“Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change,” by Barbara Winslow, Lives of American Women Series, Westview Press, 192 pages, $2013, $20.00 paperback.
Barbara Winslow’s “Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change” profiles the first black woman presidential candidate, a person who prided herself on being “unbossed and unbought.”
Historian Barbara Winslow’s fascinating portrait of trailblazer Shirley Chisholm (1926-2005) offers activists and organizers an inside look at one woman’s political ascent. Although little of the material in the book is new, Winslow’s synthesis and attention to race, class and gender dynamics makes it an excellent introduction to a woman who prided herself on being “unbossed and unbought.” What’s more, Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change acknowledges the limitations of individual achievement and credits “the great social movements of the twentieth century – including some outside the United States” for helping to boost Chisholm’s influence and power.
But let’s start at the beginning. Shirley St. Hill – Chisholm was her first husband’s surname – was born in Brooklyn, New York, to working-class immigrants from Barbados. As the Great Depression worsened, her parents sent her and two sisters back “home,” where they were reared on land owned by their grandmother, a domestic servant. Because grandma left at sun-up and did not return for 15 hours, the girls essentially were raised by their teenage aunt. “Grandmother’s large house sat on a plot that provided the family’s food: Sweet potatoes, yams, corn, tomatoes and root vegetables,” Winslow writes. “The waters around the island provided abundant seafood, including the Barbadian staple flying fish.” The girls had chores on the farm but also had access to sea, sand and an array of animals. School – one room – lasted eight hours a day and included corporal punishment. Lessons were focused exclusively on academics and religious and moral instruction. Discipline was prized. But being taught by black teachers allowed Chisholm to see people of color as competent and professionally successful, something she might not have witnessed had she remained in New York.
By the time she returned to Brooklyn, however, there was much she needed to adjust to. Not only did the weather fluctuate between brutally hot and brutally cold, the streets, buses and subways were filthy, crowded and noisy; she was terrified. Kids, however, are resilient, and Shirley quickly adapted, excelling in school and declaring that she wanted “to spend her life in the service of education.”
She graduated from Brooklyn’s Girls’ High in 1942. “And even though she was offered scholarships to attend Vassar and Oberlin colleges, her family could not pay for room and board at an out-of-state school. Somewhat reluctantly, she applied to Brooklyn College and was admitted,” Winslow writes. Tuition was free, a great boon to countless working-class and poor youths from the five boroughs. And because Chisholm could live at home and get to class by public means, she savored the opportunity.
There were academics, of course, but in addition, college taught Chisholm numerous life lessons, among them to question why Brooklyn College’s 10,000-student body included just 60 blacks. In addition, because the country was at war, Winslow writes, that “the campus was alive with political protest. A wide range of radical political clubs organized meetings, leafleted students, or assembled platforms to call attention to their particular cause.” Chisholm joined the all-black Harriet Tubman Society as well as the Debating Society and the Brooklyn chapters of the NAACP and Urban League. This array of activities set the stage for her later career, helping her to become an adept political analyst, excellent public speaker and astute observer. It also made her aware of pervasive race bias. As Winslow reports, “She chafed at the thought that because of her skin color she was expected to be subservient to whites. … She was deeply aware – and resentful – of the fact that whites looked upon blacks as inferior and in need of help.”
Her fury was undoubtedly stoked by the fact that despite graduating cum laude, jobs were hard to come by and she found herself repeatedly rejected as an applicant. When she finally found a position teaching at the Mount Calvary Child Care Center in Harlem, it freed her to begin socializing. Heartbreak – her boyfriend turned out to be married – temporarily shattered her, but she later met Conrad Chisholm, a Jamaican immigrant, and married him in 1949.
Career success followed. At the same time Chisholm became increasingly active in the Democratic Party club in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a poor central Brooklyn community that was two-third black but was represented by white politicians. Although the club was black-led, as her involvement escalated, Chisholm became increasingly aware of gender discrimination. As Winslow writes: “She noticed that club leaders were men; the women, mainly wives of members, were expected to fulfill traditional gender roles – to organize socials, raffles and other fundraising events.” Chisholm quickly raised a ruckus, getting elected to the club’s board of directors, and began pushing for black candidates to campaign for public office, from judgeships to the state Assembly.
