Women's History Month: The Inspiring Shirley Chisholm

If you’ve met me in person, chances are you’ve been handed one of my business cards. There’s a powerful statement on the back, a quote from one of American history’s most unrecognized women, Shirley Chisholm.

Tremendous amounts of talent are lost to our society just because that talent wears a skirt.

And she was right. It was only in the latter half of the 20th century that women made any real headway with equality. Even today, women are still fighting for pay equality, reproductive rights, and equal access to finance, and that is just in the United States.

Shirley Chisholm was a woman who served in the New York State Legislature and went on to become the first African American woman elected to congress, in 1968. She didn’t stop there though. She became the first African American woman to run for president, in 1972, with the slogan ‘Unbought and Unbossed’. Note the dates. A full 36 years before Barak Obama became president and 44 years before Hilary’s presidential campaign. More background here.

Not having grown up in the U.S., I must confess that I didn’t know Shirley Chisholm’s inspiring history until fairly recently. What is astonishing to me now is how many Americans who ought to know better don’t her history either. Why has this amazing woman been forgotten?

The things she accomplished as a woman in the 1960’s and early 1970’s were laudable in themselves. That she was a black woman made them all the more impressive. And here’s where I need to put my stake in the ground: never would I say that women, or African Americans of any gender, weren’t capable of achieving the things Shirley did, more that society didn’t permit it. Shirley was a fighter out of necessity.

She was initially assigned to the House Forestry Committee. But she fought to change that, and was eventually assigned to the Education and Labor Committee where she could actually put her education background to practical use.  She also established the Black Caucus, paving the way for many African Americans to participate fully in the public office. Shirley fought long and hard throughout her career and her life.

When asked how she wanted to be remembered, Chisholm said, “When I die, I want to be remembered as a woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be a catalyst of change.  I don’t want to be remembered as the first black woman who went to Congress.  And I don’t even want to be remembered as the first woman who happened to be black to make the bid for the presidency. I want to be remembered as a woman who fought for change in the 20th century.  That’s what I want.” More background here.

What do you think? Have we given Shirley what she wanted?

I must thank Llenda Jackson, an amazing supporter of women and women’s rights, for introducing me to Shirley. I’ll leave you with this last quote from Shirley:

You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.