Shirley Chisholm

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I don't measure America by its achievement but by its potential.
As there were no black Founding Fathers, there were no founding mothers — a great pity, on both counts. It is not too late to complete the work they left undone. Today, here, we should start to do so.

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm (30 November 19241 January 2005) was an American politician, educator and author. In 1968, she became the first African American woman elected to Congress, representing New York's 12th District for seven terms until 1983. On January 23, 1972, she became the first African American candidate for a major party nomination for President of the United States, winning 162 delegates - the closest any woman had ever come to winning the nomination before Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2008 campaign.


  • The Constitution they wrote was designed to protect the rights of white, male citizens. As there were no black Founding Fathers, there were no founding mothers — a great pity, on both counts. It is not too late to complete the work they left undone. Today, here, we should start to do so.
    • For the Equal Rights Amendment (10 August 1970).
  • Of my two handicaps, being female put many more obstacles in my path than being black.
    • Reported in "Shirley Chisholm Kicks Off Campaign for U.S. Presidency" by Ronald E. Kisner, Jet‎, Vol. 41, no. 20 (Feb. 1972), p. 12.
  • The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, 'It's a girl.'
    • Reported in Anthology : Quotations and Sayings of People of Color (1973) by Walter B. Hoard, p. 36.

Shirley Chisholm: The Last Interview: And Other Conversations (2021)[edit]

  • Little Shirley grew up with a strong sense of her own destiny. Her early heroes were Mary McLeod Bethune, Harriet Tubman and Susan B. Anthony. Miss Anthony, the homeliest of the suffragettes, was one of the movement's best speakers. In her Brooklyn campaign, Mrs. Chisholm would reel off a long quotation from Miss Anthony ("The hour is come when the women will no longer be the passive recipients...") when she was bothered by male hecklers on street corners. "It always stopped them cold," she reports. (April 1969)
  • My grandmother had a fantastic influence in my life. She would always check homework, and she would, each night she would "Repeat it to me." And if I didn't stand up straight, she said, "Child"-this is the way she'd talk-"Child, you got to stand up straight, let the world see you coming." And I would have to stand up straight...And she would say, "And don't slur your words." She, oh, she was pushy. My grandmother-I would say that my granny had the greatest influence in my life.
  • It's the same old priority that we have today...Housing. Employment. Health. The same priorities follow black people in these United States time after time after time...the same issues. It's strange that they don't change.
    • What social and political issues were your priorities to fight for while you served in Congress, especially in the beginning of your career in Congress?
  • Well, it's being done very subtly in many instances, but our country has definitely moved to the right, there's no question about it, and so you find a kind of what should I say? There's a cutback on the kind of funding that is so necessary to help lower-class and middle class people to at least gain some opportunities. So in some instances it's worse than it used to be.
    • "What do you think about this current political climate? Do you think that there will be more obstacles that will be set up to-so that people cannot penetrate and get those particular rights?"
  • The income for domestics in this country. Domestic workers. Every year we had the increase in income domestic workers never, never fit into the scale of things.
    • "What do you consider to be your greatest legislative victory?"

The Good Fight (1973)[edit]

