Subscribe to Unsung History so you never miss an episode!
Jan. 9, 2023

Shirley Chisholm

Throughout her life, Shirley Chisholm fought for coalitional change. She was the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress in 1968, the first Black woman to run for President of the United States in 1972, co-founder of both the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Women’s Political Caucus, both in 1971, and co-founder of the National Congress of Black Women in 1984. Toward the end of her life, Chisholm told an interviewer: “I want history to remember me … as a Black woman who lived in the 20th century and who dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.” 

Joining me in this episode is Dr. Anastasia Curwood, Professor of History and Director of the Commonwealth Institute for Black Studies at the University of Kentucky, and author of Shirley Chisholm: Champion of Black Feminist Power Politics

Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The episode image is Shirley Chisholm speaking at the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida, on July 12, 1972. The photographer was Warren K. Leffler, and the photograph is in the public domain and available via the Library of Congress

The audio clip of Shirley Chisholm speaking is from her presidential campaign announcement on January 25, 1972, in Brooklyn; the audio is courtesy of the New York City Municipal Archive, via C-SPAN. The audio clip of Rep. Barbara Lee is from Two Broads Talking Politics, Episode 433: Barbara Lee, which originally aired on October 9, 2020; the episode was recorded, edited, and produced by Kelly Therese Pollock and is used with express permission.


Additional Sources:



Learn more about your ad choices. Visit


Kelly Therese Pollock  0:00  
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app so you never miss an episode. And please, tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too. On today's episode, we're discussing Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm. Shirley Anita St. Hill, was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 20, 1924, the oldest of four daughters born to immigrant parents, Charles and Ruby St. Hill. When she was four, Chisholm moved with two of her younger sisters, and three cousins to Barbados to live with relatives, including their grandmother, Emaline Seale, while their parents remained in New York, working to earn money. It was in Barbados that Chisholm learn to read and write, and where she was inspired by her grandmother's fierce spirit. The girls moved back to Brooklyn, to be with their parents, and to meet their baby sister when Chisholm was 10. When Chisholm graduated from high school, she was offered scholarships to four schools, including Vassar and  Oberlin, but without funding for housing, her family couldn't afford it. So instead, she stayed in Brooklyn, and attended Brooklyn College, which was then tuition free. Chisholm was already interested in politics at this point, but she chose in college to major in sociology, and minor in Spanish, and she planned to become a teacher. Even with her college degree, she had trouble finding a teaching position, being passed up for positions that went to her white classmates. But eventually, Mount Calvary Child Care Center in Harlem hired her as a preschool teacher. In October, 1949, 25 year old Shirley married Conrad Chisholm, a 43 year old Jamaican immigrant, whom her parents welcomed into the family. While teaching at Mount Calvary, Shirley Chisholm also pursued her Master of Arts in Childhood Education from Columbia University, taking night classes and graduating in 1951. Chisholm moved on to positions of greater responsibility, and in 1959, she was hired to consult for New York City's Division of Daycare, part of the Bureau of Child Welfare. In this position Chisholm supervise 10 daycares, overseeing over 100 city employees, with a budget of around $400,000. At the same time, Chisholm was becoming more involved in the local political scene. In 1953, she joined an effort by Mac Holder to elect Lewis Flagg, Jr. to be the first Black judge in Brooklyn. After that campaign, Chisholm stayed with the group, as it became the Bedford Stuyvesant Political League, BSPL, which aimed to increase the political representation in government by African Americans. When she had spent some time working with the BSPL and other political organizations, Shirley Chisholm decided to run for office herself, winning a seat in the New York State Assembly in 1964. In 1968, Chisholm saw an opportunity to run for higher office when the New York 12th congressional district was redrawn by court order to equalize the representation across districts. With the backing of Brooklyn's Committee for a Negro Congressman, and some key endorsements, Chisholm ran for the seat, winning the Democratic primary by 788 votes. Chisholm won the general election handily by a two to one margin, making her the first Black woman to be elected to the United States Congress, and one of only 10 women, and 11 African Americans in the house that term. In 1970, Chisholm published her first memoir, "Unbought and Unbossed." In 1971, Chisholm would be one of the 13 founding members of the Congressional Black Caucus and a founding member of the National Women's Political Caucus, along with Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Fannie Lou Hamer, Florence Kennedy, and Gloria Steinem, among others.

