Shirly Chisholm Biography Essay Example

Unbought and Unbossed is an autobiography written by Shirley Chisholm about her experiences working her way up to become the first Black congresswoman, and later the first Black woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Published in 1970, the book covers a portion of Chisholm’s life, while also providing insight into the biased way that the American government worked. Her autobiography continues to stay historically relevant as it carries ideals about the corruption and bigotry that run deep in government and society, while also providing speculation into being a woman in an extremely gendered world. Chisholm’s book offers a great many lessons, the biggest one being that people should never be afraid to challenge the social standard. 

Shirley Chisholm nee St. Hill was born in 1924 and describes herself as an intense child who learned to walk and talk at the early age of two and a half. In order to save up money for a house and education for their children, the St. Hills decided to send their daughters back to Barbados to live on a farm with their maternal grandmother. Growing up in Barbados allowed Chisholm to get her first experience with school and working. The economic situation wasn’t getting better in New York, so in 1933 the St. Hills decided to fetch their children and bring them home. Chisholm’s mother was “thoroughly British in her ideas, her manners and her plans for her daughters” (page 31), which was why Chisholm took pleasure in the small rebellious actions that she would commit. Both the St. Hill parents believed in an education for their daughters and Chisholm’s father would often say, “You must make something of yourselves” (page 33). Charles St. Hill worked as an assistant at a bakery and was an idol to Chisholm growing up. He was a Garveyite or a follower of Marcus Garvey, and he took Chisholm to her first Black nationalist oratory where the speaker stressed the idea of unity against a common enemy, or white people. In 1936, the St. Hill family moved to a new apartment in Bedford-Stuyvesant, or “Bed-Stuy”, which demographically consisted of 50 percent of Black people. This was where Chisholm first heard racial slurs and epithets and remarks that “I was not used to Black being used as a derogatory word” (page 36). Chisholm moved up to Girl’s High School, a mostly white school within a mostly Black neighborhood. Chisholm reflects on how immigrants from the South were moving to New York in droves and having to crowd into neighborhoods that were already mostly demographically Black. No one knew it at the time, but the common day “inner-city” was being created as apartments made for four squeezed in eight, and white landlords began to double their rates. 

Chisholm ended up attending Brooklyn College and decided to become a teacher as there was no other avenue open to Black women at the time. Chisholm was an active participant in the Harriet Tubman Society, as well as the Political Science Society, the latter of which gave Chisholm the chance to interact with white men who deep down considered Black people to be sub-human, but who were just more polite about it. After graduating college, Chisholm began to venture into the New York political scene by attending the Democratic Party club. This was an eye-opener for Chisholm as she experienced how women were treated as a second rate, and it was also the first time that she saw that politicians were afraid to think for themselves, lest they lose their seniority or their next reelection. While running for congress, Chisholm was diagnosed with a malignant cancerous tumor which was taken out via surgery very close to the Congressional election. She refused to take the time to heal, and not even a day after she woke up she was already moving around within the hospital. She won the election and was made the first Black congresswomen of New York. Within Washington, she was greeted with varying levels of sexism and was often told that she needed to bide her time and “be a good soldier” ( page 99). Chisholm disagreed immensely with this statement, as she was assigned to the Agriculture Committee with her subcommittee being Forestry. After speaking directly to Speaker McCormack she was reassigned subcommittee’s to Veterans Affairs, and would later be assigned to Education and Labor Rights. 

Shirley Chisholm served seven terms within Congress and was the founder of the Congressional Black Caucus in 1969. While running for Presidential election in 1972, she said, “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 am equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people of America. And my presence before you now symbolizes a new era in American political history (Chisholm ‘72 Documentary). Chisholm was extremely popular for lecture rotations and giving speeches at colleges and other group functions, like her speech about Black pride and minimum wage at Howard University in 1969 (Jackson Landers, April 2016). Chisholm often spoke about how she wanted to be remembered for the things she did, not just for the fact that she was a Black women in politics, and she wanted to continue that on by writing her two books, Unbought and Unbossed about her early days and The Good Fight, which was published in 1973 about her presidential bid. 

Unbought and Unbossed left behind a large impact, much like its author did. The phrase “Unbought and Unbossed” was Chisholm’s presidential campaign slogan, because she was unbought in the way that she could not be bought or bribed in any way and unbossed because she frankly had no boss other than herself. Her book shined a light on how predated certain government practices were, which allowed for more women to enter the congressional scene. Currently, 126 women serve within Congress, while 25 women serve in the Senate, and 101 women serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. None of those women would have ever had the drive to run for those positions if it wasn’t for Shirley Chisholm and her experiences as the first women in Congress. 

Unbought and Unbossed explains that when people subject themselves to the status quo, no change will ever come. This can be seen when Chisholm was running for Congress, she would visit neighborhoods and be invited into people’s homes for dinner and to talk. She visited Black people, Puerto Rican people, Jewish people, and most of the homes she went to were led by women. She would often contact every woman neighborhood leader that she knew and would tell them, “bring your women in” (page 86) so that she could convince them to register to vote. Chisholm was counting on the fact that her racemate, James Farmer, wouldn’t try and pull women to his campaign to vote for him, and she was right. Chisholm remarks that men always underestimate women, something that was Farmer's downfall, “If they had thought about it, they would have realized that many of the homes are headed by women” (Page 91). Chisholm also speaks on how Farmer was painting her own campaign to be anti-male. Chisholm describes feminism as evening out the playing field for men and women and ensuring that everyone has an equal opportunity. Feminism is born from women asking questions, being too loud, and making their presence known, whether it be within politics or a union, or just daily life. Chisholm was conveying this in her autobiography, as she was never one to stick to the normality of things, thus other women shouldn’t either if they want things to change. Chisholm full understood that if she didn’t actively do anything, nothing would get done, which is why she was ready to “commit political suicide” if it meant changing things.

Shirly Chisholm was a historical symbol that represents the idea that people should not go quietly and obey society without thinking about change that could be made. While she did not win Democratic Presidential election, the fact that she had the drive to run in the first place was legendary. Chisholm was never one to follow tradition, and was always trying to find a new way to do things, and that led to more doors being opened for women everywhere. In her honor, there is a painting of her within the White House, which shows her as the everpresent idol that she is. 


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