanted to be remembered as a force for change, not just a figurehead.

Chisholm was born in 1924, to working class parents in New York. She spent much of her childhood in Barbados before returning to New York for school — a parallel with Barack Obama’s time in Indonesia — and at first entered the education field, where she qualified as a teacher and worked in childcare and education policy. Her interests quickly turned to politics, though, as she witnessed social inequalities and wondered if it would be possible to build a better world, particularly for women, people of color, immigrants and low-income people. She successfully ran for the New York State Assembly and served there from 1965 to 1968, making her a prime candidate for a Congressional run.

White Democrats may have thought they were getting a token, but they were wrong — as the first Black woman in Congress, she made no bones about making waves. Chisholm served seven terms, returning to teaching in 1982, and her time in Washington was far from tame. She founded the Congressional Black Caucus, and advocated ferociously for women, children, workers, immigrants and the Black community. One of her initiatives included substantial contributions to the development of Women, Infants, Children, a supplemental nutrition program still in use today, and during her time she introduced some 50 individual pieces of legislation.

Chisholm dealt with tremendous racism while she served her constituents. Recognizing that committees were key instruments to making laws, she applied for a number of them — including the education committee, a logical placement for a former teacher — to represent the interests of her constituents, and was soundly rebuffed. When she was shunted off into Agriculture, a placement that she pointed out made absolutely no sense given her areas of expertise and district, her protests eventually forced a move to Veterans’ Affairs. It might not have been the committee she was best suited to, but she took to it with relish.

“Tremendous amounts of talent,” she once remarked, “are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt.” It’s a sentiment that echoes today, and has certainly hounded Clinton’s 2008 and 2016 campaigns, both of which have been prone to vicious sexist attacks. It was also the sentiment that drove her to announce her candidacy for the Democratic nomination in 1972, calling herself “unbought and unbossed.” She suspected her campaign wouldn’t result in a nomination, but felt it was important to participate in order to bring attention to issues that the Democratic Party wasn’t addressing.

She wasn’t the first woman to seek the nomination — Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith tried her hand in 1964 — but she was the first Black woman, and the Civil Rights Movement was still fresh on everyone’s mind. As in Congress, racism dogged her campaign. She was subject to several assassination attempts, and she ended up having to sue to get into the debate when officials tried to exclude her. It became another motivator for strongly speaking out about social issues, something that made her an icon and a role model for many young Black women, like Barbara Lee, who worked on her campaign and later went on to serve in Congress, representing California. Among other things, Lee is famous for being the only member of Congress who voted against the use of force in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The response to her opposition was extremely hostile, but she held her ground, firmly believing that embarking on a military mission against terrorism was both morally wrong and an inappropriate use of American resources.

Today, we can thank Shirley Chisholm for a number of important social programs, for the rise of the Black community in Congress, and for scores of opportunities for young Black women interested in entering politics. In 2008, her name became a popular subject of conversation again as Clinton and Obama faced off in an attempt to break the race or gender barrier in the White House. Barack Obama ended up winning that election and taking the oath of office in 2009 — perhaps it will be Hillary Clinton in 2017. If it is, hopefully she’ll give a tip of the hat to her Democratic forebearer.

After an outspoken and lively public life, Shirley Chisholm died in 2005, leaving a tremendous legacy behind.

Photo credit: Nancy Pelosi

53 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus C1 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Sarah Hill
Sarah H1 years ago

I remember when she ran.

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Marie W.
Marie W1 years ago

Must not forget.

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Susan T.
Susan T1 years ago

I REMEMBER SHIRLEY CHISOLM! She was awesome. I saw a good documentary on PBS about her - I THINK this is the full show on YouTube
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oz3tVS7xR3o

If it's the same show I saw, one of the most interesting parts of it is at the Democratic convention, when other candidates are seeking her delegates, and how she handles the negotiations for that. She was a tremendous fighter against serious odds.

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Thomas M.
Thomas M1 years ago

She was a great legislator and human being.

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Margaret Goodman
Margaret G1 years ago

I am proud to say that I supported Shirley Chisholm in 1972.

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Rose Becke
Rose B1 years ago

Wow

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Margie FOURIE
Margie FOURIE1 years ago

Black, white, male for female, we are all the same and should be accepted as such.

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Anne Moran
Anne M1 years ago

Interesting story, interesting woman... Love that she didn't let anyone get in her way...

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Naomi Dreyer
Naomi D1 years ago

Thanks - wonderful about Shirley Chisholm

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