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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

Bittinger: Shirley Chisholm

Thomas J. O'Halloran
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm announcing her candidacy for presidential nomination

In 1972, as President Richard Nixon, a Republican, was preparing to run for his second term, the Democrats were in disarray. Scandal plagued Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine shed tears of frustration in public. That boosted Senator George McGovern of South Dakota into first place while former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey struggled to make a comeback.

Then the first African American woman elected to Congress - in 1968 - threw her hat into the ring - becoming the first woman and first African American to run for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination.

Born in Brooklyn in 1924 to parents from the Caribbean, Shirley Chisholm had lived in Barbados with her grandparents as a child, and credited her grandmother with encouraging her self-esteem.

Chisholm returned to New York for college, and earned a master’s degree in education which qualified her to run a day care center. When she became a state legislator and member of Congress from New York’s 12th congressional district, she only hired female staff.
In Congress, she expanded the food stamp program and worked with Congresswoman Bella Abzug to pass a bill to fund child care services - only to have President Nixon veto it.

The road for Chisholm’s presidential run was a rocky one. Only on the ballot in 14 states, she was denied participation in a New York primary debate, whereupon she threatened legal action and was finally given a half-hour to speak.

With Gloria Steinem, she founded the National Women’s Political Caucus to support female activists. And she was nominated for president by The National Feminist Party. But when African American men talked of a Black Political Party, she urged them to not “give up on the system,” saying, “we have made improvements.”

That year, 38% of delegates to the national democratic convention were women - seeking to influence the platform with a pledge for reproductive freedom and a vote for Chisholm. On the first ballot, Chisholm received 151 roll call votes, landing her in fourth place.

Looking back at 1972, she once wrote, “In this country everybody is supposed to be able to run for President, but that’s never been really true. I ran because most people think the country is not ready for a black candidate, not ready for a woman candidate.”

And she added bluntly, “I met more discrimination as a woman than for being black.”

Cyndy Bittinger is a writer and historian, who teaches at the Community College of Vermont. Her latest book is, "Vermont Women, Native Americans and African Americans: Out of the Shadows of History."
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