  • "Who knows? It took a little black woman, Harriet Tubman, to lead three hundred of her people out of slavery; it required another little black woman, Rosa Parks, to say she was tired of going to the back of the bus for a seat, and this act of very real courage precipitated the Montgomery bus boycott, which was a turning point in the civil rights struggle. It may take another little black woman to bring us together' in these troubled times of war and worry."
  • It was an amazing and apparently spontaneous transformation in the attitudes and behavior of youth; the generation of the 1950s had been so famous for its "apathy" that some college newspapers banned the overused word from their editorials. Now it was enlisting en masse in a high-minded and high-spirited campaign to integrate the society by living and fighting together, going to jail together, and sometimes (this must never be forgotten) dying together. But the civil rights movement did not achieve its lofty ideals. Hotels and buses were desegregated, but blacks perceived slowly that they were not much better off than before. What good is it to be allowed to sit in the front of the bus when you haven't got the fare? Inevitably, the movement fell apart along racial lines. The blacks began to see that they were still, subtly, being treated as inferiors by the white students. They were in the same position that Frederick Douglass found himself in a century earlier with the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. The well-meaning Garrison was using Douglass as an "exhibition piece," Douglass perceived, and when the great black leader demanded a more important role in the abolition movement, Garrison said he thought that the most black people were able to do at the moment was to serve as exhibits of the fact that they could be taught to read, write and speak about their experiences as slaves. Douglass understood then that he was still in a master-slave relationship with the white man and resolved to break his intellectual chains as well as his physical ones. Young blacks in the 1960s played out the same story. Where they had been integrationist and nonviolent, they became separatist and militant. It was the era of Black Power. Discovering that they were not going to win any important gains by carrying picket signs and coaching people for literacy tests, they declared their independence from white society in every way. In diet, dress, religion, clothing and behavior, they set out to become black, black and beautiful, black and proud. This struck a deep chord in the soul of black Americans, whose great need is to believe in their worth and dignity, their selfhood, after generations of having been beaten, sold, murdered, exploited and demeaned. They have been told in the most direct, brutal ways that they are worthless, and there are deep psychic wounds in the minds of all black Americans. A few hard-won gains in status have not healed them, and healing them is the most important priority for blacks. Independence movements, from community-united black fronts to the Black Panthers and the Republic of New Africa-each has an essential role to play in the cure. Of course, one may criticize some of their tactics. I have, myself; but it should not be missed that the people who hate and fear the militant black movements the most, and who would mobilize all the resources of the law against them, do not come with clean hands; they are people who have profited through the years from black subjugation. Many of them have supported in the past, by inaction or action, a group that was far worse than the most militant black ones, the Ku Klux Klan.

Speech to National Women's Political Caucus (1973)[edit]

From Voices of Multicultural America: Notable Speeches Delivered by African, Asian, Hispanic and Native Americans, 1790-1995 (1995).
  • different women view different segments of the women's movement agenda as priority items.
  • The movement has, for the most part, been led by educated white middle-class women. There is nothing unusual about this. Reform as movements are usually led by the better educated and better off. But, if the women's movement is to be successful you must recognize the broad variety of women there are and the depth and range of their interests and concerns. To black and Chicano women, picketing a restricted club or insisting on the title Ms are not burning issues. They are more concerned about bread-and-butter items such as the extension of minimum wage, welfare reform and day care. Further, they are not only women but women of color and thus are subject to additional and sometimes different pressures.
  • I did this [ran for president as a Democrat instead of third party] because I feel that the time for tokenism and symbolic gestures is past. Women need to plunge into the world of politics and battle it out toe to toe on the same ground as male counterparts.
  • for those who thought I was the best candidate but chose to work for someone else because they viewed my campaign as hopeless, they will need to reexamine their thinking for truly, no woman will ever achieve the presidency as long as their potential supporters hold this view.

Speech (1972)[edit]

