50 Years Later, Chisholm's Election Still Inspires Candidates

Nov 8, 2018

1992 and 2018 have both been deemed The Year of the Woman, but what about the year 1968?

That was the year Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman to be elected into the U.S. Congress. Her election still ignites the political hopes of some Virginian legislators.

President Richard Nixon meets with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1971. Shirley Chisholm sits two seats to Nixon's right.
Credit National Archives

Shirley Chisholm shocked the world with her election into Congress in 1968. And although she represented New York, she inspired many in the Commonwealth, including Jennifer McClellan. McClellan represents the Richmond area in the Virginia Senate. “I probably would not be where I am today in the state legislature without her because the first is never easy," she notes.

McClellan says the intersectionality experience of being a woman and African-American, are what she and Chisholm shared. Saying they both experienced strong sense of “otherness.” More so because of their gender.

“I was the first member of the House of Delegates to be pregnant while in office. And a lot of people just assumed that meant that I was going to retire even though one of my male colleagues’ wife was expecting two months after me and no one expected that of them," she remembers. "So I think the expectations are different for women.”

McClellan says she firmly stands on the shoulders of Chisholm. And since she knows the history of Chisholm’s isolation in congress, she cherishes every opportunity to work with other African-American women in the state house.

“You know, sometimes when you’re in the thick of a session it’s just nice to take a moment and support each other. Because while I wish there were more, at least there’s enough where we can support each other.”

Ravi Perry, a Professor of Political Science at Virginia Commonwealth University, says what made Chisholm stand out from the rest, besides the fact that she was a Black woman, was her ability to galvanize her community, both politically and as a fundraiser. Even if that meant she wasn’t “waiting her turn.”

“She was able to beat him which was an unexpected victory," Perry notes. "So she was never afraid to take on the democratic establishment.”

Perry says a huge misunderstanding exists when discussing Black women and their interest in politics. He said African-American women have long been at the epicenter of mobilizing the Democratic Party. It's only now that more and more Black women are running for office. And  "Fighting Shirley" paved the way for them.

As a reporter for NPR in the 1980’s, Nolu Crockett-Ntonga frequently spoke with Congresswoman Chisholm. “The thing that I remember so vividly about Shirley Chisholm is she had a big personality and a big heart.”  She remembers Chisolm’s ambition and advocacy for Black women, which catapulted her to Congress.

“Black women were sick and tired of being sick and tired. And this is what Shirley Chisholm stepped into. It’s like, we’re sick and tired of being sick and tired what are we going to do. And she saw an opportunity to come to congress and make some changes.”  

Chisholm told Crockett-Ntonga how lobbyists bought influence on the hill. She said Chisholm took pride in standing up to special interest groups.

It’s how her mantra ‘unbossed and unbought’ has managed to stand the test of time.  As a result, Crockett-Ntonga doesn’t see Chisholm as a politician. “The term politician sort of has a flavor to it… But stateswoman, for me, meant that she was always trying to serve people. To get something done. For the poor, for inner city people. And that is really where she made her mark.”

Chisholm’s watershed election and straight shooter approach to politics quickly launched her into the national spotlight. In 1972, she fought her way into the Democratic primary for President. And although she lost, her candidacy was more symbolic.

Chisholm was essential in the gender-equality legislation known as Title IX and in the founding of the Congressional Black Caucus. And it is through the CBC that the legacy of "Fighting Shirley" lives on.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.