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Sweatpants & Equality | Celebrating Shirley Chisholm

By Jessica Grey

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Ninety-two years ago today, two immigrants—her mother from Barbados and her father from Guyana—living in Brooklyn welcomed their first daughter, Shirley Anita St. Hill. Shirley would go on to be the second Black woman to serve in the New York State Assembly, the first Black woman to serve in the United States Congress, the first Black person to run as a major-party candidate for the office of the President of the United States, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party nomination.

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As her parents were both working full-time, Shirley and her sisters were sent to live with their maternal grandmother in Barbados for several years. These years proved incredibly formative for her, shaping her own academic goals and her belief in the importance of early education. She graduated from Brooklyn College, taught in a nursery school while she pursued her M.A. in elementary education at Columbia University, and married Conrad Chisholm. She would go on to serve as the director of Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center and Friends Day Nursery through most of the 1950s. She then acted as an education consultant for NYC’s Division of Daycare. Her experience in these roles earned her a reputation as an authority on child welfare and early education and greatly informed her political career—a career that would take off in 1964 with her election to the New York State Assembly.

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Very much embodying the feminist adage that “the personal is political,” Chisholm’s tenure in the State Assembly was marked by her championing extending to domestic workers—a workforce her mother was a member of—the benefits and protections other workforces enjoyed and her push for education initiatives like SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge), which gave disadvantaged students the opportunity to enter post-secondary education while also receiving remedial education.

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In 1968, as the result of a court-mandated reapportionment plan, New York’s 12th congressional district was up for grabs and Chisholm decided to run for it under the banner of her campaign motto “Unbought and Unbossed.” As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Shirley Chisholm sponsored and pushed for progressive legislation—some, like the Adequate Income Act that would have established a universal income, were so progressive they wouldn’t get traction today. She had quite a bit more success with other initiatives. She was assigned to the House Agricultural Committee, despite her request to join the Education and Labor Committee. Chisholm, nevertheless—inspired by a conversation with a rabbi living in her district—worked to make that apparently nonsensical committee appointment one that would positively impact underserved constituencies, namely the poor. She worked with Bob Dole—yep, that Bob Dole—to expand the Food Stamp program. She played a vital role in the creation of the WIC program, a grant program which has helped to meet the nutritional needs of infants, children, and pregnant and breastfeeding women in low-income families. Since the WIC program’s creation, somewhere around two-hundred and thirty million women and children have received benefits, including me. So, a really heartfelt thank you to Rep. Chisholm for helping to make that happen.

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She championed feminist and civil rights causes. Chisholm testified in favor of repealing the Internal Security Act of 1950—enacted over President Truman’s veto on the grounds that it was ‘“a mockery of the Bill of Rights” and a “long step toward totalitarianism”’—which was being used into the late 1960s to place suspected “dissidents” in detention facilities. She passionately advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment. Having faced such a degree of discrimination in her political career, her office employed only women, half of whom were Black. She co-sponsored legislation that would have allocated $10 billion in federal funds to subsidize childcare. Rep. Chisholm was also one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

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Convinced that it was time for Black president and time for a female president, Shirley Chisholm threw her hat into the ring—and, y’all, her hat game was on point!—in search of the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. In January 1972, Rep. Chisholm declared her intention to be a president for all people in the United States, stating: “I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and I am equally proud of that…I am the candidate of the people of America, and my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history.”

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Though her campaigned struggled for myriad reasons. There were, at least, three confirmed attempts on her life and she was, eventually, put under Secret Service protection. She had to sue to ensure that she would appear on the primary debate stage. And though her campaign also struggled with funding and organizational issues, her name appeared on primary ballots in twelve states and managed to hang on through the primary race to the Democratic National Convention where she received one-hundred and fifty-two delegate votes, putting her in fourth place.

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Though her presidential bid was unsuccessful, Rep. Chisholm returned to the House of Representatives and served until 1982. She continued to push for policies that would benefit those often overlooked and, in the process, managed to work with some pretty unexpected bedfellows, like George Wallace—yep, that George Wallace. She hammered away in support of healthcare, childcare, education, and other social services. She argued against the draft and for a reduction of military spending. After her tenure on Capitol Hill, Shirley Chisholm returned to her roots as an educator and accepted a position at Mount Holyoke College, where she taught sociology and politics, focusing on the issues of gender and race in politics. Far from totally abandoning politics, she campaigned for Jesse Jackson when he ran for president in 1984 and 1988. She co-signed “African-American Women are for Reproductive Freedom,” a document that would go on to be the foundation of African-American Women for Reproductive Freedom. Even after she retired to Florida, the political scene would not let her go: in 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Shirley Chisholm to be the United States Ambassador to Jamaica, though she declined due to ill health.

Though she passed in 2005, Shirley Chisholm’s impact continues to be felt today. Her work on social safety net programs has benefitted and continues to serve millions of people. Her 1972 run for the presidency paved the way for both President Obama and Secretary Clinton. Chisholm’s alma mater, Brooklyn College, established the Shirley Chisholm Center for Research on Women that both works to promote research on women and the policies that impact women and works to uphold Rep. Chisholm’s legacy.

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The inscription on her vault at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo reads: “Unbought and Unbossed.”

So, today, on what would be her 92nd birthday, let’s celebrate the incredible legacy of this remarkably badass woman! And let us all find ways, large and small, to continue her legacy—let’s all strive to be Unbought and Unbossed.

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