  • Few, if any Americans, are free of the psychological wounds imposed by racism and antifeminism.
  • The law cannot do it for us. We must do it for ourselves. We must refuse to accept the old, the traditional roles, and stereotypes.
  • We must reject the thought of Saint Paul who said, “let the woman marry in silence."
  • Black people have freed themselves from the dead weight of the albatross of the Blackness that once hung around their neck. They have done it by picking it up in their arms and holding them out with pride for all the world to see. They have done it by embracing it. Women must come to realize that the superficial symbolisms that surround us are negative only when we ourselves perceive and accept them as negative. We must begin to replace the old negative thoughts about our femininity with positive thoughts and positive actions that affirm them more and more. What we must also remember, is that we’ll be breaking with tradition. And so when you break with tradition, you have to prepare yourselves educationally, economically, and psychologically in order that you’ll be able to accept and bear with the sanctions that society will immediately impose upon us.
  • I’m a politician. I detest the word because of the connotation that cling like slime to it. But for want of a better term, I must use it. I have been in politics for twenty years and in that time, I’ve learned a few things about the role of women in politics. The major thing that I have learned is that women are the backbone of America’s political organizations: they are the letter writers, the envelope stuffers, they are the speech writers and the largest numbers of potential voters. Yet, they are but rarely the standard bearers or elected officials.
  • when I first announced that I was running for Congress, both male and females advised me, as they had when I ran for the New York State Assembly, go back to teaching, a woman’s vocation, and leave the politics to men.
  • The question which now faces us is: will women dare in numbers sufficient to have an effect on their own attitude towards themselves and thus change the basic attitudes of males and the general society? Women will have to brave the social sanctions in great numbers in order to free themselves from the sexual, psychological, and emotional stereotyping that plagues us. It is not feminine egoism to say that the future of mankind may very well be ours to determine, it is simply a plain fact, the softness warmth and gentleness that are often used to stereotype us are positive human values, values that are becoming more and more important as the general values of the whole of mankind are put more and more out of kilter. And the strength that marked Christ, Ghandi, and King was a strength born not out of violence but of gentleness, understanding, and gentle human compassion. We must move outside the walls of our stereotypes but, we must retain the values on which they were built.
  • Frantz Fanon pointed out in Black Skin, White Masks, that the anti-Semitic was eventually the anti-negro. I want to say that eventually both are antifeminist and even further, I want to indicate that all discrimination is essentially the same thing – anti-humanism. That is my charge to those of you in the audience this morning, whether you are male or female.

Speech at Newark College of Engineering (1972)[edit]

From Voices of Multicultural America: Notable Speeches Delivered by African, Asian, Hispanic and Native Americans, 1790-1995 (1995).
  • The cost of living is first on all of our minds this important year. Yet the President [Nixon] has decided that it is a year for travel. I ask–when is he going to make a "Trip to Peking" in regard to the basic problems facing us in the United States this year? He is willing to go halfway 'round the world--yet he doesn't have time to walk ten blocks from the White House in Washington and look at the lives people are living under Phase II.
  • A sales tax is the enemy of the poor person. It is the enemy of the elderly couple who live on fixed income. And it is the enemy of the everyday American consumer, poor or not.
  • I am completely opposed to increasing the debt ceiling without basic tax reform. What we need in this country today is leadership which has the courage to call for income tax reform to put the burden where it must be placed, on those who can afford to pay.
  • I know a lot of Americans who would be glad to settle for better bus service from their home to their jobs, or from poor neighborhoods to areas of the city where jobs are to be found. Repeated studies of riots in urban ghettos show that lack of adequate transportation was a big factor in the discontent and bitterness which caused riot conditions to erupt, but President Nixon's answer is to build a space shuttle or an SST with precious public funds, to serve a tiny elite of the population or to stimulate the economy of a state or region by creating massive and useless technological publicworks projects.

Unbought and Unbossed (1970)[edit]