On January 25, 1972, Shirley Chisholm announced that she was running for President of the United States. Here is Shirley Chisholm, in that speech.

Shirley Chisholm  6:00  
I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States of America. I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I'm equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or fatcats, or special interests. I stand here now, without endorsements from many big name politicians or celebrities or any other kind of prop. I do not intend to offer to you the tired and glib cliches which for too long have been accepted part of our political life. I am the candidate of the people of America.

Kelly Therese Pollock  7:12  
During the Democratic primary that year, Chisholm received 430,703 votes, 2.7% of the total. On the first ballot at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, Florida, Chisholm received 151.95 votes. Although it wasn't enough to change the outcome of the nominating convention, it was history making nonetheless. After her presidential run, Chisholm stayed in Congress until January, 1983. In 1973, she published her second memoir, "The Good Fight," chronicling her run for president. In 1977, she was elected secretary of the Democratic Caucus in the House, an important leadership position that she served in until 1981. Stunningly, that was the last time a Black woman held a position in House Democratic leadership until 2023, when Representative Lauren Underwood of Illinois, was elected to be one of three co-chairs in the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

In 1977, Chisholm was also appointed to the powerful House Rules Committee, which sets the parameters by which bills will be considered by the House. In February, 1977 Chisholm's marriage to Conrad ended in divorce. Later that year, on November 26, she married Arthur Hardwick, Jr, who had served in the New York State Assembly with her. They were together until Hardwick's death in 1986. In 1982, Chisholm, exhausted from fighting on multiple fronts, in an uphill battle to pass progressive legislation under President Reagan, announced her retirement from Congress. After she left Congress, Chisholm taught at Mount Holyoke College in a named visiting professorship and also taught courses at Spelman, and at Buffalo State College. In 1984, she co-founded the National Congress of Black Women, a nonpartisan group that works to increase participation by African American women at all levels of government, and to increase African American women's leadership in other arenas as well. In 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated Chisholm to be ambassador to Jamaica, but she had to withdraw for health reasons. Shirley Chisholm died on January 1, 2005, in Florida, where she had been living since 1991, near her friends Portia and Calvin Dempsey. After the funeral, Chisholm's body was sent to Buffalo, to be entombed at Forest Lawn Cemetery, next to Arthur Hardwick. Joining me to help us understand more about Shirley Chisholm's incredible life is Dr. Anastasia Curwood, Professor of History, and Director of the Commonwealth Institute for Black Studies at the University of Kentucky, and author of, "Shirley Chisholm: Champion of Black Feminist Power Politics." But first, I'd like to share with you a clip of a political podcast I used to host, called, " Two Broads Talking Politics." In October, 2020, I interviewed Representative Barbara Lee of California, and I asked her about her experience meeting and being mentored by Shirley Chisholm, and how she saw Shirley Chisholm's legacy living on today. Here is her response.

