Shirley Chisholm played a very critical role in the rise and development of women
liberation. The period during the political tenure of Shirley Chisholm which was crowned by her
run for the highest chair in the United States –the United States presidency, experienced some of
the most important factors, activities, and events that facilitated the women liberation. As such,
Shirley Chisholm has been associated closely with women empowerment and liberation from her
campaign in the area of equality and empowerment of women and her role is arguably
indispensable in the achievement of women liberation.
This paper will bring to light the various roles played by Chisholm in the promotion of
women liberation through the analysis of her period in and after political office as well as the
values she championed during this period. The aim of this paper is to reveal and affirm that
Shirley Chisholm actually played a critical role in the modern women freedom, equality, and
status quo in line with women liberation.
Shirley Chisholm has been lauded in numerous scholarly works for her central role in the
championing of the rights of the oppressed such as women, the poor population, and the racially
segregated minorities 1 . This paper will however tilt to her concern related to women liberation
and as such he role in the fight for women rights, which make her one of the earliest forerunners
to women liberation. Born of two immigrant parents, Shirley Chisholm was born in the early
1920s to humble beginnings but received was apt education leading to proficiency in her speech
and writing skills 2 . According to Blair, Shirley Chisholm successfully completed her high school
1 Blair, Diane. “Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm, ‘For the Equal Rights Amendment’ (10 August 1970).” Voices of
Democracy, 3(2008), 50.
2 Ibid, 51
education and later advanced to earn a master’s degree in elementary studies in the University of
Her political ambitions have been linked to her father’s influence in his political
disposition as well as those of her professors who advised of her latent capacity for politics 3 .
Shirley Chisholm lived in a period of great racial divide characterized by widespread oppression
of the black communitybut her interaction with kindred spirit in the course of her studies instilled
in her a strong sense of pride in her origins as a black woman, and as such she joined several
clubs which lay the foundation for her future career in politics 4 . Shirley Chisholm immersed
herself in local politics after completion of her studies, initially starting off with fight against
ignorance and poverty at the local level but however suffering from mounting indifference from
the existing political administration 5 . The futility in her approach to use the government
infrastructure fuelled her to start her own social club and organization charged with the daunting
task of bringing about social change and promoting community values which she stood for 6 .
It was not until the early 1960s that Shirley Chisholm ran for political office at the district
level where she experienced great difficulties due to her gender and the prevailing societal
attitudes to the role of women, which did not include participation in active politics 7 . This will
be discussed further in the course of this paper. Blair explains that against the tide, Shirley
3 Blair, Diane. “Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm, ‘For the Equal Rights Amendment’ (10 August 1970).” Voices of
Democracy, 3(2008), 53
4 Ibid, 51
5 Ibid, 52
6 Ibid, 52
7 Ibid, 52
Chisholm was able to secure a seat in the State Assembly and was instrumental in the passing of
numerous legislation that were in support of women, the poor as well as the minority population
of the United States. Among her major initial political milestone was the formulation of a bill to
protect against discrimination of women interms of job security and security of tenure in case of
complications arising out of pregnancy during the saidtenure 8 . Twelve years down the line with
her active role in district politics characterized by zeal and political astuteness, Shirley Chisholm
revamped her political ambitions and ran for the highest chair in the land; the presidential office
in the early 1970s which has been remembered in history to this day 9 .
Shirley Chisholm has been remembered as the first black woman to be elected to
Congress. Among her role in women liberation was her role in the fight for Equal rights
Amendment which was against discrimination based on gender that disallowed women to
exercise the democratic rights of voting arguing for the recognition of equal rights under the law
regardless of sex 10 . Blair recognizes that the fight for equal rights for women under the equal
rights amendment marked the birth of the women’s’ rights movement. These initial attempts
received increasing challenges especially for black women who were discriminated both on
account of their gender as well as their race, coupled with the limited interest in the government
in the area of equality for women 11 . Though equality rights amendment had been predominantly
prepared and proposed by white women, Shirley Chisholm support for the amendment and her
8 Blair, Diane. “Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm, ‘For the Equal Rights Amendment’ (10 August 1970).” Voices of
Democracy, 3(2008), 52.