Original edition published by Houghton Mifflin.
  • I was well on the way to forming my present attitude toward politics as it is practiced in the United States; it is a beautiful fraud that has been imposed on the people for years, whose practitioners exchange gelded promises for the most valuable thing their victims own: their votes. And who benefits the most? The lawyers.
    • p. 37.
  • Congress seems drugged and inert most of the time. Even when the problems it ignores build up to crises and erupt in strikes, riots, and demonstrations, it has not moved. Its idea of meeting a problem is to hold hearings or, in extreme cases, to appoint a commission.
    • p. 104.
  • When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.
    • p. 108.
  • The difference between de jure and de facto segregation is the difference between open, forthright bigotry and the shamefaced kind that works through unwritten agreements between real estate dealers, school officials, and local politicians.
    • p. 160.
  • I don't measure America by its achievement but by its potential.
    • p. 175.
  • There was one all-black student group, the Harriet Tubman Society. Some upperclassmen had started it, about a year before I joined it in my sophomore year. There I first heard people other than my father talk about white oppression, black racial consciousness, and black pride. The black students kept to their own tables in the cafeteria. We talked. No one said "rap" then, but that's what we did. I had some things to contribute, more out of my reading than my experience. I knew about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois and George W. Carver, and I had managed to find some books in the public library about our African heritage that few people then studied or talked about; I knew about the Ashanti kingdoms, for instance.
  • Men always underestimate women. They underestimated me, and they underestimated the women like me. If they had thought about it, they would have realized that many of the homes in black neighborhoods are headed by women. They stay put, raise their families and register to vote in greater numbers. The women are always organizing for something, even if it is only a bridge club. They run the PTA, they are the backbone of the social groups and civic clubs, more than the men. So the organization was already there.
  • Discrimination against women in politics is particularly unjust, because no political organization I have seen could function without women.
  • Some other black political leaders scolded me. I told them that no one has a right to call himself a leader unless he dares to lead.
  • One distressing thing is the way men react to women who assert their equality: their ultimate weapon is to call them unfeminine.
  • One question bothers me a lot: Who's listening to me? Some of the time, I feel dishearteningly small and futile. It's as if I'm facing a seamless brick wall, as if most people are deaf to what I try to say. It seems so clear to me what's wrong with the whole system. Why isn't it clear to most others? The majority of Americans do not want to hear the truth about how their country is ruled and for whom. They do not want to know why their children are rejecting them. They do not dare to have to rethink their whole lives. There is a vacuum of leadership, created partly by the bullets of deranged assassins. But whatever made it, all we see now is the same tired old men who keep trucking down front to give us the same old songs and dances.
  • Youth is in the process of being classed with the dark-skinned minorities as the object of popular scorn and hatred. It is as if the United States has to have a "nigger," a target for its hidden frustrations and guilt. Without someone to blame, like the Communists abroad and the young and black at home, middle America would be forced to consider whether all the problems of our time were in any way its own fault. That is the one thing it could never stand to do. Hence, it finds scapegoats.
  • What is the alternative? What can we offer these beautiful, angry, serious, and committed young people? How are we all to be saved? The alternative, of course, is reform-renewal, revitalization of the institutions of this potentially great nation. This is our only hope. If my story has any importance, apart from its curiosity value the fascination of being a "first" at anything is a durable one- it is, I hope, that I have persisted in seeking this path toward a better world. My significance, I want to believe, is not that I am the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress, but that I won public office without selling out to anyone. When I wrote my campaign slogan, "Unbossed and Unbought," it was an expression of what I believe I was and what I want to be-what I want all candidates for public office to be. We need men and women who have far greater abilities and far broader appeal than I will ever have, but who have my kind of independence- who will dare to declare that they are free of the old ways that have led us wrong, and who owe nothing to the traditional concentrations of capital and power that have subverted this nation's ideals. Such leaders must be found. But they will not be found as much as they will be created, by an electorate that has become ready to demand that it control its own destiny. There must be a new coalition of all Americans - black, white, red, yellow and brown, rich and poor - who are no longer willing to allow their rights as human beings to be infringed upon by anyone else, for any reason. We must join together to insist that this nation deliver on the promise it made, nearly 200 years ago, that every man be allowed to be a man. I feel an incredible urgency that we must do it now. If time has not run out, it is surely ominously short.
  • The attitudes some members of Congress display toward the rest of humanity, including their constituents, sometimes irritates and sometimes dismays me. They act like aristocrats. It has been a long time since Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as President, then rode his horse back to a boardinghouse and sat down to dinner with the rest of the roomers. Now even the most junior member of the House is surrounded by a hush of deference when he moves around the Hill.
  • I used to be a moderate. I spent twenty years going to all kinds of meetings, trying to find ways all of us, black and white, could work together. Thousands like me kept saying, "Let us in a little. Give us a piece of the pie." What happened? Watts, Newark, Hartford. And what was the reaction? We started to hear a new jargon about "the urban crisis" and "law and order" and "crime in the streets." Today I am a militant. Basically I agree with what many of the extremist groups are saying- except that their tactics are wrong and too often they have no program. But people had better start to understand that if this country's basic racism is not quickly and completely abolished- or at least controlled there will be real, full-scale revolution in the streets. I do not want to see that day come. But I think often of what Malcolm once said about freedom: "You get your freedom by letting your enemy know that you'll do anything to get your freedom. Then you'll get it. It's the only way you'll get it."