Representative Barbara Lee  11:40  
I was a student at Mills College in the day, in Oakland, California, and I had a government class. Believe me, I've only taken one government class in my life. And part of the course requirement was to work in a political campaign, you know, because Mills is a great women's college. And they have, you know, the theory and the practice, they like you to do your academic work, but they also like you to do field work and combine both. So the field work in the assignment was, during this presidential campaign, was to work in one of the guys' campaign. It was McGovern, Muskie, or Humphrey, and you know, I've never flunked a class before, but I went to Dr. Mullins and I said, "flunk me, I am not working in those guys' campaigns." And she said, "But come on, this is part of your class." I was, "Well, sorry, I just have to flunk it. I'll do all the other work, but I'm flunking." So I was prepared to flunk the class because these, and the reason these these white guys didn't speak to the issues that as a young, African American single mother on welfare, who was very involved in the community, I wasn't apathetic. I mean, I was a community worker with the Black Panther Party. I was president of the Black Student Union at Mills. So it wasn't like, I just didn't believe you know, activism was it was irrelevant. But I these guys didn't speak to the issues that I thought were important. So at the same time, though, of this course, I decided, as president of the Black Student Union to invite the first Black woman elected to Congress, and that was Shirley Chisholm, from Brooklyn. And so I invited her and she came, you know, I had a small budget. And she came and she spoke, and little did anyone know, but she was running for president. And she said that in the in her speech. So I went up to her afterwards, and I mean, her speech was unbelievable. I wish I could find it. She talked about eliminating poverty. She was against the Vietnam War. She talked about women's reproductive rights. You know, she was one of the first board members of NARAL. She spoke fluent Spanish, she talked about immigrant rights. I mean, this woman was brilliant. She was Black, and she was progressive. So I went up and talked to her and told her about this class that I was about to flunk. And after listening to her, she I say, "Well, maybe I'll reconsider flunking the class. But she took me to task because I had never registered to vote. And you know, she said, "You can't do that." She said, "You've got to first register to vote." She said, "I would love to have you as part of my campaign." And I said, "Well, that would help me from flunking the class, so maybe." I really was inspired by her, but believe me, this was so I could pass the class. So I went back and I talked to my professor, and I said, "Okay, I found a candidate. You didn't tell me that Shirley Chisholm was running. Right." The media didn't tell us that. It was total blackout or white out from the media. And so my professor said, "Well, yeah, she's running." And I said, "Well, why didn't you tell us?" So I said, "Well, how do I do this? Tell me how to get involved, and I'm  going to do the class assignment." She said, "Barbara, this is up to you. Part of the class is trying to figure it out." So okay, so I called up two other students I knew and we literally ended up organizing the Northern California presidential Shirley Chisholm presidential primary campaign out of my class at Mills College. I got an A in the course. And I went to Miami as a Shirley Chisholm delegate. And the rest is history. But we became very close friends. She was a mentor through all of my campaigns. She came out when I ran for the California Assembly, Senate and Congress to help me. I've got pictures of her and I walking precincts, doing phone banking. I mean, she just did everything she could to help me. And she was truly a bold, visionary, brilliant woman who had to deal with the intersection of racism and sexism constantly. And I was with her a lot. So I saw that, and you know, I worked for our great warrior, Ron Dellums for 11 years. So I didn't work for Shirley Chisholm formally on Capitol Hill. But I was able to be with her. And she mentored me and helped me understand the dynamics on Capitol Hill, where only there were probably three African American women who were, no three African Americans, were four who are Chiefs of Staff at that point on Capitol Hill I was one of them. And so she explained to me how sexism and racism was prevalent on Capitol Hill and even within Congress and with members of Congress, and I saw her each and every day how she had to deal with all of the challenges and she was a role model. And fast forward now to Senator Harris. Of course, I endorsed her when she ran for president, I was so proud, I was the first member of Congress to endorse her. And her colors were orange and yellow, the same as Shirley Chisholm's colors. And we campaigned hard, because and Kamala always recognized it was because of Shirley Chisholm and Jesse Jackson, who really paved the way and Barack Obama so that she could run as an African American, person of color, but also as a woman. And so Kamala understands the historic moment she's in and, and she is such a brilliant person in terms of her humility. She's brilliant in her humility, recognizing that she just didn't get there by herself. And she's trying to bring other women, along with her now.

Kelly Therese Pollock  17:10  
Hi, Anastasia, thank you so much for joining me today.

Dr. Anastasia Curwood  17:13  
It's a pleasure to be here.

Kelly Therese Pollock  17:15  
I am super, super excited to talk about Shirley Chisholm! Listeners can't see this. I am wearing a Shirley Chisholm shirt. I'm a huge fan. So this was an exciting one for me to do. So I want to ask, obviously, there's lots of reasons to write a biography of Shirley Chisholm. So why did you choose to write this one? Why now? What what led into this?

