ONE ONLY needs to know her campaign slogan and book title, "Unbought and Unbossed," to understand the dynamic and different political force that was Shirley Chisholm, who died Saturday at the age of 80.
She charged onto the national scene in 1968, a New York legislator who was an early representative of political clout for blacks and women growing out of the civil rights movement. A former teacher, expert in early childhood education and community activist in Brooklyn, Mrs. Chisholm defeated two opponents in a primary - including one who was the reported favorite of local Democratic leaders - and then went on to defeat James Farmer, a prominent civil rights leader, in the general election to become the first black woman elected to Congress. Once there, she often confounded her new colleagues by challenging the clubby white male status quo. During her freshman term, she took on the congressional seniority system after she was first assigned to the House Agriculture Committee. Her loud protests that agricultural issues were of little concern to her urban constituents prompted a rare change of assignment to the Veterans Affairs Committee.
She once told voters, "My greatest political asset, which professional politicians fear, is my mouth, out of which come all kinds of things one shouldn't always discuss for reasons of political expediency." Her constituents liked her style well enough to send her back to Congress six more times. Ultimately, she learned to mix pragmatism and principle to make her political mark. After she supported a white colleague, Hale Boggs, over a black colleague, John Conyers Jr., for House majority leader in 1971, she was given a coveted seat on the House Education and Labor Committee, where she pushed for more job training and employment programs, welfare reform, and equal educational opportunity.
She made history again in 1972, when she became the first woman to seek the Democratic presidential nomination, building on her reputation as a champion of civil rights in general and women's rights in particular. After she retired from Congress in 1982, she returned to teaching and remained a popular speaker for several years.
The Congress that convenes this week includes 79 women and 72 minorities among voting members in the House and Senate - still not reflective of the population, but a sign of continuing progress. Shirley Chisholm's legacy lives on.