“Unbought and Unbossed” at 40: Remembering Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 Presidential Campaign

“Unbought and Unbossed” at 40: Remembering Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 Presidential Campaign

Long before Jesse Jackson, Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama, Shirley Chisholm launched a campaign for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, we rarely mention her efforts when we look at the history of U.S. presidential politics in the last forty years. It would seem easy to forget how Chisholm blazed the trail for the likes Jackson, Clinton, and Obama after Clinton’s and Obama’s 2008 nomination battle. But the sexism that Hillary Clinton endured and the racism that Obama faced in 2008 arose from a longer context of racism and sexism structuring the outcomes of U.S. party and presidential politics. Chisholm stood as the first to confront the closed nature of national (and black) politics. Defending her campaign to the broader Democratic Party would seem par for the course; yet, Chisholm also battled the established black male leadership in quest to secure the nomination. In doing so, however, “Fighting” Shirley Chisholm, as she called herself, utilized various political styles and strategies seen in later candidates like Jackson, Clinton, and Obama.

Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm was born in Brooklyn, New York on November 30, 1924 to immigrant parents—her mother from Barbados and father from British Guiana. Trained as an educator, Chisholm involved herself in politics as a young adult. She worked for the Assembly District Democratic Club and the Bedford-Stuyvesant Political League during the 1940s and 50s. She ran for and won a seat in the New York State Assembly in 1964 and she eventually defeated civil rights leader James Farmer in 1968 to become the first black woman to serve in the U.S. Congress.

Shirley Chisholm at child care center. Wikimedia

Eventually Chisholm found herself a member of two groundbreaking cohorts—the first, an emerging group of black feminists who came out of black female political circles and the civil rights and black power movements, and the second, a growing group of black elected officials who owed much of their success to the civil rights and black power movements and to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.[1]

Chisholm was the first black feminist to serve in the U.S. Congress. She gave voice to black feminist Frances Beal’s contention that black women experienced “double jeopardy”—sexism and racism.[2] According to Beal and other black feminists racism and sexism structured black women’s oppression, which then informed their thought, activism, and politics. Chisholm remarked about how her subject position could both influence her political outlook while yet testing her relationship with black and feminist social movements as well as the formal political system:  “I am both black and a woman. That is a good vantage point from which to view at least two elements of what is becoming a social revolution; the American Black Revolution and the Women’s Liberation Movement. But it is also a horrible disadvantage. It is a disadvantage because America…is both racist and anti-feminist.”[3]

This was evident in her experience serving as a freshman congresswoman where she had to confront a legacy of male domination of the U.S. Congress. The seniority system allowed white men of both parties to control appointments, thus giving them power to place Chisholm on the agricultural committee, an ineffectual position for someone concerned with her own constituents in New York district. In addition to fighting to position herself within the House (she eventually secured an appointment on the committee for Veterans’ Affairs), she used her seat and position to advocate for a host of pro-woman policies such as abortion and equal pay and for policies addressing the urban crisis. She also voiced her opposition of the Vietnam War, arguing that it diverted much needed funds away from pressing domestic problems like poverty.[4]

However, the gendered contours of U.S. and black politics proved tough for Chisholm to negotiate when running for the democratic presidential nomination in 1972. In 1971, black elected officials and leaders like Julian Bond and Jesse Jackson gathered secretly in Northlake, Illinois, to decide how to mobilize black Americans in the 1972 election.[5] The idea of running a black American in the democratic primaries emerged in their discussions of how to exercise more influence in the Democratic Party. In her book, The Good Fight, Chisholm recounts how black male leaders expressed skepticism about her possible run in the primaries. She states that black men relied upon zero-sum interpretations of black women’s’ politics:  Would she be a candidate for blacks or for women?[6]

Chisholm announced her candidacy on January 25, 1972 and she addressed the sexist and racist presumptions of presidential politics from the start of her campaign. Chisholm announced, “I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency of the United States…I am proud. I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement, and I am equally proud of that.”[7] Of course, no white man would have had to voice that type of disclaimer if running. Yet, she had to venture onto the political tightrope that many men and women of color, and women generally, had to walk when running for statewide and national offices. One question that loomed over black candidates, especially in the wake of the civil rights and black power movements, was: Could a black candidate appeal to white voters? That question seemed to become more complex when considering how a black woman could perform in national politics.

Shirley Chisholm for President Pin Button. Printerval


Chisholm’s candidacy revealed the limits of black politics, the Democratic Party, and presidential politics. Many in the media failed to take her seriously. She often reiterated that she was running a “serious” campaign.[8] Ironically, instead of devoting time to talking about her pro-choice stance on abortion, equal pay for women, and racial equality, her contemporary racial and gender politics forced her to simultaneously acknowledge her identity while distancing herself from it:  “I want to be the candidate for those who see beyond my blackness and femaleness and see a candidate who has ability, guts, leadership, talent, honesty…”[9] Of course, white male candidates like McGovern and New York’s John V. Lindsay saw presidential politics as their exclusive prerogative. They expected her to step to the side for fear that she may attract more progressive voters. But Chisholm retorted, “If you’re so worried about cutting into the progressive vote, why don’t you and McGovern get together—and one of you decide to back out?”[10]