Dr. Anastasia Curwood  17:37  
I grew up in the 1970s. So I'm a child of the 70s. And just two years before I was born, now everybody knows how old I am, my parents were involved in the Chisholm campaign. My mother was treasurer of Chisholm for President in Massachusetts, and my father was a journalist, is a journalist. At the time he was covering the campaign. And there's a picture, a photograph of both of them with the campaign manager in Massachusetts. And they're in a hotel room sharing a laugh with Shirley Chisholm. And so I saw that image as a very young girl. And, and I thought, I didn't know who was in the photo, at first. First, I thought she was my aunt, because my aunt also was a really good dresser, like Mrs. Chisholm. I thought maybe it was, maybe it was Auntie Sally. But my parents said, "No, that's Shirley Chisholm. She ran for president. Someday you could too." And, and then I had this, you know, for a few years, I considered running for president as a, as a very young person. And somewhere around I think fifth grade or so I said, you know, "I don't think it's for me. It's, it's, it's a really tough job. And, you know, so I think I'm gonna pass," but I considered it seriously as a career choice. So that was my introduction to Chisholm. And the idea that running for president really was an option for everybody, including little Black girls, was just something I grew up with because of seeing that image and seeing her. When I got to be older, I realized that that that is not the case, that it's it's not an assumption by most Americans that a Black woman can run for, let alone win the presidency. And so I knew that the story of how Chisholm ran, and in fact her whole life, which is even more fascinating than just the fact that she ran for president, who she was, her what what her whole life meant, that that story needed to be told. I was, as an academic, teaching a course on biography and history in a in a Black Studies program. And so I was seeking Black biographies to teach. And I was looking for a biography of Chisholm. And I noticed that there wasn't one. So as person interested in biography and having had that indelible effect that Chisholm had on many people in my childhood, I just, it just clicked. I knew I had to write the book. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  20:36  
Yeah. And it's so odd that there hasn't been more written about her. A couple years ago, I went looking for a kids book to give my kids about her. There's now a few, but there were none at the time. And it's just it's so surprising given what such an enormous impact that she's had. Do you have any theories about why that is that we don't have more about her?

Dr. Anastasia Curwood  21:00  
That's a great question, because I've asked myself that this entire process. Why? Why is why has it taken so long to get a full length, you know, academic, definitive biography of, of Chisholm. And I've, I've gone through several different explanations now. One of them, of course, is that she was a Black woman, and Black women as biographical subjects have been very underrepresented in publishing, and are generally for all the reasons that various people are underrepresented, that marketers think it won't sell, that academics think it's not worth studying, that. So Black women are now thankfully, having a little bit more of a biographical moment. I'm part of a collective of Black women biographers with subjects who are Black women. And there are I can tell you, there are some amazing biographies of Black women coming out over the next few years that my colleagues are writing. So. So there there is there is that, but there's another kind of less tangible explanation that I also have thought about, which is that Chisholm, we see Chisholm as a symbol. And the people think that they know her, because they know she ran for president, they know that she was unbought and unbossed. They know she was uncompromising, principled, fearless, you know, but she has not existed as much as a human being for all of us. And to write a biography, you really have to imagine somebody as human first. So that they're, that they are alive, that they are living a life, they're born, that they die, and they have that human subjectivity, I like to call it that that human perspective that we all we go through life having, but it's somehow hard to see heroes as human. And she's attained to this heroic status. But her humanity has gotten a little bit lost along the way. And, and when you don't see somebody as fully human, then you don't really imagine them as having the depths that they would need as a biographical subject. So, so I think that that, that is a big part of it as well. And you know, you think about the some other greats, like, in my field, you know, I'm, I'm a historian of African Americans. And for the longest time, WEB DuBois didn't have a comprehensive biography, and that now there is a towering two volume or one condensed volume biography of him, but, you know, he wrote three autobiographies. Chisholm only wrote two, or two memoirs. And so you know, it's sort of hard to take it on. It's, it's hard to take on it, take on a symbol and make them human. So that's, that's my theory right now. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  24:11  
Could you talk some about the different sources? So you mentioned her two memoirs? And of course, you can't just take those as gospel truth, because like all memoirs, they are a product of the person who's writing them. But you also have a lot of oral history in here, interviews with people. What what are all those sources that you used in this?