9 Ibid, 52
10 Ibid, 53
insight on the long term benefits of the amendment to women groups were not taken seriously by
the government and this fuelled the women’s movement which united the concerns of all women
including the minority women and the members of the low and medium classes of white
women 12 . Shirley Chisholm utilized her congressional seat to seek empowerment for those
marginalized in society and avidly supported as well as defended the embattled Equality Rights
Amendment which saw its approval in the early 1970s by the House of Representatives and one
year later by United States Senate 13 .
The role of Shirley Chisholm was not only limited to speeches in advocating for the
rights and equality of women but span to active participation in the assistance of women in in
various needful situations. An article in the New York Timesdiscussed the role of Shirley
Chisholm is assisting the members of an organization dedicated to women liberation to raise the
bail of a convicted black lady facing attempted murder charges 14 . Shirley Chisholm contended
the bail setting of the case arguing that it was discriminatory and excessive and insisted that the
legal department should be more concerned with bigger issues such as the fight against narcotics
and those involved in organized crime 15 . This is an indication of the rights for freedom and
equality for all women of all races by various women unions, and of which Shirley Chisholm
supported and attended press conferences for her public declaration of this support 16 . The
12 Blair, Diane. “Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm, ‘For the Equal Rights Amendment’ (10 August 1970).” Voices of
Democracy, 3(2008), 54-55
14 Johnson, Rudy. “Mrs. Chisholm Joins Campaign to Collect Bail for Joan Bird” The New York Times, 6
political position of Shirley Chisholm as well as her impeccable speaking skills put her at an
advantaged position of being able to gather maximum support for the rights of women and the
existing women liberation movements and unions. Her support for the rights of women
continued even after her retirement from active politics in the early 1980s and among her notable
accomplishments in this period was the formation of the National Political Congress of black
Women, two years after her retirement as further explained below 17 .
Shirley Chisholm in conjunction with Delores Tucker were the founders of this women’s
group whose main functions included the provision of political endorsements, monetary
assistance to campaigns as well as facilitating the registration and education of voters all
intended to assist black women 18 . According to Ruffin, this was a great event as it represented
the unification of black female leaders to promote women empowerment. Among some of its
empowerment function included the encouragement of women to seek political office 19 . Ruffin
explains that this black women’s Political forum was in response to the mounting woes of black
women in politics at the time, with a general dissatisfaction with the limited recognition
accorded to these women despite their hard work. As such Chisholm felt it imperative to promote
the empowerment of black women to facilitate their seizure of political and socio-economic
equality 20 .
17 Blair, Diane. “Shirley Anita St. Hill Chisholm, ‘For the Equal Rights Amendment’ (10 August 1970).” Voices of
Democracy, 3(2008), 50-62
18 Ruffin, David. “New Women’s Caucus” Black Enterprise, 15, no. 4(1984),26
20 Ibid, 26
Shirley Chisholm in her support of women liberation and empowerment also supported
the claim that a woman had a right to choose whether to keep a baby or whether to have an
abortion according to the Encyclopedia of World Biography. Chisholm attempted to revise the
legal barriers that made abortions illegal in support of the needs of desperate women, and thus
minimize the dangers that were posed when these women sought alternate ways to end their
pregnancies 21 . As such, Shirley Chisholm emphasized the woman’s choice in the matter which
led to its approval by the United States in the early 1970s making it legal to abort an unwanted
child 22 .The Encyclopedia of World Biography also identifies her role in advocating for equality
in employment, arguing that women had the capacity to participate in any profession and as such
should not be discriminated on employment opportunities on the grounds of sex. In this sense
also, black women needed to break the mental shackles that confined them to mediocre jobs as
house helps and care takers of children. This was a period with widespread discriminatory
opinions where women were considered as inferior to the men. Shirley Chisholm criticized the
prejudice evident in employment offices for female college graduates based on fallacies that rely
on the assumptions that women lack in emotional control and professional skills required for
effectiveness in various professions 23 . Chisholm also emphasized the extent of this widely
accepted societal discrimination against other minority groups, arguing that the rationale behind
this discrimination – that these groups were less in importance and mental capacity, was not only
flawed but primitive. Chisholm 24 also contended the status quo basing her argument on the fact
that despite the majority of the United States population being female, there was minimal
21 Raatma, Lucia.” Shirley Chisholm.” (New York, Marshall Cavendish Benchmark, 2011),58.
22 Ibid, 58
23Chisholm, Shirley. “Equal Rights for Women” Speech in the House of Representatives, May 21 1969, 1.