Several black politicians and feminists wavered in their support for Chisholm. Few black leaders sided with Chisholm. California Representative Ronald Dellums and Parren Mitchell from Baltimore offered encouragement while Michigan Representative John Conyers lent tepid support. When asked about her campaign, Ohio congressman Louis Stokes shot back, “Who’s Shirley Chisholm?”[11] Betty Friedan backed Chisholm privately but desired to campaign for Eugene McCarthy. Gloria Steinem voiced qualified support for Chisholm.[12] During the Democratic National Convention, some black male elected officials like Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes and Washington, D.C. Representative Walter Fauntroy worked behind the scenes to stymie Chisholm’s and her allies’ attempts to gather enough delegates to influence the party platform and address the convention. Instead, Stokes, Fauntroy and others sought to cement their own power within the Party by gathering black delegates to deliver to the eventual nominee, George McGovern. Although Stokes, Fauntroy, and others saw their efforts as part of strengthening blacks’ position within the Democratic Party, they maneuvered around a black woman to do so.[13]

Chisholm’s built a formidable political legacy despite her disappointing showing in the primaries. She knew that she could use her campaign to help organize the 1960s social movement constituencies—blacks, women, students, militants, the poor, etc.—into an electoral force. Chisholm also pioneered the “leverage” strategy of using a presidential campaign to construct a black political bloc that black leaders debated during her moment and in the early 1980s when Jesse Jackson sought to run for the nomination.[14] Before Jesse Jackson’s rainbow coalitions, she conceived of her campaign as a way to organize a coalition of the “disaffected.” I recall Chisholm’s campaign when Obama’s campaign constructed his winning coalition of progressives of various backgrounds, black Americans, Latina/os, women, and students. Chisholm also comes to mind when one remembers how news pundits and activists praised Hillary Clinton’s reputation as a fighter in 2008.

Chisholm said her ultimate goal in politics was to help open up America’s government to those in her coalition.  She told the New York Times in 1972, “It’s time this country lived up to the American dream and opened the doors of opportunity to members of minority groups to be in policy-making positions in government.”[15] What is ironic is that Chisholm chose to take on this challenge with little support from prominent black and feminist leaders.[16] However, the current silence of political observers and the Democratic Party around Chisholm’s campaign remains even more curious. As the Democrats featured a plethora of female speakers at their convention, and trumpeted policies benefitting women, they failed to acknowledge Chisholm’s historic campaign. What we should remember about the 40th anniversary of the 1972 campaign is that the Democrats, in part, owe its diversity and openness to black feminist, Shirley Chisholm.

[1] Yet, black women like Chisholm, communist Angela Davis, Black Panther Elaine Brown, and writers Toni Cade Bambara and Toni Morrison also comprised this group of black women who emerged to challenge black power, civil rights, feminism, and liberalism during the late 1960s and early 1970s. As historians like Paula Giddings and Deborah Gray White have illustrated, this group of women tapped into a tradition of independent and intersectional politics distinct from black men and white women. Chisholm was no different.

[2] Of course, many black feminists acknowledged that class and sexuality also constituted other forms of oppression affecting black women. Frances M. Beal, “To Be Black and Female,” in The Black Woman:  An Anthology, ed. Toni Cade Bambara (New York:  New American Library 1970).

[3] Shirley Chisholm, “Racism and Anti-Feminism,” The Black Scholar, January-February, (Oakland, CA:  Black World Foundation, 1970).

[4] Chisholm documents her experience as a freshman congresswoman in her first book, Unbought and Unbossed. Shirley Chisholm, Unbought and Unbossed (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1970), 78-99.

[5] Senator Edmund S. Muskie’s comment that he would probably lose if he selected a black American as a vice presidential candidate served as the impetus for the Northlake meeting. “Blacks plan to enter presidential primaries,” New York Amsterdam News, September 9, 1971.

[6] Shirley Chisholm, The Good Fight (New York:  Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973), 30.

It is important to point out that the national black political leadership was divided about whether or not a black American should run in the primaries and/or which white candidate to support. These meetings preceded the 1972 Gary Convention, which drew thousands of black activists, politicians, and leaders and continued these conversations. The Northlake meeting also preceded those convened by a group of black elites in the early 1980s called the Black Leadership Family. Members of the Black Leadership Family gathered in response to Harold Washington’s successful primary campaign for mayor of Chicago.

[7] Chisholm, The Good Fight, 71.

[8] “Shirley Chisholm:  ‘I’m not kidding,’” Daily Defender, January 24, 1972.

[9] “The short, unhappy life of black presidential politics, 1972,” New York Times, June 25, 1967.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “The short, unhappy life of black presidential politics, 1972.”

[13] Frederick C. Harris, The Price of the Ticket:  Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2012), 11-14.

[14] If and when one sits down to write a book about the history of black presidential and intra-party politics and black strategy, one would have to include Chisholm as she often demonstrated a deft understanding of the implications of marginalized peoples’ participation in national electoral politics. See her interview with the New York Amsterdam News for an example. “The Amsterdam interviews the candidates: Exclusive talks with key presidential aspirants—Candidate Shirley Chisholm,” New York Amsterdam News, March 3, 1972. Also see her book, The Good Fight, which is an account of her primary campaign.

[15] “Mrs. Chisholm envisions power to all the people,” New York Times, June 16, 1972.

[16] Chisholm’s independence could explain her absence from conversations about race and U.S. politics in our contemporary moment.

Featured image caption: Shirley Chisholm. Flickr

Austin C. McCoy is a Phd Candidate in History at the University of Michigan. He is writing a dissertation on progressives' responses to plant closings and urban fiscal crises in the Midwest during the 1970s and 1980s.