Shirley Chisholm's Presidential Run Paved the Way for Black Women in Politics, Mentee Rep. Barbara Lee Says

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US Representative Shirley Chisholm of Brooklyn announces her entry for Democratic nomination for the presidency, at the Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York, on Jan. 25, 1972. Getty Images

In 2021, Kamala Harris broke long-held barriers to become the vice president of the United States, not only marking the first time a woman had ever held the position, but the first time a Black and South Asian person had as well. Harris is the daughter of an Indian mother and Jamaican father. Long before this day came, however, other women of color paved the way. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black candidate to seek the nomination for president of the United States from a major political party, was one of those women. 

Chisholm, who ran under the slogan “Unbossed and Unbought,” had already become the first African American woman to be elected to Congress in 1968, representing New York’s 14th Congressional District. In 1972, when she decided to run for president, she faced much discrimination. Chisholm wasn’t able to participate in televised debates and was only able to give one speech after taking legal action.

Her presidential run came just seven years after the passage of the Voting Rights of Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination and what Dr. Anastasia Curwood, a professor for African American and Africana at the University of Kentucky, describes as the first time the United States had “a true constitutional democracy with true representation.”

“In the aftermath of that, Chisholm thought that she could carry a coalition of Black voters and women voters, anti-war protestors and poor people and turn them out to vote and get some traction within the Democratic party,” Curwood told Inside Edition Digital. “Notice I didn't say she expected she was going to win, but she wanted to put together a coalition of voters to get traction leverage.”

Curwood said that Chisholm, a Brooklyn native and the daughter of Bajan and Guyanese parents, would say that she “did run to win” but that she “didn’t expect to win.” All of Chisholm’s opponents were white men. Chisholm also started her campaign with only $40,000.

“It's a fine distinction,” Curwood said. “And what she really wanted to win was delegates to the 1972 Democratic National Convention. The overall object was to push the Democratic party platform to more fully embrace civil and human rights for men and women across the color line.”

Chisholm had planned to show up with delegates that she could have as currency and throw them behind whichever candidate she thought would do the best job.

“It was a coalition. Coalition politics is the idea that we might not all be the same, we might not all share the same racial, gender, economic, LGBT status, but that we all had a common interest. And in her case, the common interest was real democracy, having representation and power distributed equitably around the U.S. electorate,” Curwood said.

“It wasn't so much about getting herself into a certain position, although she was a very ambitious person, she really believed in herself quite deeply and wanted to achieve. She wanted power for those who she saw as having an unfair disadvantage,” Curwood added. 

Chisholm advocated strongly for gender and racial equality, low-income communities and an end to the Vietnam War. She was able to gather the support of women, students and minorities during her presidential campaign and ended up garnering the votes of 152 delegates, which amounted to about 10% of the total votes. George McGovern won the nomination. Despite her loss, her run did inspire many, including Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who was mentored by Chisholm and worked on her campaign.

Before she joined Chisholm’s campaign, Lee had been searching for a campaign to be a part in order to pass one of her government classes at Mills College in Oakland, California, but was readily prepared to fail because she didn’t want to take part in the campaigns of any of the men running at the time. 

“There were only white guys running,” Lee told Inside Edition Digital. “They didn’t represent the type of president I thought I could work for to help win because I was a young, Black single mom raising two little Black boys and the issues that myself, like so many other Black women were dealing with, had not been part of their agenda or awareness. They didn’t talk about racial justice or childcare or how they were going to help the Black community or low-income communities move forward.”

During her campaign, Chisholm’s materials were regularly vandalized with sexist and racist messages. When asked why she ran, Chisholm said, “I ran because somebody had to do it first.” 

Lee recalled the treatment Chisholm faced as she remained in Congress until 1982.

“I was able to be mentored by Shirley Chisholm and I saw how men in Congress treated her. They treated her with disrespect, they called her all kinds of names,” Lee said. “It was the most misogynistic and racist kind of response to Shirley Chisholm that could be imagined on Capitol Hill, and I say that to share the fact that she endured. She did not back down. She did not let them get to her. She went dead on and confronted their sexism and racism.”

This year on Inauguration Day, as Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn into office, Lee donned pearls that had belonged to Chisholm. Lee acknowledged that neither she nor Harris would be where they are if not for Chisholm.

Of the day, Lee said, “It felt like a full circle moment. I felt like Shirley Chisholm was with [us] that day."

Many would say Chisholm, who died in 2005, would be surprised that it took so long for someone of color and a woman to be in the position.

“Here we are 50 years later. She would say, 'let’s double our efforts now,'” Lee said. "She paved the way. She broke that glass ceiling for so many of us, myself included, to be elected to higher office and to public office in general. She would say, ‘don’t stop now, keep going.’”

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