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Born in New York City in 1924, Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress. In 1972, she became the first Black woman from a major political party to run for President. As an outspoken politician, educator, and activist, Chisholm fought for gender and racial equality, better wages for workers, and a more equal and just world. In 2015, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, who echoed the words Chisholm herself said she wanted to be remembered by: “Shirley Chisholm had guts.”
Maya is a recent college graduate who began her Tiktok career during the quarantine lockdown in spring of 2020. As Maya started exploring more ways Tiktok could be used as a means of political change, she began writing witty raps about the former president, which eventually became the “Trump Freestyle” series. As her platform grew, she began making funny educational videos explaining a range of political topics from freedom of speech to how the impeachment process works. Maya has also received national press coverage this year surrounding her work feeding those in need around St. Louis using her unused university meal plan.
|Once upon a time, there was a girl who dared to speak her mind—and didn’t let anyone—or anything—stand in her way. Her name was Shirley.
Shirley was born on a cold, wintry day in New York City in 1924. But for much of her childhood, she grew up on the warm, tropical island of Barbados. There, she and her sisters lived in a small house with their grandmother.
Shirley came to Barbados when she was three, and as she got older, she didn’t remember much about New York. She didn’t remember the city’s snowflakes or its big buildings or its noisy streets.
Instead, her days were filled with humidity and heat. Her mornings and evenings were full of her grandmother’s love—and her strict rules. And at night, the sounds of ocean waves seeped into Shirley’s dreams.
In the one-room schoolhouse where Shirley attended school, she could often be found with her hand in the air, an answer ready on her tongue.
Shirley had so much to say. She wondered if she would ever be big enough or smart enough or loud enough for the world to listen.
I’m __________. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
A fairy tale podcast about the rebel women who inspire us.
On this episode, Shirley Chisholm. Dedicated educator, trailblazing politician, and the first Black woman ever elected to the United States Congress.
<END THEME MUSIC>
|FROM BARBADOS TO BROOKLYN
Shirley loved the sunny afternoons in Barbados, and she loved swimming in the ocean and running across the island’s sandy beaches. She sometimes even liked doing the chores on her grandmother’s farm—collecting eggs from the hens and feeding the cows and sheep.
But one day, she got some exciting—and scary—news: Shirley’s parents were bringing them back to New York.
Her parents didn’t make a lot of money. That was one reason why they had sent their kids to live in Barbados in the first place.
But Shirley’s mom and dad missed them so much. So at 10 years old, Shirley hugged her grandma goodbye, tears streaming down her face, and boarded a giant steamship headed north.
|STRANGE SOUNDS AND SPITBALLS
After living in the Barbadian countryside for so many years, New York City seemed loud and strange.
People spoke many different languages. Cars motored noisily down the streets. And Shirley just couldn’t get used to the cold.
Worse than that, even though she was in the sixth grade in Barbados, her new school put her in the third grade.
Shirley knew she was smarter than that. But though she excelled in math, reading, and writing, the school said she didn’t know enough United States history to be in a higher grade.
But, of course, she didn’t know U.S. history! She had never studied it! Barbados was a British colony, so Shirley had learned British history.
Shirley was furious, and she started acting out. She blew spitballs at her classmates while the teacher wasn’t looking. And she shot rubber bands across the room.
Finally, though, her teacher realized the problem. Shirley was bored.
So, the teacher arranged for Shirley to have a tutor to help her learn United States history. And within a couple years, Shirley was promoted into the eighth grade!
|MAKE SOMETHING OF YOURSELF
Finally in the right grade, Shirley excelled in school. She wanted to know everything there was to know!
She listened intently to what her teachers said. She brought home tottering stacks of books from the library. When her father’s friends came by, Shirley stayed up late, listening in to their conversations about politics through her bedroom door.
Her father believed everyone should be treated equally, no matter their skin color or how much money they had.
And every day, her father told her, “Study, and make something of yourself.”
When Shirley graduated from high school, she enrolled in Brooklyn College, where she continued to speak up and out.
One professor took notice of Shirley’s quick thinking and prize-winning debate skills. He said she should go into politics.
“You forget two things,” Shirley said. “I’m Black and a woman.”
Most politicians at that time were white—and men.
So, Shirley decided to become a teacher.
But after finishing college, Shirley had a hard time finding a job. She was small, and she had a lisp. Over and over, people told her she looked too young!
“Don’t judge me by my size!” she finally exclaimed at one interview. “Give me a chance!”
With that, the director of the childcare center hired Shirley on the spot!
Within several years, Shirley was promoted to become the director of a childcare center!
She also started going to neighborhood meetings where she asked politicians uncomfortable questions.
She wanted to know why more money wasn’t put toward schools.
She wanted to know why trash is picked up more regularly in some neighborhoods than others.
And she wanted to know why her neighborhood had less police protection than other—often richer and whiter—neighborhoods.
Her questions were met with empty promises. So, Shirley joined local political clubs where she could work with others to make change happen herself.
But there, women were asked to make food, write thank-you notes, and raise money for men’s political campaigns.