Shortly thereafter, in 1964, Chisholm notified the Democrats that she intended to run for state Assembly herself. While many of the club’s male members were aghast, she ultimately got their endorsement. Still, the sexism that greeted her was incredible. “Did you make your husband breakfast this morning?” she was asked while handing out fliers. Annoyed but undeterred, Chisholm was confident of victory; she had done her homework and understood that there were 5,000 more Democratic women in the 17th Assembly District than there were Democratic men. She appealed to “the sisterhood” and won handily. Although she was not the first black woman elected to state office, by the time she was sworn in in January 1965, numerous progressive men already were serving. They basically ignored her.
“Albany at that time was not particularly welcoming to African Americans, and in the mid 1960s, respectable women did not go out to restaurants or bars on their own,” Winslow writes. “Once the day’s legislative session ended, the male legislators would go off to bars, movies, restaurants and clubs. Not a single one of Chisholm’s colleagues ever invited her to their social gatherings.”
Presumably quite lonely, Chisholm turned to her work and her first successful bill extended unemployment benefits to personal and domestic workers. She also was instrumental in getting funding for a program, called SEEK, which gives low-income black and Latino high school students scholarships and counseling support to make it easier for them to attend city and state universities.
Four years later, in 1968, Chisholm ran, and was elected, to Congress, becoming the first African-American women to do so. Virtually overnight, she became more symbol than leader. And while she took many progressive positions – raising money for the Black Panther Party, supporting striking workers and declaring that she would vote “no” on all military appropriation bills – overall, her record was less than stellar. In her first two years, for example, she sponsored no major legislation and was often absent for key votes because she was speaking about women in politics throughout the country.
Even more disappointing, after being elected to Congress for a second term, she became somewhat less outspoken. “Perhaps,” Winslow writes, “she was thinking of her long-term future as a successful legislator, or she wanted to create allies in anticipation of a presidential run. We may never know; she never explained her shift in tactics.”
But she did run for the Democratic nomination for president in 1972, becoming the first African-American woman to take the plunge. “Chisholm’s presidential campaign was the high point of her political career,” Winslow writes. She was under no illusions that she’d be victorious; at the same time, “she saw the campaign as a way to shake things up.” Winslow further notes that while many white women worked tirelessly to put Chisholm in the White House, they typically “did not understand how to connect the issues of abortion, day care, and Equal Rights Amendment to the concerns of the Black civil rights and liberation movements.” The campaign was further beset by financial woes and disorganization. On top of this, most black male leaders – Al Sharpton was one of the few exceptions – snubbed her, or worse. Not surprisingly, George McGovern won the 1972 nomination.
“I ran,” Chisholm said, “because somebody had to do it first. … I ran because most people think the country is not ready for a Black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate. Someday. … “
Needless to say, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – and maybe even Sarah Palin – owe Chisholm a huge, belated thank you.
Chisholm continued to serve in Congress for another decade and in 1982 announced that she would not seek re-election. Instead, she returned to teaching – this time at the all-female Mount Holyoke College – and later helped found The National Political Congress of Black Women. She also spoke at the first national reproductive rights conference for women of color in 1987.
Chisholm moved to Florida in 1991 and died in 2005. In a 2004 interview she was asked how she wished to be remembered. Surprisingly, she did not emphasize her presidential run or time in elected office. Instead, she said that she wanted to be remembered as a catalyst for change. Barbara Winslow presents her as this, and more.
Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change celebrates the Congresswoman’s gumption, sass and political savvy – and acknowledges some large blunders – while simultaneously making the case for engagement in local, statewide and national government. Chisholm understood that politics is never a spectator sport; Winslow reminds us that we ignore it at our peril.
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