24 Chisholm, Shirley. “Equal Rights for Women” Speech in the House of Representatives, May 21 1969, 1.
representation of women in organizational management staff and the Cabinet and none in the
Supreme Court, which she considered unnatural.
In her speeches, Shirley Chisholm raised awareness that enlightened women of the
existent discrepancy in equality present in the laws of the time, using examples based on
arguments of under representation in the government as well as prevailing chauvinistic myths
that needed to be eradicated 25 . Chisholm also encouraged women to participate with increasing
zeal in the demand for their rights as she regarded submission to existent structures and attitudes
as the main factors behind the inequality and discrimination on women based on gender.
Chisholm also spoke in defense of black women activists who faced sexual discrimination from
fellow black men and church leaders 26 . In this regard, Chisholm criticized the selfishness of the
black men in wanting to stop the advancement of black women so that they themselves can
advance and argued in favor of unity of purpose that would be achieved if women were also
allowed to fight for their rights and gain empowerment 27 . In addition, Chisholm also encouraged
the participation of black women in joining women movements towards liberation so that in
effect these groups would incorporate the values of black women in their cause as well as form
uniformity of purpose as the movements were not only intended to benefit the white middle
class 28 .
25 Ibid, 2-3
26Chisholm, Shirley.”The Black Woman in Contemporary America” Speech at the University of Misouri, Kansas
City, 17 June, 1974, 2.
28 Ibid, 3
It is important to note that Shirley Chisholm evoked the interests of both the female
student in college through lecture speeches as well as the ordinary women through public
campaigns on media. This illustrates the intricate web of influence that Chisholm spun such that
the information on female equality and empowerment reached the maximum number of
recipients from all walks of life. Chisholm provided sponsorships for federal funding to facilitate
its role in the assistance to women in the United States while she was in power 29 . In regards to
this, Chisholm facilitated the extension of hours for children facilities at daycare centers as well
as the establishment of a standard yearly salary for families in an attempt to assist poor folks 30 .
Furthermore, she championed and defended the assistance of the federal government in
promoting education. In this aspect she was not exactly directly proposing women liberation but
was standing out as a figure and representation of women liberation and abilities which could be
emulated by other women.
The outstanding factor about the crusade and mission of Shirley Chisholm evident so far
is that she championed the rights of all women as she recognized that society had not granted
them enough recognition. As such she bridged the gap between women of different races with
her participation in liberations movement which were mostly constituted of white middle class
ladies and encouraging others to do so for the collective progress of all women in totality. Her
zeal and dedication to the freedom and equality of women bared fruit and some of these results
of her views on women liberation as explained below.
29“Shirley Chisholm Biography.” Encyclopedia of World Biography. 9 April 2013.
Shirley Chisholm has been identified as one of the fore runners of female politicians with
various articles lauding her role in the provision of a political office that was so significant in the
future political ambitions of women 31 . The example set by Chisholm in the political arena and
the championing of the rights of women saw the steady rise in the number of women in political
office whose peak was in the period of the 1990s 32 . This period saw the heavy turnout of women
voters that culminated in the election of two dozen women in the House of Representatives and
several more in other political offices that marked the largest growth increase in female presence
in political offices in the History of the United States 33 . Lawless and Fox 34 , in support of this
view acknowledge the heightened participation of women in the 1990s and emphasize that there
has been growth in the participation of women in political office despite the fact that politics still
remains male dominated in the United States. This number has grown considerably and seen the
occupation of women in high offices in government and improved voice of women in active
politics 35 .
Shirley Chisholm has also been lauded for her role in the growth of feminism and women
liberation. The participation of Chisholm in the previously white dominated women liberations
31“Women in Politics.” Women’s Leadership in American History, 9 April 2013,
34 Lawless, Jennifer and Fox, Richard. “The Continued Under-representation of Women in U.S Politics.” Women
and Politics Institute School of Public Affairs, 1.
