“Tremendous amounts of talent are being lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt.” – Shirley Chisolm

In 1968, Shirley Chisolm became the first woman of color elected to the U.S. Congress, after a court-ordered reapportionment of New York’s congressional districts.

Born Shirley Anita St. Hill in Brooklyn, New York, on November 30th, 1924, Chisolm lived for several years in Barbados with her grandparents. She returned to New York to complete high school, obtained a BA in sociology from Brooklyn College in 1946, and and an MA from Columbia in 1952.

Chisholm worked as a nursery school teacher from 1946 to 1952 and as the director of a child care center from 1953 to the early 1960s. In 1964, she was elected to state assembly. In 1968, Chisolm ran for Congress under the Democratic banner, and beat the other two candidates, both men, to win this election.

During her early years in Congress, Chisolm was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam war. She joined a coalition of 15 U.S. Representatives who introduced a bill to end the draft and replace it with a force that was entirely voluntary. Soon after her election to Congress, she published her autobiography, Unbought and Unbossed.

She constantly advocated increased funding for child care services, and was also very vocal about ending arms sales to South Africa during the apartheid era. She fought for the inclusion of domestic workers in minimum wage legislation, delivering a passionate and emotional speech to Congress about her own mother’s experiences as a domestic worker. She also co-sponsored the Adequate Income Act of 1971. This act would have guaranteed a minimum income to all families.

In 1971, she announced her candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. She campaigned throughout the country, largely on educational issues. Many Black nationalists oppossed her candicacy, stating that the first Black president should be a man.

Although she did not win the nomination, she had some success in the primaries of 12 states. More importantly, she broke ground as the first African American woman to seek a major-party Presidential nomination. (The first woman ever to run for president was Victoria Woodhull, in 1872, on the Equal Rights Party platform.) She wrote about her experiences as a presidential candidate in her second book, The Good Fight.

Chisolm continued her service in Congress until 1982, fighting for labor and women’s rights, and opposing federal cuts in public education. She then decided not to run for re-election, explaining that it was difficult to effect change in an environment that was becoming more and more conservative. She retired to Williamsville, New York. She was elected the first chairperson of the National Political Congress of Black Women in 1984, and now holds the title of Chair Emeritus.