Dr. Anastasia Curwood  24:33  
That's another really good question, because it was a little bit of a patchwork of sources that I had to put together. I started with what a lot of historians start with. You look around at the libraries and try to find archival collections of papers. And in Chisholm's case, there are two really good repositories that have archival collections of, of papers. One of them has her papers. That's at Records. The other one is at Brooklyn College. It's the Chisholm Collection that was put together by the Shirley Chisholm Project at Brooklyn College. So I started there, it's pretty clear that immediately, that Chisholm's own papers were pretty under, there were not as many as I expected. And so I had to immediately get started working on oral histories. There are some recorded oral histories in the Chisholm Collection. I went looking for more, for more staffers, and people who were younger than she was, so who would be accessible and available. And they, they were very, very generous with their time. So that was absolutely instrumental. I also had to use some published primary sources. So those would be Congressional Record for one, a lot of Congressional Record and learning the Congressional Record system has its own own own learning curve. I was on a steep one. And then newspapers were invaluable. Then I got really lucky, and the estate of Shirley Chisholm allowed me to look at what was remaining in her personal possession at the time she passed in 2005. And there were a few things there that really filled in the blanks. For example, a binder that the Secret Service created, that she mentioned in, in her book, "The Good Fight," that had a diary of all the campaign stops in it. And the pictures of every personnel member of the campaign in the office, and and all the Secret Service agents who, who, who watched her. So it was, it was very helpful for that three months of of the campaign when the Secret Service was there. It gave me a day by day schedule, but it was a real cobbling together of sources.

Kelly Therese Pollock  27:16  
I love the oral history parts. I loved all the interviews you were able to do with the staffers. I think they do so much to round out the picture. So I wanted to ask, you frame the book around this idea of Black feminist power politics. And so I wonder if you could sort of define that, what you mean by that, and how Shirley Chisholm exemplified that throughout her career?

Dr. Anastasia Curwood  27:40  
Chisholm was, as everybody knows, an idealist in terms of democratic principles. The way she looked at power, was really frank, and really practical. She didn't have a particular reverence for those who held power. She saw that democracy necessitated power being shared fairly and evenly. And it's through her very person as a Black woman, and, you know, her her her own body, she saw the intersections. And this is this was obviously before the term intersectionality was was created by Kimberly Crenshaw, but she saw how intersectional people's needs, hurts, desires, how how they worked across multiple axes of identity. And so a Black feminist power politics approach is seeking political power for those who have the least power and putting them at the center, and then practicing a politics that will that will grow that power. And it was really, she asked different questions from what almost everybody else in the Congress was asking. And she asked, "Well, how does this affect the least of us, the people who have the least power and the least money?" And that was sort of where she would start. And so the policy conclusions that she got to were dramatically different from what most of her peers would get to. However, she was really savvy at the same time, not just sort of a pure idealist, but she was really savvy about, "Okay, well, if I need to get this done for domestic workers, then I need to create different kinds of relationships with my colleagues, and my staffers need to you know, be doing this and this and this, and so that we can get to the required number of votes," because, you know, as, as we know, this week, it's early January, 2023, we know that the number of votes you have really makes a difference. And so if you don't have the votes, you can be as of whatever ideology you want. It's not going to happen in the Congress.  So it's, it's, it's that combination of using the politics in order to lift up everybody, especially those who are who historically are left behind.

Kelly Therese Pollock  30:35  
Yeah. So I was so intrigued reading this, about this idea of coalition building, and she is trying to bring together at various points to get the votes to get where she needs to get things across to bring together different coalitions of people, but it seems, in many cases, like the different groups didn't want to join together, you know, and sort of resisted what she was trying to do. And that really comes to the fore when she was running for president in 1972. And there's on the one hand, the Congressional Black Caucus saying, "No, we think it should be a Black man who's running," and on the other hand, there's the women's group saying, "It should probably be a white woman," you know, so what, what's going on here? What are the struggles that she is it facing, especially as she's running for president?