35“Women in Politics.” Women’s Leadership in American History, 9 April 2013,
movements as well as her role in the formation of women groups advocating for spreading
awareness and encouraging equality under the law and employment led to the development of
aggressive feminist cultures 36 . The increased protests that followed in the fight for equality
created a sense of feminism and a short lived unity among women of the races which was later
broken by conflicting interests but still maintained different feminist cultures between the white
women and the women of the minority groups 37 . With this increased feminism came widespread
women liberation characterized by the breaking of the chains of oppression as will be explained
shortly 38 .
The women liberation movement has been documented to have become more pronounced
and aggressive in the 1970s, the period in which female leaders advocated and marshaled women
towards the demand for their rights, a role that has been identified evidence in the activist role of
Shirley Chisholm earlier in this paper 39 . According to Phillips, the movement led to the creation
of increased pride among women that mobilized them to advocate aggressively for their rights
while unified in a common purpose that women should be free from male domination.
Women have since received improved rights since the women liberation movements.
Many current organizations are undertaking programs to empower women as well as put in place
legal systems that promote equality between men and their female counterparts 40 . Furthermore,
36 Broadwell, Christopher. “Liberation Theologies in the United States : An Introduction.” Edited by: Floyd-
Thomas, Stacey and Pinn, Anthony, (New York, New York University Press, 2010), 210-211.
39 Edie Philips,“The Women’s Liberation Movement,”A Quick View, 9, April 2013,
legislation has been adopted to facilitate the equality between men and women in the areas of
employment in many European countries 41 . Calers explains that the area of gender equality has
received heavy consideration and resulted in the setting of policies and legislation to protect
against any form of gender equality in the current period. The women liberation movement and
the fight for equality contributed to the global women liberation movement that has witnessed
reformation of structures to accommodate and appreciate the equality of women with many
organizations forming up to promote the rights of women all over the world 42 .
Despite the initial failure of the Equality Rights Amendment championed by Shirley
Chisholm and its failure to gain full approval, several stated considered the amendments in the
same decade which led to its adoption by various states and its inclusion in the rules of the land
of those states facilitating the equality in treatment of women in those states 43 . Among other
benefits that came with the new support for the equality rights amendment included government
funding for the legalized abortion and child care as well as approval for the use of contraceptives
to reduce the chances of pregnancy out of free will by minors, all in support of the rights
advocated by Shirley Chisholm and others in the past few years 44 . Furthermore, albeit the failure
of the Equality Rights Amendment, the emerged growing support aimed at empowering and
40“Gender Equality.” Justice, 9 April, 2013. http://ec.europa.eu/justice/gender-equality/.
41HeleneCalers, “Equality between Men and Women.” European Parliament, 9,
43LeslieGladstone, “The Long Road to Equality: What Women Won from the ERA Ratification Effort,”American
Women, 9, April 2013,http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/aw03e/aw03e.html
supporting women and this shift in public opinion facilitated the passing of laws pertaining to the
rights of women that included the prohibiting of discrimination based on sex before the end of
the decade 45 .
Since the last half of the 20 th century – following the increased demand for women rights
and prolonged demonstrations, to the current period, several policies were put to effect that
include the entitlement to provision of various benefits following divorce, the prohibition of
discriminatory actions on women and their families in attaining housing as well as the
prohibition of discrimination based on gender in the workplace which have greatly promoted
women liberation 46 . Furthermore, the black women who were elected to public office followed
the example given by Shirley Chisholm and endeavored to pass legislation that was beneficial to
women in all aspects of their lives as well as that of their families in support of women
liberation 47 .
Shirley Chisholm has also promoted the freedom of women after her successful campaign
to legalize abortion despite the prevailing conflicting views that had complicated this issue in the
1960s and 1970s. Today, it is legal for women to perform legalized abortion which has been
found to be significant as it plays a central role in promoting the health considerations of
women 48 . Kaplan acknowledges and affirms the estimates given by Shirley Chisholm which
revealed a great number of deaths of women of all races resulting from illicit abortions as she
48 Noah Kaplan, “Legalized Abortion is the Opposite of Genocide,” Harvard Civil Rights- Civil Liberties Law
Review, 9 April, 2013, http://harvardcrcl.org/2011/02/10/legalized-abortion-is-the-opposite-of-genocide/.
contested for reforms that allowed women to have an abortion if their health concerns would be
compromised by the pregnancy. According to Kaplan 49 , the legalization of abortion has resulted
in reduction of the number of deaths arising from complications of birth as well as mitigated
considerably the rate of infant mortality. Furthermore, the number of unwanted pregnancies by
women who are incapable of raising those children and thus the views of Shirley Chisholm has
been shared and supported for its moral and safety reasons 50 .
