A Fighter Remembered
Looking back at the path-breaking career of Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)
SHIRLEY CHISHOLM WAS ALREADY a legend when I arrived in Congress in January 1973, representing the district right next to hers. Although there were a number of New York delegation members who were very well known—Bella Abzug, Ed Koch, to name a few—none had quite Shirley’s stature and reputation.
Shirley was known as someone you couldn’t mess with. The powers that be in the House of Representatives learned that bitter lesson almost immediately when they tried to assign her to the Agriculture Committee following her election to Congress in 1968. Shirley represented Bedford-Stuyvesant, which hadn’t raised a cow or a crop in probably a half-century. So Shirley fought back, not just for herself, but for her constituents, who needed jobs, better schools, and housing—not farm subsidies. Astonished at the boldness and justice of her attack, the leadership quickly backed down—an unheard of result.
Yes, she had been a candidate for the presidency of the United States, the first black and first woman to mount a serious campaign for the Democratic nomination. And yes, she was the first black woman ever elected to Congress. But Shirley was not just a celebrity.
Shirley Chisholm was a force to be reckoned with. Her struggles symbolized the struggles of minority Americans, and her successes suggested the possibility of success for all Americans victimized by racism or sexism or bigotry of any kind.
Except for her ramrod straight posture, there was nothing in Shirley’s appearance to give a hint of her inner strength and resolve—for she was a rather petite and slim, impeccably dressed and coiffed woman. But presence she had. She was a gifted orator, and when she rose up to speak in the well of the House chamber, members of Congress—although jaded from hearing so many speeches by their colleagues—sat up and listened. I can still hear her voice now, with the slight West Indian accent.
Interestingly, even though her liberal opinions were well known—she fiercely opposed the war in Vietnam and fought for a re-ordering of priorities to address the needs of her constituents’ urban district—I never heard anyone speak with hostility against her. Other members of Congress may have disagreed with Shirley, but they all respected her.
Despite her renown, Shirley was not arrogant or unapproachable, and I got to know her. We never became really close, probably because we were both somewhat reserved people. Nonetheless, we would often sit together in the House chamber and talk about issues. Shirley was not much given to small talk, and neither was I.
The private Shirley was not very different from the public Shirley, although there were hints of vulnerability that didn’t often show in her public persona. She often told me what she told the American people: that she felt more discriminated against as a woman than as a black person. (She was way ahead of so many people in understanding the depths of hostility to women’s equality.) Although she never admitted it in so many words, from our conversations I felt that the failure of many prominent women to support her in her candidacy for president was not just puzzling, but personally hurtful to Shirley. It was a pain I think she carried for a very long time.
When Shirley campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, I was totally absorbed in fighting my primary race for Congress. I did not realize until much later the extraordinary courage it took for her to run for president, and how many walls she was knocking down for so many women and other groups by reaching so high. Shirley Chisholm was a woman well ahead of her times, and there was a personal price she paid for that, although she didn’t often let on about it.
But her achievements included more than showing the rest of us how to break down barriers of prejudice, important as that was. Shirley wasn’t one to fight against every evil; she picked her fights carefully and won some important battles.
For example, one of her signal accomplishments in Congress was getting domestics—read “maids”—covered under Social Security. It is hard to imagine that so vital a program left out this huge category of workers. Shirley, though, understood clearly what it meant for so many women in her district and around the country who worked so hard cleaning homes not to have Social Security coverage. The meager earnings of a domestic generally left little over for the “golden years.” So Shirley changed that. Her law instantly gave millions of American women peace of mind that came from knowing that they would finally have a reliable source of support in their old age. Shirley, in other words, never let her fame get in the way of what she had to do; she never forgot the plight of the “little person,” the poor, the minorities, and those who are so easily overlooked in this society.
In a recent documentary about her life and her presidential bid, Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed, Shirley said she wanted to be remembered as someone who fought for change. I remember her not just as a fighter for change, but as someone who made change happen. I was proud to know her. All Brooklynites should be proud that she was one of their own.
Elizabeth Holtzman was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1973 to 1980. A former Kings County district attorney and New York City comptroller, she is currently a counsel at Herrick Feinstein LLP.