Chisholm Becomes the First African American Woman Elected to Congress

Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Congress, opposed all forms of discrimination and supported the interests of African Americans, women, children, Puerto Ricans, and other minorities. Also, in 1972, she became the first woman to actively seek the U.S. presidential nomination of a major political party.

Summary of Event

The political education of Shirley Chisholm began in the Seventeenth Assembly District (AD) Club of Brooklyn and continued in the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League. Decorating cigar boxes used to hold raffle tickets was one of Chisholm’s first political jobs. Women did this work to raise money for the AD Club, but this work, according to Chisholm, was unsupported financially and unappreciated by the men of the club. She demanded money to pay the women and to cover the costs of supplies, tickets, and prizes, costs that the women had been paying. She got $700. In time, Chisholm became a member of the board of directors of the AD Club, and even though she was both a woman and African American, became a vice president of the club while still in her twenties. African Americans;politicians and judges
Congressional elections, U.S.
House of Representatives, U.S.
[kw]Chisholm Becomes the First African American Woman Elected to Congress (Nov. 5, 1968)
[kw]First African American Woman Elected to Congress, Chisholm Becomes the (Nov. 5, 1968)
[kw]African American Woman Elected to Congress, Chisholm Becomes the First (Nov. 5, 1968)
[kw]Woman Elected to Congress, Chisholm Becomes the First African American (Nov. 5, 1968)
[kw]Congress, Chisholm Becomes the First African American Woman Elected to (Nov. 5, 1968)
African Americans;politicians and judges
Congressional elections, U.S.
House of Representatives, U.S.
[g]North America;Nov. 5, 1968: Chisholm Becomes the First African American Woman Elected to Congress[10010]
[g]United States;Nov. 5, 1968: Chisholm Becomes the First African American Woman Elected to Congress[10010]
[c]Government and politics;Nov. 5, 1968: Chisholm Becomes the First African American Woman Elected to Congress[10010]
[c]Women’s issues;Nov. 5, 1968: Chisholm Becomes the First African American Woman Elected to Congress[10010]
[c]Social issues and reform;Nov. 5, 1968: Chisholm Becomes the First African American Woman Elected to Congress[10010]
Chisholm, Shirley
Holder, Wesley McDonald
Farmer, James L., Jr.
Thompson, William Coleridge
Jones, Thomas R.
Fortune, Thomas R.

Chisholm was introduced to Wesley McDonald Holder during her senior year in college. Holder was to be the seminal political influence in Chisholm’s life. She described him as the “shrewdest, toughest, and hardest-working black political animal in Brooklyn.” In 1953, she joined Holder in a campaign to elect a black municipal court judge. The Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League grew out of that campaign. It was the Unity Club Unity Club , of which she was a founding member, that was most important to her political future. The club’s goal was to gain political control of the Seventeenth District and end white rule there. Unity offered candidates for election in 1960, including its leader, Thomas R. Jones. Unity’s campaign attracted the support of both Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Belafonte, but its candidates lost.

In preparation for 1962, Unity expanded its membership, held voter registration drives, and conducted political education seminars. It petitioned for the appointment of more African Americans and Puerto Ricans to city jobs and called for better health care; improved housing, transportation, and lighting; integrated schools; and expanded youth services. It demanded that both African Americans and Puerto Ricans be granted political representation equal to their numbers. Jones was elected, thereby ending white political rule in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1962.

In 1964, Jones became a judge on the civil court in Brooklyn, opening the way for Chisholm to run for the New York legislature from the Seventeenth District with the support of Unity. With limited financial support, augmented by $4,000 of her own money, she won the Democratic nomination, then defeated Republican Charles Lewis by a landslide. She was neither the first black woman to seek office in Brooklyn—Maude B. Richardson had in 1946—nor the first black woman elected to the New York legislature—Bessie Buchanan had earlier represented Harlem. Chisholm’s election in 1964 was the year after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Gray v. Sanders, Gray v. Sanders (1963) “one person, one vote.” Reapportionment of districts that resulted from this decision aided in the election of eight African Americans to the New York legislature in 1964, six to the assembly and two to the senate.

Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm.

(Library of Congress)

Chisholm maintained that her years in the assembly were productive despite her being a political maverick. Legislation she introduced created the Search for Evaluation, Education, and Knowledge Search for Evaluation, Education, and Knowledge program (SEEK) program that enabled black and Puerto Rican students without adequate academic training to enter the state universities. She proposed legislation to promote day care centers and provide unemployment insurance for domestic workers. Another measure protected female school teachers from losing tenure as a result of interruptions in employment related to pregnancy. She strongly opposed the use of state money for church-run schools because it would erode support for public education. Another bill she proposed would have required police officers to complete successfully courses in civil rights, minority problems, and race relations. The Associated Press judged her to be one of the two most radical and effective black members of the assembly, along with Percy Sutton.