Dr. Anastasia Curwood  31:25  
When she ran for president, everybody, not everybody, most people assumed that she was crazy. Or that it was quaint or that it was, you know, she was just doing it, because she wanted power for herself. But everything, but the point of why she ran for president, which was to create a coalition that could affect the eventual nominee and the party platform, in 1972. So it had a very practical end. And, you know, given the story that I told about seeing, witnessing her running for president really affecting my own sense of what I could do in life, so that's, that's absolutely that's, that's very, she's absolutely inspirational. And and that has a material effect. In 1972, the idea was to influence the nominee and the platform of 1972. That was, there was a very clear objective. And the idea was to get enough delegates at the Democratic National Convention to hold up the nomination of that Democratic Party nominee. 1972 was the last time we had a contested Democratic Party convention, a Democratic National Convention. And so, you know, we're used to having the nominee be a foregone conclusion at this, at this point, for the last 50 years, about just under 50 years, that's been our expectation. But going in, Hubert Humphrey, had, you know, possibly enough votes, and George McGovern had possibly enough votes, and it really, really depended on the ruling of whether California would be awarded proportionally with its delegates or if it would be awarded winner take all if it was awarded proportionally, then Humphrey would do better. If it was winner take all, then McGovern would do better. There are all these details about an irony is about well, McGovern was the one who said that it should be proportional, but then he was advocating for winner take all because that was what he would, that was what did put him over the top. So in the midst of all that, you know, this sort of this, this photofinish, so to speak, that was going to happen about who got the who was good, who was or who was going to, you know, get over the top, Chisholm's idea was that she would have enough delegates that if enough, especially if enough, Black and women delegates would were supporting her at least on the first ballot, then then she would have these bargaining chips and she would go to the nominee and she said that she would advocate for a woman for vice president and Black Secretary of what was then Health Education and Welfare and a Native American Indigenous person to be the Secretary of the Interior, that, you know, she would have this bargaining tool and then get those concessions. And, you know, this was almost this was 50 years. This was over 50 years ago. And, you know, eventually, about 50 years after that there's a woman vice president and a Native American Indigenous Secretary of the Interior. Anyway, the problem was that she had this vision and a few other people got it, especially Black women got it. But, as you said, Congressional Black Caucus members who represented a lot of the political heft among Black Americans at the time, were saying she didn't pay her dues. Or, you know, we wanted to run for president, we were supposed to do our favorite son candidacy sort of every excuse in the book besides, "Okay, why don't we go ahead and support this person, because we can make, she can help us bring our bargain to the table." Same thing with women. This is the first this is the election that occurred after the founding of the National Women's Political Caucus, which was really seeking to expand women's political power. But women's political power didn't necessarily include the Black feminist's political power, that that Shirley Chisholm was, was advocating. And what they said was, Well, she'll never win, she'll never win. So why would why is why should we bother to vote for her?" And she's trying to explain her coalition strategy like, "No, you hold out, hold out with me. I'm I am a vehicle for you to hold out with your vote until you get what you want, from, you know, from the platform or from from the candidate." And that didn't happen. Very, very few women's movement leaders wound up voting for her with the exception of Betty Friedan, of course, who was a delegate for her from New York. So the, the coalition didn't hang together. And the fighting between the two parts of the coalition really actually were the part of the campaign that Chisholm, that bothered her the most. And she said she lost, she lost weight during all her campaigns. She was tiny. And so it was hard for her to keep weight on to begin with. But she lost weight. And she couldn't, you know, she had to really do some soul searching after that, she said, because she just hoped this coalition would would come together. It was deeply disappointing to her that it didn't. And that's the what she regretted about her campaign. Well, that and that she wanted to have more money to run it. And she ran it on $250,000. So yeah, but that was, it was really tough that the coalition didn't come together, because it just made so much sense to her. And it made sense to Black women who saw themselves as sort of part of, of this intersecting identity. But for most people, they didn't get it.