Soon, Shirley became tired of decorating collection tins. So, in 1964, she made a bold move.
A seat was open in the New York State Assembly, the part of the government that makes decisions for people throughout the state.
But that particular seat had always been held by white men.
The words of Shirley’s father echoed through her head: Make something of yourself.
So, Shirley launched her first political campaign and ran for the New York State Assembly.
Shirley met with neighbors and went to protests. She spoke at churches and community meetings.
A lot of people supported her. But sometimes, people asked her what her husband thought about her campaign. (He supported her.)
Others said Shirley ought to be raising a family—not running for office.
But Shirley didn’t listen. And when the election results came in, her heart was filled with joy!
She won by more than 16,000 votes!
|A BIT OF CHANGE
Immediately, Shirley set to work. She introduced bills that would help students pay for college and assist domestic workers.
Soon, people were writing to Shirley, encouraging her to run for the United States Congress, which makes decisions for the entire country!
Shirley was flattered. But it was such a big leap, Shirley wasn’t sure she—or the world—was ready for it.
Then, one day, a woman knocked on Shirley’s door. She held out a “dirty envelope.” It jangled as she handed it over. When Shirley opened it up, she saw “nickels, dimes, and quarters”—$9.62 exactly.
The woman said it was Shirley’s first campaign donation. And she promised to raise money every week if Shirley would run for Congress.
Moved by the woman’s actions, Shirley decided to go for it.
|UNBOUGHT AND UNBOSSED
Shirley started campaigning all over her congressional district.
Reporters ignored her, only interviewing her opponent. Shirley’s opponent often dismissed her, too, calling her a “little schoolteacher.”
But Shirley didn’t need reporters or her opponent’s respect. She knocked on doors. She spoke directly to people in her neighborhood—especially women, Black, and Latinx voters. And she encouraged everyone to register to vote.
Then, on Nov. 5, 1968, the results came in—and Shirley won by more than 20,000 votes!
Shirley Chisholm had become the first Black woman ever elected to the United States Congress!
|FIGHTING SHIRLEY CHISHOLM
In Washington, DC, new congresspeople are supposed to pay their dues and wait their turn.
But Shirley had things to say and do. She wasn’t about to be bossed around by others just because they were older or because things had always been done that way.
First, Shirley hired an all-female staff to work in her Washington office—something that was unheard of at the time!
Second, Shirley wasn’t afraid to make her voice heard. She spoke out against the Vietnam War. She fought for more funding and programs for education and children. And she advocated for women, people of color, and poor people.
As the only Black woman serving in Congress, though, it was hard to connect with her colleagues.
Congressmen often went to pubs and bars after work to talk things over. But at that time, it wasn’t considered appropriate for women to go to pubs like that.
Shirley also felt like a lot of politicians were more interested in making money than serving people.
But no matter how lonely or left out she felt, Shirley kept fighting.
As she once said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
|BID FOR PRESIDENT
Then, Shirley made her boldest move yet.
In January 1972, at Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, Shirley approached a podium covered in microphones. A cheering crowd met her gaze as she smiled and waved at them. Once they quieted, she told them she was running for president!
“I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement in this country, although I am a woman, and equally proud of that… I am the candidate of the people of America!”
The crowd erupted in cheers!
But not everyone was happy. Some men said the country wasn’t ready for a woman president. Some white people said the country wasn’t ready for a Black president. And a Black woman? Certainly not!
Still, when people tried to silence her, Shirley spoke up louder. When people ignored her, she insisted they pay attention.
And when her opponents tried to exclude her from the televised presidential debates, Shirley challenged them in court—and won!
No matter what, she never backed down.
Finally, the big day came. At the 1972 Democratic Convention, the Democratic Party would choose who would represent them in the nation’s presidential election.
People from around the United States gathered in a large arena, ready to make their voices heard.
But, already, the people had voted. And already, Shirley knew she didn’t have enough votes to win.
But Shirley ran for president knowing that she might not win.
Really, she wanted to open a door.
She wanted to be heard—and she was.
On the last night of the convention, Shirley was called to the stage for a speech. As she walked into the stage’s bright lights, the audience leapt to their feet, and their air was filled with raucous applause.
And when the crowd finally quieted, Shirley’s words resounded throughout the arena.
And today, her outspoken words and her daring actions continue to resonate around the world.
|A CATALYST FOR CHANGE
Shirley Chisholm may not have won her bid for president. But she paved the way for many Black and women politicians who would follow in her footsteps—from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton to Kamala Harris.
Shirley served as a Congresswoman for 14 years. After that, she became a college professor, founded a political group for Black women, and remained active in politics throughout her life.
In 2015, 10 years after Shirley’s death, Barack Obama, the first Black president of the United States, honored Shirley by awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom:
“There are people in our country’s history who don’t look left or right—they just look straight ahead. Shirley Chisholm was one of those people.”
But Shirley didn’t only want to be remembered for her work in politics. As always, her vision was bigger than that.
“I want history to remember me not that I was the first Black woman to be elected to the Congress . . . but as a Black woman who lived in the twentieth century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.”