In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman elected to the United States Congress. This year was “watershed year, a tumultuous year, as well as a year full of contradictions,” and Chisholm’s election was one of the “many extraordinary events of that cataclysmic year.” Due to the reports from the President’s Commission on the Status of Women, it was evident that there was “enormous discontent and dissatisfaction” by women concerning the American dream. Only 5 years earlier, Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique helped women recognized “the problem with no name,” and in 1966, the National Organization for Women was organized to help women gain more political rights. Although Chisholm was a member of NOW and an “outspoken feminist,” she did not participate in most of the events. In an interview, Chisholm stated, “Before I make a move, I analyze everything.” Chisholm realized that she faced many obstacles in her race to be elected to the United States Congress.
The first obstacle that Chisholm faced was her gender. Chisholm knew that “all the party leaders in her district were men who had shown a distinct dislike of female candidates. The black party leaders were even more disposed than the white ones to support a man, a common sentiment at the time, for they had intense feelings about solidifying the image of the strong black male.” However, Chisholm decided to take advantage of her gender by going after the female voters. She realized that there were “thousands more female registered voters than male.” By her estimation, there were somewhere between “ten and thirty thousand more women and determined that if she ran, she would make her appeal to them.” Before she decided to run for office, Chisholm lived in the Bushwick housing project, “in order to get to know the women.” She wanted to get to know them and the problems that these women faced every single day. She knew that if she could address these issues in her election, then she would be more likely to make their votes than a male politician.
When Chisholm was trying to decide whether or not to run for Congress, she had an experience that pushed her to run. In February, Chisholm opened her door to an elderly woman who handed her an envelope containing money that had been collected from many women for Chisholm’s congressional campaign. The envelope contained a total of $9.62—all in coins. An emotional Chisholm told the woman, “I know what this money means to you. We’ll make it together—you and I.” When talking to her husband that night, Chisholm said, “That woman has probably spent her whole life as a domestic. She could have been my own mother.” She realized that if she ran for Congress, she would be running to represent the thousands of disadvantaged hardworking women just like herself, her mother, and her grandmother.
Although gender was an obstacle for Chisholm’s run for office, it was also an advantage. The gender imbalance in the race for Congress worked in her favor because the Women in the New York State Democratic Party were pushing for more women in Congress. Chisholm took advantage of her different gender and her reputation as a “political renegade.” She often stated, “I’m not connected to the big boys.” Furthermore, her campaign slogan was “Fighting Shirley Chisholm: Unbought and Unbossed.’” Historian Josh Guild stated that this slogan representation “racial and gender liberation.” Unbought could referred to her vote not being for sale or blacks’ liberation from slavery. Unbossed referred to the fact that she could not be dominated by domination from a political organization and that she was a “strong woman, not to be bossed around at work, within political organizations, or at home.” Chisholm knew that to win the election she needed to mobilize women voters. Her campaign brought “ordinary women front and center, and at the same time mobilize inclusively for greater social justice.” Chisholm stated, “Men always underestimate women. They underestimate me and they underestimate the women like me.” Another one of her campaigns slogans was “I am a woman and you are a woman, and let’s show Farmer that woman-power can beat him.”
Chisholm was able to win the election with 34,885 votes. Once she was elected to Congress, Chisholm hired only women to work in her office. In 1977, she was a founding member of the Congressional Women’s Caucus. Chisholm career helped pave the way for other women in government.
Winslow, Barbara. (2013). Lives of American Women: Shirley Chisholm: Catalyst for Change. Westview Press.