Unbossed and Unbought: Shirley Chisholm and her enduring influence in New York City

March is Women’s History Month, a celebration dedicated to commemorating and uplifting the contributions of women throughout our Nation’s history.

Few have left such an enduring legacy on New York City as Shirley Chisholm. On November 24, 1924, Chisholm was born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents who came to the United States from Barbados. That’s right! Chisholm is the daughter of immigrants and serves as yet another example of how new arrivals throughout history have helped build a stronger City, and a greater nation.

Shirley Chisholm speaking to the House of Representatives in 1971 (photo source: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division).

Coming from one of the poorest communities in New York City, Ms. Chisholm was a trailblazer, championing anti-poverty programs, and educational reform.[1] Julie Gallagher, associate professor of History and American studies at Penn State Brandywine noted that Chisholm’s  “parents struggled in the economic crisis, and they faced discrimination, but she had incredible intellect, and that was recognized.”[2] Such intellect led to Chisholm graduating from Brooklyn College and the Teachers College at Columbia University and continuing on to having an inspiring political career that continues to impact the lives of countless individuals.[3]

During her time serving in the New York State Assembly (1965 to 1968), her major achievements included granting domestic workers unemployment benefits and championing a program that allowed underprivileged students to attend college while taking remedial education classes. New York’s youth continue to benefit from these programs today.[2]

Becoming the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Shirley Chisholm was instrumental in reforming the Fair Housing Act, working to transform it from “a statement of goals” into “an active force against discrimination”.[4] As such, the Fair Housing Act today protects people from discrimination when they are renting or buying a home, getting a mortgage, seeking housing assistance, or engaging in other housing-related activities.[5]

In May 1969, while tackling gender issues, race relations, and poverty, she delivered a prophetically powerful speech to the House of Representatives, reflecting on the society of the time.

“As a black person, I am no stranger to race prejudice. But the truth is that in the political world I have been far oftener discriminated against me because I am a woman than because I am black…Prejudice against women is still acceptable. There is very little understanding yet of the immorality involved in double pay scales and the classification of most of the better jobs ‘for men only.’”[6]

Alas, this is very reminiscent of the world we live in, today.

In the same speech, the Brooklyn congresswoman charged, “Unless we … 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.”[6] Such efforts toward eradicating poverty and racism are embedded in the work we do everyday at the Coalition as we strive toward ending mass homelessness and preserving the right to shelter for those without a safe place to call home.

Chisholm once said, “I want to be remembered as a woman … who dared to be a catalyst of change.”[2] But she was so much more than just a catalyst. As the first Black person to seek the presidential nomination from one of the two major political parties, she actually effected change as an action-taker, trailblazer, and political powerhouse. A leader who tackled gender issues, race relations, and poverty, she was a voice for the impoverished, and an example of compassion for the generations that have followed. For these reasons, we are choosing to honor Shirley Chisolm this Women’s History Month.

[1] Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum – Shirley Chisholm: Unbought and Unbossed: https://womenshistory.si.edu/spotlight/shirley-chisholm
[2] History Channel – Shirley Chisholm: Facts About Her Trailblazing Career: https://www.history.com/news/shirley-chisholm-career-milestones
[3] National Archives – Shirley Chisholm (November 30, 1924 – January 1, 2005): https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/individuals/shirley-chisholm
[4] Congressional Black Caucus Campaign – Legislation: https://avoice.cbcfinc.org/exhibits/fair-housing/legislation
[5] US Department of Housing and Urban Development – Housing Discrimination Under the Fair Housing Act: https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/fair_housing_act_overview
[6] Gallagher, J. (2007). Waging “The Good Fight”: The Political Career of Shirley Chisholm, 1953-1982. The Journal of African American History, 92(3), 392–416.