Court-ordered reapportionment in 1968 created a new Twelfth District in Brooklyn. The new district was 80 percent Democratic and 70 percent black and Puerto Rican. Chisholm saw the district as ideal for her and announced her candidacy for Congress. Of eight AD leaders in the Twelfth District, only Thomas R. Fortune supported Chisholm; four supported William Coleridge Thompson, a black lawyer. Chisholm used that support to define Thompson as the candidate of the political bosses, adopting a campaign slogan of Fighting Shirley Chisholm—Unbought and Unbossed. The third candidate was Dollie Lowther Robinson, a lawyer and former labor leader and official in the Kennedy administration’s Labor Department.

A tenacious campaigner, Chisholm enjoyed the support of the Unity Club and Holder. With a sound truck, a caravan of cars, and a small army of volunteers, many of whom were women, she carried her campaign to the people—to housing projects, parks, churches, and even street corners. At each stop, Chisholm staffed the sound truck while her volunteers fanned out in all directions, loaded with shopping bags stuffed with campaign literature. Her contact with Puerto Ricans was particularly effective because of her fluent Spanish (her college minor).

The political pundits predicted a Thompson victory in the Democratic primary, but the votes provided by the Unity Club in Bedford-Stuyvesant produced a victory by almost eight hundred votes. After the primary, Chisholm faced the Republican candidate, James L. Farmer, Jr., who actually lived in Manhattan. Both candidates stressed jobs, housing, and education, and both opposed the Vietnam War. Farmer’s campaign suggested the need for a “strong male image” in Washington, an issue that, in Chisholm’s estimate, unnecessarily raised the question of gender. Actually, as Holder discovered, the district had more than twice as many female as male voters, making the issue of gender a liability for Farmer. Chisholm found discrimination against women in politics particularly unjust. “Of course we have to help black men,” she conceded, “but not at the expense of our own personalities as women. The black man must step forward, but that does not mean we have to step back.”

Farmer failed to receive the support of the Brooklyn chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality. Some local Republicans, who resented the fact that he was an interloper, also withheld support. Furthermore, Farmer refused to support the Nixon-Agnew presidential campaign (although he later accepted a position as assistant secretary of health, education, and welfare in the Nixon administration). Chisholm’s strongest support came from the Puerto Rican community. She beat Farmer and conservative candidate Ralph J. Carrane on November 5. After her election in 1968, she was returned to the House of Representatives, with majorities in excess of 80 percent, in every election through 1980.

In the Ninety-first Congress, Chisholm requested a committee assignment consistent with her experience and education, preferably on the House Education and Labor Committee. Instead, she was appointed to the Agriculture Committee and its Subcommittee on Forestry and Rural Villages. She railed against the system as “petrified”; the seniority system, she said, should be called the “senility” system. Ultimately, she took her case to the Democratic caucus. Even there, seniority prevailed and Chisholm was ignored.

Finally, Chisholm simply walked down the aisle and stood in the well, waiting to be recognized. “For what purpose is the gentlewoman from New York standing in the well?” Wilbur Mills asked. Chisholm maintained that since there were only nine black “congressmen” (terms such as “congresswoman” or “congressperson” were trivial in her opinion, especially given the problems of black women)—an underrepresentation relative to the black population—the party was under a moral obligation to make the most effective use of them. Subsequently she was assigned to the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, and in the Ninety-second Congress received an appointment to the Education and Labor Committee.


In her first congressional speech, Chisholm responded to President Richard M. Nixon’s reduction in funding of Head Start, an education program for poor children, in order to fund the antiballistic missile (ABM) program. She vowed to vote against any funding bill for the Department of Defense that came up in the House until the administration rethought its “distorted, unreal scale of priorities.” Like the ABM program, however, the Vietnam War depleted national resources and energy needed to resolve domestic problems.

The legacy of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s was little more than unenforced laws. More legislation was not the answer; proper enforcement was, she claimed. She was suspicious that integration was intent upon refashioning blacks in the image of whites. The War on Poverty was a failure, too; it had been created by white middle-class intellectuals. She rejected the resort to violence that some radicals advocated—even though she defined herself as a militant, or a radical—because violence made African Americans victims of their own actions. The power structure of society resided with a few whites, she argued, so blacks, browns, yellows, reds, and even whites must unite in common cause, within the system, to secure justice.

