Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Shirley Chisholm: A Woman of Phenomenal Achievement

Laura Breck
In my September 10th blog, I remembered the amazing contribution my sister, Mary, made in my life and in hundreds of others'.

Today I want to talk about a woman my sister admired and supported, and who has also made a difference in the lives of many people. Shirley Chisholm.

Shirley Anita St. Hill was born in Brooklyn, New York, of immigrant parents. Her father was born in British Guiana and her mother was born in Christ Church, Barbados. At age three, Chisholm was sent to Barbados to live with her maternal grandmother for about seven years, after which she returned to New York City. In her 1970 autobiography Unbought and Unbossed, she wrote: "Years later I would know what an important gift my parents had given me by seeing to it that I had my early education in the strict, traditional, British-style schools of Barbados. If I speak and write easily now, that early education is the main reason."

Chisholm is an alumna of Girls High School, she earned her BA from Brooklyn College in 1946 and later earned her MA from Columbia University in elementary education in 1952. She was a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

From 1953 to 1959, she was director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center. From 1959 to 1964, she was an educational consultant for the Division of Day Care.

In 1964, Chisholm ran for and was elected to the New York State Legislature. In 1968, she ran as the Democratic candidate for New York's 12th District congressional seat and was elected to the House of Representatives. Defeating Republican candidate James Farmer, Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress. Chisholm joined the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969 as one of its founding members.

All those Chisholm hired for her office were women, half of them black. Chisholm said that during her New York legislative career, she had faced much more discrimination because she was a woman than because she was black.

In the 1972 U.S. presidential election, she made a bid for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. She survived three assassination attempts during the campaign. George McGovern won the nomination in a hotly contested set of primary elections. At the 1972 Democratic National Convention, as a symbolic gesture, McGovern opponent Hubert H. Humphrey released his black delegates to Chisholm, giving her a total of 152 first-ballot votes for the nomination. Chisholm's base of support was ethnically diverse and included the National Organization for Women. Chisholm said she ran for the office "in spite of hopeless odds... to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo."

Chisholm created controversy when she visited rival and ideological opposite George Wallace in the hospital soon after his shooting in May 1972, during the 1972 presidential primary campaign. Several years later, when Chisholm worked on a bill to give domestic workers the right to a minimum wage, Wallace helped gain votes of enough Southern congressmen to push the legislation through the House.

Throughout her tenure in Congress, Chisholm worked to improve opportunities for inner-city residents. She was a vocal opponent of the draft and supported spending increases for education, health care and other social services, and reductions in military spending.

In 1970, she authored a child care bill. The bill passed the House and the Senate, but was vetoed by President Richard Nixon, who called it "the Sovietization of American children."
In the area of national security and foreign policy, Chisholm worked for the revocation of Internal Security Act of 1950. She opposed the American involvement in the Vietnam War and the expansion of weapon developments. During the Jimmy Carter administration, she called for better treatment of Haitian refugees.

Chisholm wrote two autobiographical books. 1) Unbought and Unbossed: Expanded 40th Anniversary Edition. Take Root Media. ISBN 9780980059021. 2) The Good Fight. Harper Collins. ISBN 9780060107642.

Chisholm was married twice, first to Conrad Chisholm, a Jamaican private investigator from 1949 to 1977. Then in 1978, she married Arthur Hardwick Jr., a Buffalo businessman who died in 1986. Shirley announced her retirement from Congress in 1982. She had no children and moved to Florida when she retired.

After retirement she resumed her career in education, teaching politics and women's studies and being named to the Purington Chair at Mount Holyoke College from 1983 to 1987. In 1985 she was a visiting scholar at Spelman College. In 1984 and 1988, she campaigned for Jesse Jackson for the presidential elections. In 1993, then-President Bill Clinton nominated her to the ambassadorship to Jamaica, but she could not serve due to poor health. In the same year she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Chisholm died on January 1, 2005 in Ormond Beach near Daytona Beach. She was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, New York.

In February 2005, Shirley Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed, a documentary film was aired on the U.S public television. It chronicles Chisholm's 1972 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. The film was featured at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. On April 9, 2006, the film was announced as a winner of a Peabody Award.

"When I die, I want to be remembered as a woman who lived in the twentieth century and who dared to be a catalyst for change. I don't want be remembered as the first black woman who went to Congress, and I don't even want to be remembered as the first woman who happened to be black to make a bid for the presidency. I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the twentieth century. That's what I want."

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Her words make me think about what I'd like to be remembered for. It's a long and unruly list, but mainly I'd like to be known as a person who made a positive difference in the lives of those I touched. How about you? What do you want to be remembered for?

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Vonnie Davis said...

I want to be remembered for being a devoted mother, a loving grandma, loyal friend and determined romance writer.

Barbara Edwards said...

Wonderful post on a true ground-breaker. thanks for sharing.

Brenda Whiteside said...

Thanks for reminding me about a woman I so admired back a few years ago.

Jannine Gallant said...

Wow, what an amazing woman. I'd say Shirley accomplished her goal of being remembered for bringing positive change. Seems to me we could use her today!

I may not be remembered as someone who changed the world, but I'd like to think I make a positive difference in the lives of my family and friends. I want people to read my books and remember them - a high compliment indeed!

Jerri Hines/Carrie James-Haynes said...

Thank you for sharing your blog about Shirley Chisholm. It is important to remember the sacrifices she made so others would have opportunities. An amazing woman.

Alison H. said...

I graduated from high school the year Shirley Chisholm ran for President and I remember her well. However, I hadn't thought about her in several years. Thank you for reminding me of a woman who helped shape my life as a young adult.

Margaret Tanner said...

Great blog Laura and what an amazing woman Shirly was.