When Shirley Chisholm won election in 1968, the first black woman in Congress was greeted in Washington with cold shoulders rather than open arms. Many of her new colleagues, overwhelmingly white and male, would barely speak to her, Chisholm told friends, and seemed eager to keep her on the fringes of power. But that was a place the Brooklynbred politician was determined to leave behind. Democratic party activist and longtime friend Donna Brazile still recalls the advice Chisholm once gave her: “She said, If you wait for a man to give you a seat, you’ll never have one! If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.’ ”
True to that maxim, Chisholm—who died Jan. 1 at her home in Ormond Beach, Fla., at age 80 after a series of strokes—played no small role in rearranging the country’s political furniture. With her motto, “Unbought and unbossed,” she became a forceful advocate for the disenfranchised during the 14 years she represented her New York City district in Congress. The daughter of a Barbados-born maid and a Guyanese laborer, she helped pass legislation extending unemployment benefits to domestic workers and providing daycare centers for working moms.
In 1972 Chisholm, a Democrat, became the first black woman to make a major-party bid for the Presidency, although she readily acknowledged it was a largely symbolic effort. (George McGovern ultimately won the party’s nomination.) “When I die,” she said during a recent, rare interview for a documentary scheduled to air Feb. 7 on PBS, “I want to be remembered as a woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be a catalyst for change.” Given the gradual evolution of American politics since then—there are now 14 African-American women in Congress—it’s fair to say Chisholm, who married twice and had no children, leaves this world with her mission accomplished. “She took the White Males Only sign off Congress and the White House,” says feminist Gloria Steinem, who worked with Chisholm. “That’s huge.”