Speech in Congress (1969)[edit]

From Voices of Multicultural America: Notable Speeches Delivered by African, Asian, Hispanic and Native Americans, 1790-1995 (1995).
  • As a teacher, and as a woman. I do not think I will ever understand what kind of values can be involved in spending nine billion dollars–and more, I am sure–on elaborate, unnecessary and impractical weapons when several thousand disadvantaged children in the nation's capital get nothing.
  • Mr. Nixon had said things like this: "If our cities are to be livable for the next generation, we can delay no long. er in launching new approaches to the problems that beset them and to the tensions that tear them apart." And he said, "When you cut expenditures for education, what you are doing is shortchanging the American future.” But frankly. I have never cared too much what people say. What I am interested in is what they do.
  • Apparently launching those new [domestic social] programs can be delayed for a while, after all. It seems we have to get some missiles launched first.
  • Two more years of fantastic waste in the Defense Department and of penny pinching on social programs
  • We Americans have come to feel that it is our mission to make the world free. We believe that we are always the good guys, everywhere-in Vietnam, in Latin America, weherever we go. We believe we are the good guys at home, too. When the Kemer Commission told white America what black America had always known, that prejudice and hatred built the nation's slums, maintain them and profit by them, white America would not believe it. But it is true. Unless we start to fight and defeat the enemies of poverty and racism in our own country and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed as hypocrites in the eyes of the world when we talk about making other people free.

Quotes about Shirley Chisholm[edit]

  • Very interesting woman, Shirley. Wants to be varied in her approaches. Likes to do the unexpected. She believes, as I do, in building the new coalition to change the Democratic Party, and if our hopes materialize we're going to have a lot of clout in 1972. What she's concerned about, as I am, is that we get a good candidate, not just an acceptable, tired old liberal
    • Bella Abzug Bella!: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington (1972)
  • Rev. Jesse Jackson called her a "woman of great courage.""She was an activist, and she never stopped fighting,""She refused to accept the ordinary, and she had high expectations for herself and all people around her,"
  • Whether you agree with her politics or not, she had a moral compass. Why I was attracted to her story was because in some ways she's an average American woman who evolved into a strong and courageous politician.
    • Shola Lynch, director of "Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed" attributed
  • The woman who knew how to fight on all sides, you could never surround Shirley with too many enemies...To understand Shirley, one has to understand that she’s not just the first this, that or the other, she was up against the whole world when she ran for Congress. She was up against the Brooklyn machine, probably the most formidable in the country at the time. She was up against men, because the whole notion of this woman getting this rare seat to come up in New York was unheard of. Who did she think she was?...she was up against history. We were only then beginning to get used to having a critical mass — that’s all they were — of African-American men in Congress. She, for example, was part of the group that formed the Black Caucus. Now, here comes a woman, when there aren’t even many men, and said, look, I want to join you guys. Nobody was ready for it, but the black women in Brooklyn, who I think are chiefly responsible for putting her over, and then everybody joined the crowd.
  • Our Lady of Food Justice & SNAP, trailblazer extraordinaire...OG Queen of Brooklyn.
  • She was our Moses that opened the Red Sea for us,"
    • Robert E. Williams, president of Flagler County's branch of the NAACP. attributed

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