Chisholm, First Female Black Member, Dies at 80

Posted January 3, 2005 at 6:49pm

Former Rep. Shirley Chisholm (D-N.Y.), the first black woman elected to Congress and the first black of either gender to seek the presidential nomination of a major party, died Saturday evening at her home in Ormond Beach, Fla. She was 80.

According to reports, Chisholm, an outspoken civil and women’s rights leader, had suffered from several recent strokes.

Calling her “as close to an urban folk heroine as you can get,” Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.), who won Chisholm’s seat when she retired in 1982, said his predecessor will be most remembered for opening up politics to a whole new group of people.

“She opened up a new vista in a time when the civil rights struggle was at a critical point. The whole legislative process and lawmaking process and her running and winning without the support of the machine, it sort of galvanized people and opened their eyes to electoral politics,” said Owens, who first worked with Chisholm while she served in the state Assembly in the 1960s.

After winning election to a Brooklyn Congressional seat in 1968 on a slogan of “Unbossed and unbought,” Chisholm used her unique status as the first black woman in the House — as well as her gift for public speaking — to highlight racial and gender inequality in America. She soon became a well-known figure across the country.

In one memorable moment early in her Congressional career, Chisholm challenged the House status quo by openly criticizing her assignment to the Agricultural Committee.

Chisholm’s office plainly stated, “there is very little agriculture in Brooklyn.”

Taking on then-Speaker John McCormack (D-Mass.) and then-Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills (D-Ark.), Chisholm eventually won her fight and was soon reassigned first to the Veterans Affairs Committee and eventually to the Education and Labor Committee.

And then came the 1972 presidential election which Chisholm jumped into knowing she would be running a hopeless campaign.

“I am a candidate for the presidency of the United States,” she said in her June 4, 1972, announcement. “I make that statement proudly in the full knowledge that, as a black person and as a female person, I do not have a chance of actually gaining that office in this election year.”

In her 1973 book, “The Good Fight,” Chisholm explained: “I ran for the Presidency … 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.”

It was during that 1972 campaign that Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who was then a student at Mills College in California, met Chisholm. The meeting inspired Lee to become Chisholm’s Northern California campaign coordinator, began a lifelong friendship and launched Lee on her own political course.

“She was a woman who taught me how to stand on principle yet challenge the status quo,” Lee said. “She could challenge what was wrong and shake things up but work in a positive way to make a difference.”

By her retirement from Congress in 1982, Chisholm had served as a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, helped pioneer the National Organization of Women and introduced legislation to establish publicly supported daycare centers and to extend unemployment insurance to domestic workers.

The daughter of immigrant parents who learned to read and write in Barbados’ British school system had become a much sought-after political mentor. Chisholm, who was once quoted as saying, “The emotional, sexual and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: ‘It’s a girl,’” continued to be outspoken on civil and gender rights after she left Washington and established the National Political Congress of Black Women.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), co-chairwoman of the Congressional Caucus on Women’s Issues, remembers watching Chisholm on television when she was a little girl. “She was a pioneer for all of us … one of the outstanding women’s role models of the past century.”

“Congresswoman Chisholm was a pioneer in public service who, through courage and wisdom, brought honesty and integrity to the legislative process,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), who just finished his term as chairman of the CBC. “As we honor Congresswoman Chisholm’s legacy, we must remain vigilant in our efforts to remain true to her vision of creating an America that affords equality and justice to all of its citizens.”