The Courage and Strength of Civil Right Activist, Shirley Chisholm

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During a time of where sexism and racism was heavily impacted on society, the idea of an African American congresswoman never crossed anybody’s mind. They had to deal with the harsh racism society brought among them, and on top of that, discrimination against their sex. It was already uncommon to see an African American woman having a seat in US politics, but in 1968, Shirley Chisholm defied the odds and became the first African American woman to be elected into Congress.

Born in 1924, Chisholm lived in Brooklyn and was the oldest of four to her immigrant parents. Her father a factory worker and her mother a seamstress. After her graduation from Brooklyn Girls’ High in 1942, she attended Brooklyn College Cum, where she won multiple prizes on the debate team. Her professors continuously encouraged her to build a career in politics, but Chisholm saw herself as “double handicap” being a black female. After graduating, she joined many organizations fighting for equality: The Advancement of Colored People, The Urban League, League of Women Voters, and even the Democratic Party Club. In 1964, Chisholm ran for the New York State Legislature. She became the second African American to be in the New York State Legislature. Chisholm then ran for congressman against fellow African American James Farmer, a civil rights leader. In 1968, Chisholm defeated Farmer and became the first African American congresswoman.

When Chisholm first got to congress, the House Leadership assigned her congressional committee and was placed on agriculture, dealing with forestry and rural development. In utter shock, Chisholm complained about her placement and stated, “All I’m asking for is something more relevant than Agriculture.” Chisholm immediately appealed to House Senator John McCormack. McCormack responded to her request with be a “good soldier.” Chisholm then had the courage to take her request to the House floor. She then won her reassignment and was placed into Veterans’ Affair Committee. Although it was not her top choice, she was more relevant to her new assignment. “There are a lot more veterans in my district than trees,” Chisholm stated. During her time in the Veterans’ Affair Committee, Chisholm opposed the Vietnam War and voted against military spending, which was not popular to do so. Chisholm strongly felt that the money should not be spent for war when the real enemy was racism, sexism, lack of education, and poverty.

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“Fighting Shirley Chisholm” is what the people would call her. As a member of Congress, Chisholm sought to fight for women’s rights, Civil Rights, and the poor. Chisholm once stated, “Unless we start to fight and defeat the enemies in our country, poverty and racism, and make our talk of equality and opportunity ring true, we are exposed in the eyes of the world as hypocrites when we talk about making people free.” She put her main focus on the inequality that was dispersed throughout the nation. Chisholm helped co-find both the National Women’s political Caucus in 1971 and the Congressional Black Caucus in 1977. With her fight for equality, she even introduced over 50 new legislations and supported many programs that improved employment, education, income support, and programs that helped those living in poverty. She continued on by sponsoring causes that increased the federal funding for extending the daycare hours and assuring a minimum annual income for families in need. Chisholm always defended the federal assistance for education and was an important backer of a national school lunch bill.

Everyone thought that Being the first black woman to serve on Congress was a good enough of an accomplishment, but Chisholm felt different and knew she could do more. On January 25, 1972, Chisholm declared that she would be running for that year’s presidential election. “I’m a revolutionary at heart now and I’ve got to run, even though it might be the downfall of my career” (Chisholm). Chisholm would become the first African American female to campaign for the Democratic nomination for the presidency, with the slogan of “Unbought and Unbossed.” According to Chisholm’s congressional intern, Robert Gottlieb, she felt like her slogan was “a way of life.” “She was beholden to no one. She truly represented someone unbought and unbossed because of her principles and her fortitude, not because of false bravado and money” (Gottlieb). During her run for election, Chisholm advertised how she wanted new forms of politics, led by the people of America. In one of her speeches, Chisholm proclaimed, “I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate for the women’s movement in this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that… I am the candidate of the people of America.” The discrimination of her skin tone and sex is what put Chisholm at a disadvantage. She wasn’t allowed to participate in primary debates that were televised. This soon resulted in her fail to win her party’s nomination, losing to George McGovern. Even though she was unsuccessful to win the election, Chisholm served another 11 years in Congress. She soon decided to retire from Congress in 1983, dedicating the rest of her time teaching at Mount Holyoke College.

Shirley Chisholm showed everyone that she refused to let her race and sex hold her back. She was a woman of courage. Chisholm wasn’t afraid to take a stand and call out the issues that needed to be fixed. She was a Civil Rights and women’s rights advocate and wanted to help those living in poverty. Shirley Chisholm left a legacy to be remembered, stating, “I want to be remembered as a woman… who dared to be a catalyst of change.”

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