Kelly Therese Pollock  37:37  
Another thing that's so interesting, in thinking about this time in American politics, of course, we're such a deeply polarized nation now. And so it's hard to think about anybody working together. And of course, there was polarization then too, but it wasn't quite so stark. And so for the most of the time that Shirley Chisholm was in the House of Representatives, there was a Republican president. And yet she was able to pursue legislation and get things going get things moving forward. As you mentioned, she was always looking out for the least of us. And of course, for her that also meant kids very often, and working moms and working people. So I want to talk about this moment where she almost gets childcare through. Or she gets it through the House and Senate all the way up to Richard Nixon's desk. Because as a mom of young children, it's remarkable to think that we could have had childcare all this time. So can you talk about that that particular fight and the way that she's able to, to really move things through in Congress without being super splashy about it?

Dr. Anastasia Curwood  38:40  
Yeah, thank you. That is one of the great tales inside this book for me is, can we imagine a world in which Nixon had signed that bill that the Child Development Act of 1971, which created universal childcare? What kind of country would we be now, if if he had signed that? It is it's pretty remarkable. And, you know, I, I, I look back and and see how this was sort of this this zenith of a small "L" liberalism ideas that were shifting toward your full economic citizenship for women and men, and, and for people who were wealthy and people who weren't and, and so, you know, she saw childcare as the as a slow point in the assembly line like this is this is what is preventing everybody from from from reaching this economic citizenship point. And so, you know, this will help everybody that's, you know, it's going to help poor women especially, but this will help everybody. And then she got it through. But yeah, in that particular moment, Nixon, under heavy influence of Daniel Patrick Moynihan on the other side of the aisle, technically was was just rejected it as social, a radical piece of social legislation. So how did she get that through? Well, she had these relationships with her colleagues in Congress, some of whom refused to see her as human. And in fact, the book opens with an anecdote about someone who was just astounded that she was equally equal to him in Congress. But she, she did a lot of personal lobbying with her colleagues, and, and became quite beloved. She got a reputation as someone who would explain difficult legislation to colleagues, because, you know, some of them, let's face it, didn't have the, the wherewithal to kind of understand it for themselves. So she, so she would do that. In the case of that particular legislation, she had developed a really strong relationship with Carl Perkins of Kentucky. And Perkins was chair of Education and Labor and and deeply respected her studiousness, expertise, you know, she was a child, early childhood education expert. She was a really gifted, she did her homework. So she was really, you know, really gifted at reading the legislation. And so he put her in charge of the conference committee to reconcile the House and Senate versions of those bills, even though she had actually proposed an amendment earlier, in collaboration with Bella Abzug. That amendment failed. But then in conference committee, they got basically what they wanted in into that version of the bill. And so, so it was really through this good working relationship with a white guy from Kentucky, that then she had the power, and she used that power to get the universal childcare into that bill. So that's a pretty profound example of how she used political power. And she wasn't she wasn't above trying to create collegial relationships with anyone in the House or or Senate.

Kelly Therese Pollock  42:25  
Somebody needs to write an alternate history novel of Nixon signing that.

Dr. Anastasia Curwood  42:30  
I know right? Yeah. Utopia now. Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So some speculative fiction. 

Kelly Therese Pollock  42:38  
So we've talked a few times about how much she cared about children and, and the welfare of children. Shirley Chisholm, of course, herself did not have any kids. But you talk about how she had sort of mothering relationships that she was sort of other mother to some people, especially to some of her staffers. Could you talk about that, and the way she actually was a mother to many people that she was with?

Dr. Anastasia Curwood  43:07  
Yes, some of her staffers even, you know, referred to her as, as a mother and sent her Mother's Day cards. So she was she was a teacher her entire life. She tried to toilet train her sister, when, when they were both young children. She said that as a young person, she wanted to be a teacher, because, "It made me feel big." It's what she said, made me feel big. It's she loved to teach and how it wound up working out, is that she would empower her staffers to kind of learn in a practicum way, so "Okay, well, so you're interested in this particular issue? I think that's a great issue, that as long as you get this done for me, you can have full freedom to go and work on this particular issue. And teach yourself everything you can find about this issue. And and if you want to bring me some legislation, or or, you know, we can we can work on it." And it was it was to the point that, you know, everybody in, our people in her office would be working on who knows what and, and one of her staffers recalled being accosted by her, after she got off the elevator. She said, "Well, so apparently, you're working on such and such and I met, you know, representative, so and so in the elevator and I just nodded and said, 'Oh, yes, I'm so proud of my staffers for working on that issue.' But I had no idea, so what's going on with it?" So, cuz that was just what they did. And then, you know, I really see her as having these political descendants. Barbara Lee was probably the closest to her and is it's sort of direct political descendant, but she also had influence on the careers of Maxine Waters and Donna Brazil through the National Political Congress of Black Women. And so I see, I see her literal descendants as political, ideological, more than biological. And she taught. She did that through teaching and, and mentoring.

