Shirley Chisholm: A trailblazer who must be remembered

Rep. Ayanna Pressley replicating Shirley Chisholm's pose in the halls of the U.S. Capitol building.
Photo courtesy of Ayanna Pressley's Twitter.

Before there was Sen. Kamala Harris, before there was Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, before there was President Barack Obama— there was Shirley Anita Chisholm.

Chisholm was a 5-foot-3-inch, 103-pound powerhouse. She stood on the frontlines of the political battlefield.

As the first black congresswoman for New York’s 12th congressional district, she challenged the leaders of the House as a freshman congresswoman. They assigned her to the Agriculture Committee, which she felt was unrelated to the needs of her constituency —which was an urban area — the Brooklynn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant.  Her vocalization for her disdain was unheard of. She refused to accept the status quo if it didn’t benefit her constituency.

That act set the tone for the rest of her political career — she was later nicknamed “Fighting” Shirley Chisholm. She always remained true to her values. Her maverick attitude carried her all the way to a presidential campaign. Chisholm was the first woman to run for presidential nomination under the Democratic Party in 1972. Her slogan was “Unbought and Unbossed.” Chisholm refused to be influenced by political action committees or special interest groups, she relied on donations from sponsors and from her rallies. Chisholm would have a hat passed around to collect donations at rallies.

“She had a campaign slogan entitled ‘Unbought and Unbossed’ and I would say that that's what I admire most about her —regardless of what was put in her way regardless of the many assassination attempts she endured — she never backed down,” said Taylar Hall, president of the FAMU chapter of College Democrats. “She always looked at the bigger picture of what this meant for the people of America and what this meant for the future of the country. It was never about her — it was always about the people.”

The road to presidency was not easy for Chisholm. Many doubted her and undermined her abilities.

She overcame several assassination attempts. One of the efforts entailed a man who was following her from behind with a knife with a 10-inch blade . Fortunately, people were able to intervene and prevent him from stabbing her.

Chisholm —ironically —faced opposition from both women (she ran at the peak of a women’s movement) and black people —  four years after the Civil Rights Movement. She said that the women didn’t want her to discuss what the black people were talking about and the black people didn’t want to hear anything about women’s’ progression. She was in an awkward position trying to bridge the gap.

Chisholm has famously said that she has faced much more discrimination concerning being a woman than being black, in the field of politics.

“My biggest struggle in this political field so far — and I’m not even fully involved yet — is that people don't validate my opinions, because I'm a woman,” said Hall. “They feel like ‘Well what do I know because I'm a woman (and) why does my opinion matter’ — because people believe that women act out of emotion—so I definitely can identify with what she's saying. I experienced it firsthand.”

Even as a congresswoman she often felt isolated and undervalued by her male peers.

At one point one of her peers would harass her every day about her making the same salary as him. He would say, ‘I can't believe your making 42.5 like me,’  — referring to the $42,500 salary which is approximately $263,507 today. Until one day Chisholm responded and told him to vanish when he saw her coming into the chamber and also to remember that she was paving the way for others like her to make the same amount. Her message: He should get used to it.

Despite having all the odds stacked against her she still she persisted because she wanted to be an agent for change and pave the way for future generations.

“She is regarded as a trailblazer for women who are currently seeking the presidency  … and I would say we ought to celebrate her legacy,” said Keith Simmonds, professor of history  and political science at FAMU. “And women who are planning to come out and seek public office, they must do so with the knowledge that they are following in the footsteps of the very brave lady of the 1970s.”

During her time as a congresswoman from 1968 to 1983 she was instrumental in the creation of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. WIC provides food and healthcare for low-income mothers who are breastfeeding or pregnant and children under five. She also helped to expand the food stamp program.

Chisholm was known for being an advocate for women, children—she used to teach in a nursery and was the director of two child-care facilities, and minorities while in Congress.

Today, she has inspired the likes of Harris, Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ayanna Pressley. They have all paid homage to her.  

Ocasio-Cortez posted on Twitter that she wore all-white to her swearing-in ceremony to honor everyone from Chisholm to the suffragettes who paved the way for her.

Harris drew inspiration from Chisholm’s 1972 campaign logo to her own 2020 presidential campaign logo.

And, fittingly Pressley — the first black woman elected to Congress from the state of Massachusetts — received the same office as Chisholm, who is one of her most significant role models.

“She inspires me to keep going —because she defied a lot of odds — and I know that if she did it, then I can do it,” said Hall about Chisholm’s legacy.