"If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair." These words said by Shirley Chisolm provide an accurate overview of the overarching theme of her life, pursuits, and achievements. Her name stands tall amongst the many greats to have graced this earth and affected social change in their ways, all while creating history. Shirley Chisolm achieved in her lifetime feats women, especially black women the world over, look at as inspiration for their barrier-breaking and status-quo shattering nature.
The eldest of four daughters, Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisolm, was born on November 30, 1924, in Brooklyn, New York. She was born to Charles St. Hill and Ruby Seale St. Hill, a factory worker and a seamstress who emigrated from Guyana and Barbados. She lived with her maternal grandmother, Emaline Seale, in Barbados for a bit of her life. She received a British education before attending the prestigious Girls' School in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, and ultimately graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Brooklyn College in 1946, where she studied on scholarship.
She was heavily involved in debating and won multiple awards for her aptitude in the activity. During her tenure at Brooklyn College, she served as a soror of the Delta Sigma Theta and the Harriet Tubman Society. In addition, she showed great interest and thrived in academics and activism, which foreshadowed the trajectory and success of her courageous career in politics. One of her earliest causes was her advocacy for an African American curriculum and more women in student government leadership positions.
Professionally, she started as a teacher's aide at a childcare center in Harlem following her graduation from Brooklyn College. While pursuing her Masters in Elementary Education at Columbia University, which she received in 1952, she began teaching in a nursery school and serving as director of the Friends Day Nursery in Brooklyn and Manhattan's Hamilton-Madison Child Care Centre. Throughout the 1960's she also worked as an educational consultant for the Division of Day Care.
Chisolm's roots in politics ran deep. Her involvement in human rights activism and politics was inevitable. She was influenced by witnessing her father's avid support of Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey and seeing her community's involvement in the human rights advocacy of Barbadian workers and anti-colonial independence movements. However, she was initially doubtful when urged by her professors to build a career in politics. She believed that as a black woman, she had a 'double handicap' which was true. Entering the world of politics in that era as a black woman meant that you already had two factors working against you, making it extremely hard to advance yourself without double the discrimination of falling into two of the most marginalized demographics in America.
She officially joined politics in 1953 by working on Wesley Holder's campaign to elect Lewis Flagg Jr. as Brooklyn's first black judge. This campaign would later transform into the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League, which focused on economic empowerment and civil rights. The '60s were a significant time in developing Chisolm's political career and the lead-up to the most prominent position she'd hold in Congress. She joined various associations such as the League of Woman Voters and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), among many others.
Chisolm's advancement in the political scene was happening steadily and boldly. She secured domestic workers unemployment benefits and created a program allowing underprivileged students a chance to attend college during her time in the New York State Assembly, a role she took up in 1965. However, this would only be the tip of the iceberg of what she would achieve in her life.
In 1970 she changed history and became the first African American woman to be elected to the U.S House of Representatives, a seat she began running for in 1968, which was no easy feat for Chisolm and affirmed her doubts before starting her career. She indeed faced more discrimination because of her gender than her being black and stated that "Black male politicians are no different from white politicians," thus hiring women only for her office, half of whom were black.
1972 ushered in more firsts for Chisolm. She became the first African American and the first woman to run for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. But, unsurprisingly, she lacked support from her black male counterparts, and her campaign was underfunded due to her not being taken seriously as a candidate.
"In spite of hopeless odds... to demonstrate the sheer will and refusal to accept the status quo," Chisolm stated this as being the reason why she ran for office. Although her bid did not result in an overall win, she stayed true to her own words of "bringing a folding chair" and taking up space at a table otherwise not meant for her. Her political career yielded many fruits for the people she helped selflessly and tirelessly. Her determination and fearlessness to obliterate barriers opened doors for more black women to serve in Congress like Maxine Waters and become vice presidents of the United States like Kamala Harris. Women like Shirley Chisolm fought for inclusion for all the world to see and follow suit.