In 2013, 98 women – 20 in the Senate and 78 in the House – took part in the 113th Congress. Women still only make 18.1% of the 535 seats in the U.S. Congress, but it is a start. The first women elected to Congress was in 1917 and the number of women in congress has been increasing ever since. In 1969, the first black congresswoman, Shirley Chisholm, was elected to congress. In 1969, only 2.1% of congress were women. Chisholm dedicated her life trying to make life better for African Americans, women, and children.
Shirley Chisholm was born on November 30, 1924 in New York City to immigrant parents Charles and Ruby St. Hill. At the age of 3, her parents sent her to live with her grandmother in Barbados where she received early British-style education. She returned to the United States at the age of 10 during the Great Depression. Chisholm graduated from Brooklyn College in 1946 and received her Master’s Degree in Elementary Education from Columbia University in 1952. She married Conrad Chisholm in 1949 (couple divorced in 1977). When she was not teaching at a nursery school, she served as the director of the Hamilton-Madison Child Care Center from 1953 to 1959 and an educational consultant to New York City’s Bureau of Child Welfare from 1959 to 1964. In 1964, she ran for New York State Assembly. She sponsored 50 bills, but only 8 of them passed. Her bills focused on education and jobs for the low-income.
In 1969, she ran for congress against Republican civil rights leader James Farmer. When she won, she became the first black congresswoman elected to congress. She was assigned to the House Forestry Committee, but she shocked many by demanding reassignment. She wanted to work on a committee that focused on her voters, and in New York, not many of them were affected by forestry. She was reassigned to the Veteran’s Affairs Committee and then Education and Labor Committee. She became one of the founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus. In 1972, she became the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. She won 10% of the votes within the party.
In 1972, Alabama governor George Wallace was wounded after an assassination attempt. Though Wallace supported segregation, Chisholm visited him in the hospital. Chisholm would receive a lot of criticism for the visit, but she believed it was the right thing to do. She later recalled “He said to me, ‘What are your people going to say?’ I said: ‘I know what they’re going to say. But I wouldn’t want what happened to you happen to anyone.’ He cried and cried and cried.” Years later, Chisholm was working on a bill to give domestic workers minimum wage. Wallace helped gain votes of enough Southern congressmen to push the legislation through the House. In the late 1970’s, Wallace changed his position as a segregationist.
In Congress, Chisholm was a vocal opponent of the draft. The Vietnam War was going on and she was against the large number of money being used for the defense budget while Americans were hungry and poorly educated. Chisholm also supported women’s rights to choose and argued that women are capable of entering other professions, especially black women. She believed black women could better themselves not just by governmental aid, but also with self-effort. Chisholm left congress in 1983 and became a professor at Mount Holyoke College. She married Arthur Hardwick, Jr. in 1986 and retired from teaching in 1987, but remained involved in politics. She was a cofounder of the National Political Congress of Black Women in 1984 and was nominated for the position of Ambassador to Jamaica by President Bill Clinton, which she declined due to poor health. She died on January 1, 2005 in Ormond Beach, Florida.
Shirley Chisholm will always be remembered as being the first black congresswoman and the first black presidential candidate, but she wanted to be remembered for fighting for African Americans, women, and children. Chisholm realized how important education was and spent her life trying to convince others that education is the most important thing.Chisholm knew in the 1960’s that the United States should not cut social programs to finance a war while Americans still didn’t have a quality education or housing. Just as Chisholm did during the Vietnam War, it up to the American people to vote for politicians that care about the welfare of Americans. It is also important for American women to vote for politicians that care about women’s rights. Looking back on her career, Chisholm noticed that she received more trouble not for being black, but for being a woman.