According to Gladstone 51 , one of the main reasons in the success of the search for
equality was the continued resilience by female leaders as well as the entry of all women from
different levels of society in the search for common solutions against their common problems of
discrimination and equality – which were strongly advocated for by Shirley Chisholm in her
various speeches. The combined effort between female leaders of the time and unified power of
women therefore facilitated substantial changes in the United States that led to improved and
widespread women liberation 52 .
Today, there are over forty three members to the congressional black organizational co-
founded by Shirley Chisholm, thirteen of whom are female which shows the effect Chisholm had
on the political aspirations of black women 53 . This is a clear indicator of the huge role played by
49Noah Kaplan, “Legalized Abortion is the Opposite of Genocide,” Harvard Civil Rights- Civil Liberties Law
Review, 9, April 2013, http://harvardcrcl.org/2011/02/10/legalized-abortion-is-the-opposite-of-genocide/
51LeslieGladstone, “The Long Road to Equality: What Women Won from the ERA Ratification Effort,”American
Women, 9, April 2013, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/awhhtml/aw03e/aw03e.html
Chisholm in the promotion of the political aspirations of black women and thus in some sense
empowering these women through inspiration. Furthermore, today there are in existence many
powerful black women such as Oprah Winfrey and Condoleezza Rice, which also points up to
the mental liberalization set by Chisholm in her set example which showed her fellow black
women that they could, succeed despite the color of their skin.
Women have come a long way from periods of excessive male chauvinism and
discrimination of women on several levels based on gender and other factors. Shirley Chisholm
as a black woman often relayed the many obstacles and barriers she had to overcome, first due to
discrimination based on race an second due to her gander, thus clearly describing the difficulties
that female citizens faced in this period and gender and racial discrimination. Her election into
the House of Representatives did not just represent her overcoming of racial discrimination but
also brought the issue of equality more into focus. Today, the dreams of the black community
have come to pass with the realization of a black president, and those of all women have been
realized by the election of female presidents in several states but little is known about the path
leading to this current position.
The political arena has long been considered a male dominated area and has remained as
such even to this day despite mounting pressure for more female participation in government by
53JonathanHicks, “Black History Month Spotlight: Shirley Chisholm,” BET, 9, April 2013,
numerous social groups. As such this raises pressure for the few who actually manage to attain
political office. Despite continuous effort to establish overall equality, its full practicability has
yet to be realized in government.
Several milestones have been passed that protect women from discrimination based on
gender both in the workplace as well as in government offices but the challenging part is to fully
change the reasoning between most men that women are indeed not suited for political office, a
fallacy it may be, but still but still a strong challenge toward feminists and women country wide.
Furthermore, this situation is aggravated by theologians and traditional thinkers who advocate
that the role of the woman is to her family and as thus needs to be submissive to her husband and
thus reforms advocating for equality in essence disrupt the family setting. These are just but a
few of the challenges that are faced in all forms of employment as well as politics.
Female leaders are also yet to be accepted in third world countries. A research on the
political structures on mostly third world countries would reveal that most of the offices are
predominantly male occupied. As such, young women need to be empowered to rise above the
challenges and barriers, and this has been made easier by the growth of women liberation. The
women liberation movement as well as the fight for female equality provided what was a hard
fought battle against societal norms, and spread so many years courtesy of the resilience and
leadership of the female leaders in existence during that period. These activities were fruitful
enough to facilitate the realization of, many benefits in line with civil and human rights of all
women. In many ways, these leaders were agents of today’s women liberation, freedoms, and
feminism. Shirley Chisholm was instrumental in the empowering of all women regardless of
race, political disposition, and age and masterfully used her long political tenure to pass
legislation and fight for the equality and rights of women. She was also one of the central players
in the championing of the Equality Rights Amendment which ultimately led to reforms that were
and continue to be beneficial to women all over the world to this day, and thus with response to
the aim of this paper, it is clear and evident that the role played by Shirley Chisholm was critical
in the achievement of women liberation.
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