By Liza Doubossarskaia, NOW Communications Intern
Everyone will agree that the 2008 U.S. presidential election made real history. For the first time, the Democratic Party’s two frontrunners were an African-American man and a woman. If either became president, they would break a long chain of white males who previously occupied the office.
We all know the outcome. It will forever fill the pages of history books and be taught in schools as the moment that changed our political and social landscape. However, there were other people breaking barriers long before the world heard of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama — people whose names are rarely mentioned in textbooks, but whose contributions are no less significant. Shirley Chisholm is one of these people.
In 1972 Chisholm made history by becoming the first major party black candidate to run for the U.S. presidency, and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party nomination. She didn’t win, and the nomination went to George McGovern. Chisholm knew from the start that she was fighting a losing battle, but that wasn’t a good enough reason to give up. Chisholm said that she “ran for the presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo.”
Under the slogan of “Unbought and Unbossed,” Chisholm and her supporters organized a grassroots campaign for the primaries that, despite severely lacking in resources, won Chisholm 28 delegates in 12 states. NOW’s first president and co-founder Betty Friedan and Ms. Magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem were active volunteers in Chisholm’s campaign. At the 1972 Democratic National Convention, McGovern’s opponent, Hubert H. Humphrey, released his black delegates and gave them to Chisholm in a symbolic gesture, which put Chisholm’s delegate count at 152.
Prior to Chisholm’s presidential campaign, she was the first black woman elected to Congress, serving as a representative from New York’s 12th district. She was assigned to the House Agricultural Committee, which made little sense, considering Chisholm came from an urban district. Chisholm demonstrated her steadfast character when she asked to be reassigned to a committee that was more suitable for her expertise. Her request shocked many, but it did lead to her placement on the Education and Labor Committee, where she became the third highest-ranking member. During her time in Congress, Chisholm co-authored and pushed through Congress a progressive child care bill that stopped short of becoming law when President Nixon vetoed it — calling it “the Sovietization of American children.”
Chisholm was the founder of NOW’s first chapter in New York. She courageously advocated for women’s rights and fought against racism. She supported budget increases for health care, education, and other social services and opposed excessive military spending. After leaving Congress, Chisholm taught at the Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She passed away on Jan. 1, 2005, at the age of 80.
Despite all of her accomplishments, Chisholm had the following to say regarding her place in history:
“I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself.”
With Women’s History Month coming to a close, NOW is happy to commemorate Shirley Chisholm and the mark she left on history simply by daring to be herself.