In 1971, she joined members of the Congressional Black Caucus in presenting sixty demands to President Nixon. Earlier they had formed a shadow cabinet to oversee federal enforcement of civil rights laws. They asked the president to commit himself unequivocally to the goal of equality for all Americans, as had the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders appointed by President Johnson in 1967. The government lacked both the will and the staff to address civil rights effectively and meaningfully, according to that commission’s report. The pervasiveness of white racism, chronic discrimination, and segregation in employment, education, and housing had appalling effects on the ghetto life of African Americans, particularly youths, men, and the hard-core disadvantaged. The conscience of the whole nation needed to be aroused to oppose racism against African Americans and sexism against women, Chisholm contended.

Chisholm concluded that abortion had no relevancy to law, as no one should be forced to have or not have an abortion. She accepted the honorary presidency of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, the goal of which was the repeal of all laws restricting abortion. She supported the Equal Rights Amendment in 1971; she had from the beginning in 1969 sponsored a House resolution calling for equal rights for men and women. Chisholm subscribed to the proposition that women were not inherently anything, only human. “In the end,” she wrote, “antiblack, antifemale, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing—antihumanism.”

Because black political strategists could not agree among themselves regarding the presidential election in 1972, Chisholm decided to seek the Democratic nomination, thereby becoming the first woman ever actively to seek the presidential nomination of a major political party. She could not win, but she could pioneer the way for others. She denied that she was the candidate of black Americans, even though she was black and proud of it, or the candidate of women, even though she was a woman and equally proud of that. “I am the candidate of the people,” she said. Only two members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Ronald Dellums and Parren Mitchell, were at her side when she announced her candidacy on January 25, 1972. The National Organization for Women did not endorse her, because it would have lost its tax-exempt status, but feminists Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem ran as Chisholm delegates for the Democratic convention in Manhattan. They lost.

Gay Liberation Front members joined Chisholm’s campaign in Boston. She defended their rights, too. She welcomed the support of Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers, to the chagrin of some of her advisers. An extraordinary cross-section of Americans supported her campaign, but most conspicuous in the absence of their support were black male politicians—not all, but most.

With only 151 delegate votes at the convention, Chisholm was obviously unable to influence its deliberations on behalf of the issues of importance to African Americans and other minorities, women, children, and the less fortunate. In that she failed, but in Congress she had championed the cause of job training, child welfare programs, open housing, urban development, and consumer affairs. Her work on behalf of educational opportunity programs was exemplary. She helped abolish the House Committee on Un-American Activities. She called for a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a study commission on Afro-American history and culture.

Chisholm’s voice was heard across the land, and the courage of her conscience served to remind the nation of its birthright of equality and justice for all. She retired from Congress in 1982, and then taught for a time before retiring to Florida, where she died on January 1, 2005. African Americans;politicians and judges
Congressional elections, U.S.
House of Representatives, U.S.

Further Reading

  • Brownmiller, Susan. “This Is Fighting Shirley Chisholm.” The New York Times Magazine, April 13, 1969, 32-102. Based on an interview with Chisholm. Contains information relating the congressional candidates in 1968 to the presidential candidates.
  • Chisholm, Shirley. The Good Fight. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. Essentially an account of the presidential campaign in 1972. To some degree, it relates the campaign to the other candidates, but it is primarily focused on the issues and conflicts in the state primaries. Limited scope is given to the machinations of the convention. A number of position papers are included in the appendix.
  • _______. Unbought and Unbossed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970. An autobiography that begins with Chisholm’s family background in Barbados. The focus is on her election to Congress in 1968 and her opinions on a number of issues, including the Vietnam War, coalition politics, abortion, and black politicians.
  • Duffy, Susan, comp. Shirley Chisholm: A Bibliography of Writings by and About Her. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1988. An extensive compilation of sources, indispensable to serious students. Many of the citations are widely available.
  • Gutgold, Nichola D. Paving the Way for Madam President. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2006. Chronicles the lives, political work, communication styles, and presidential bids of five women in U.S. history, including Shirley Chisholm. Part of the Lexington Studies in Political Communication series.
  • Kuriansky, Joan, and Catherine Smith. Shirley Chisholm, Democratic Representative from New York. Washington, D.C.: Grossman, 1972. Emphasis on Chisholm’s congressional actions, with some analysis of her voting record and with comments by Chisholm.
  • Romero, Patricia W., ed. and comp. In Black America, 1968: The Year of Awakening. New York: Publisher’s Company, 1969. Of general value, this work provides the broad racial and political setting for understanding the context within which Chisholm launched her congressional career.

Supreme Court Rules African American Disenfranchisement Unconstitutional

Council of Federated Organizations Registers African Americans to Vote

Congress Passes the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Affirmative Action Is Expanded

Black Panther Party Is Organized

National Organization for Women Forms to Protect Women’s Rights

Brooke Becomes the First African American U.S. Senator Since Reconstruction

Marshall Becomes the First African American Supreme Court Justice