Kelly Therese Pollock  45:19  
So I could ask questions all day, but everyone should just go read this book, because it's wonderful. So how can people get a copy of the book?

Dr. Anastasia Curwood  45:26  
Thank you. So you can get a copy of the book through your local bookstore. But the easiest way to get it is if you just order it through the publisher, University of North Carolina Press. I don't know if they've still got a discount going on. But oftentimes, they do have a discount. So it's You can of course use other large internet bookstores. And it is fully available. If you are in New York City, Washington, DC, Baltimore, Cambridge, Boston, Massachusetts, I am doing an author tour early this month. And so if you visit me @CurwoodA on Twitter, I've been tweeting out the dates for those for those and then you can get a signed copy, as well.

Kelly Therese Pollock  46:17  
Excellent. Is there anything else that you wanted to make sure we talked about?

Dr. Anastasia Curwood  46:21  
 Well,I just want to return back to Chisholm being fully human that, you know, she had complicated relationships in her life. And she seemed to always have things together. But, you know, for somebody who had things together had sort of things perfect, going perfectly, it was a surprise to many around her that she got divorced in 1976. And then married somebody else, sort of abruptly and people wondered, "Well, you know, who is this person? What happened to Conrad who was kind of famously behind her through her earlier campaigns?" and, and she was, didn't talk to much of her family of origin, you know, after about 1960. So, second half of her life, and, you know, a lot of that happened, because it was over an inheritance dispute. And, you know, she got an inheritance from her father or life insurance policy that, that she received about the same time she started her political career and running campaigns is expensive. And so that ambition to have that career was a little bit of a trade off in terms of relationship with family and, you know, people, people face those choice kinds of choices all the time, you know, "What do I do in this situation? I want this. What is the particular cost and benefit of of a decision?" And she really, she struggled with with those. So, you know, she was just she was fully human. She, her life is very interesting, how she came to be the Shirley Chisholm is its own tale, but then she lasted in Congress for 14 years. And what was she doing there for 14 years that that most people have no idea about? And it turned out that she was a pretty effective legislator, but somewhat behind the scenes. So she had a whole life. I want people to understand that this was this was a full human being with a with a full life. And yeah, she ran for president in 1972. There's so much more there.

Kelly Therese Pollock  48:31  
Yeah. Well, Anastasia, thank you so much for speaking with me. I've really, really enjoyed learning more about Shirley Chisholm. I love the book. So thank you.

Dr. Anastasia Curwood  48:40  
I'm happy to be here, Kelly. I appreciate this opportunity to talk to you.

Teddy  48:47  
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode To the best of our knowledge, all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @Unsung__History, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episodes suggestions, please email If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.

Transcribed by

Anastasia CurwoodProfile Photo

Anastasia Curwood

Anastasia Curwood is Professor of History and Director of the Commonwealth Institute for Black Studies at the University of Kentucky. She specializes in the history of African-American women, gender, and sexuality, the black family, and African-American intellectual, political, and cultural history in the twentieth century. Her first book, Stormy Weather: New Negro Marriages Between the Two World Wars (University of North Carolina Press, 2010), centers on the cultural and social contests over African-Americans’ marriages in the early twentieth century. Her second book is Shirley Chisholm: Champion of Black Feminist Power Politics, (University of North Carolina Press, 2023). She is the recipient of several grants and honors, including a Visiting Fellowship at the James Weldon Johnson Institute for Race and Difference at Emory University, a Career Enhancement Fellowship from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, and a Ford Postdoctoral Fellowship.