Race, Gender, and Presidential Candidates

Much was made during the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries of the conflict between a female candidate (Hilary Clinton) and an African-American politician (Barack Obama).  Many people have either forgotten, or never known, about the first African-American Presidential candidate for a major party, a woman named Shirley Chisholm.


Shirley ChisholmBorn in 1924, Shirley Hill Chisholm was one of five children born to West Indian immigrants.  Her father was an unskilled laborer who was frequently unemployed, so her mother, a talented seamstress, was the major breadwinner for the family.  However, Shirley’s mother found it difficult to juggle a full-time job and raising five children, so Shirley and her siblings spent much of their childhood with their grandmother in the West Indies, where they were given a rigorous education.

Shirley later attended Columbia University, where she earned a Master’s in early childhood education in 1951.  She then created a system of daycare and preschool centers in Brooklyn, where she became active in the Democratic party – no easy feat for a black woman facing white, male-dominated politics!  By the early 1960s, she had won a seat in the NYS Legislature, and, in 1968, she was elected to Congress, representing a Brooklyn district.  In both Albany and Washington, she promoted better programs to help poor women and children, as well as increased funding for early childhood education.

She quickly came face to face with the double whammy of racism and sexism in the nation’s capitol.Her first committee assignment was to the Agriculture Committee – not exactly a choice assignment for a representative from Brooklyn! When she went to the Democratic leadership to request reassignment, she was first ignored, than harassed. Eventually, she did receive better assignments, and more importantly, she gained a reputation for her quiet determination.

In 1972, Chisholm entered her name into the Presidential race.  Few people took her seriously, however:  not only did the incumbent, Richard Nixon, seem to be a sure thing for re-election, but the Democratic Party was in disarray.   Still, Chisholm’s candidacy seemed to threaten some people;  she received numerous death threats during the campaign.  However, Chisholm discovered that what made her candidacy to disturbing to many Americans was not her race, but her gender. She later remarked that “When I ran for president, I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black.”.

After 1972, Chisholm continued to serve in Congress until 1981, when she left politics to return to her first love – teaching.  She taught at Mt. Holyoke College in Massachusetts and Spelman College in Atlanta.

Chisholm died in 2005;  she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2015.

Two quotations from Chisholm that still resonate:

“When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.”

“I don’t measure America by its achievement but by its potential.”





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