Shirley Chisholm: A Lifetime of Firsts

Shirley Chisholm

Forty-four years ago, in the 1972 election, Shirley Chisholm made history by becoming the first African American woman to vie for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. Though her presidential bid was short lived, her life is a testament to her belief, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Shirley Chisholm was not only the first African American woman to run for a major political party for president, she was the first African American — man or woman — to do so. She was also the first African American congresswoman, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and a lifelong advocate for education and the rights women and children.


Shirley Chisholm, January 1972, announcing her candidacy.

Chisholm was born in Brooklyn in 1924, and graduated from Brooklyn College in 1946. She began her professional life as a teacher, earning her master’s degree in elementary education from Columbia University. She worked as the director of a childcare center and was an educational consultant for the New York City Bureau of Education. These posts ignited her political ambition.

In 1968, she successfully ran for Congress, and over the next seven terms, she championed for the rights of the underprivileged, especially women and children. Initially charged to sit on the House Forestry Committee, she asked for reassignment. She said, “I have no intention of just sitting quietly and observing. I intend to speak out immediately in order to focus on the nation’s problems.” She made lasting impressions serving on the Education and Labor Committee where she advocated for improved access to education, supported the national school lunch bill, worked to expand the food stamp program, and helped to establish Wic: the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants and Children.

Three years into her congressional appointment, she sought the Democratic nomination for president. Running under the slogan, Unbought and Unbossed,” she understood that she faced an uphill battle. Chisholm wrote in her book The Good Fight, “I ran for the presidency, despite hopeless odds, to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo. The next time a woman runs, or a black, a Jew or anyone from a group that the country is ‘not ready’ to elect to its highest office, I believe that he or she will be taken seriously from the start.” Despite several assassination attempts, she took her presidential campaign to the Democratic Convention, winning 152 delegates, but ultimately losing the nomination to Senator George McGovern.

Congressman Edlophus Towns (left) and his wife, Gwen Towns (right) pose with former Congresswoman and Brooklyn native, en:Shirley Chisholm (center)

Congressman Edlophus Towns (left) and his wife, Gwen Towns (right) pose with former Congresswoman and Brooklyn native, Shirley Chisholm (center)

In 1982, she left politics behind and retired from Congress to return to her first passion: teaching. She taught at Mount Holyoke College and traveled as a lecturer.

Shirley Chisholm died in 2005, but her trailblazing life was recognized in 2015, when she was posthumously awarded the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  At the award’s ceremony, President Obama said of Chisholm, “There are people in our country’s history who don’t look left or right — they just look straight ahead. Shirley Chisholm was one of those people. Driven by a profound commitment to justice, she became the first African-American congresswoman — the first African-American woman from a major political party — to run for President…Shirley Chisholm’s example transcends her life. And when asked how she’d like to be remembered, she had an answer: “I’d like them to say that Shirley Chisholm had guts.”  And I’m proud to say it: Shirley Chisholm had guts.”

She did have guts! And so much more.


Clack, Cary, “Shirley Chisholm broke ground before Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.” San Antonio Express – News. February 27, 2008. Link.

“Remarks by the President at Medal of Freedom Ceremony.” White House, Office of the Press Secretary. November 24, 2015. Link.

Vaidyanathan, Rajini, “Before Hillary Clinton, there was Shirley Chisholm.” BBC News, Washington. January 26, 2016. Link.


About Kristen LePine

KRISTEN LEPINE is the co-founder and Executive Director of Historic Heroines. An accomplished writer, educator and mother, Kristen is often inspired by history and current events. She wrote about Nellie Bly and mental health care in CRACKED POTS, a play commissioned by Theatre J in Washington DC. Currently she is working on a historical novel set in ancient Sparta. Visit her at

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